Review: A Canticle For Leibowitz

by Tom Ingram

Religion is a rare thing in SF. The genre grew up alongside the modern atheist movement, so God or gods almost never appear in any positive portrayal outside of inexplicably Nebula-winning short stories about Mormon space whale rape. This is a shame because it’s led to a very homogenized set of views on religion among SF authors and fans, roughly those dictated by people like Richard Dawkins. It’s not that I disagree with these views, exactly, but they lack nuance and sophistication. If explicitly religious SF was a more common thing, I think everyone would benefit—religious folks from gaining a voice, and others from having their views challenged and clarified.

I read Walter M. Miller Jr.’s short story “A Canticle for Leibowitz” a few months ago in an FSF anthology. Its quietly pious tone was refreshing, and it was funny as hell to boot. Miller expanded the short into a novel in 1960, incorporating another story from the same universe and a third incomplete work to create a post-apocalyptic epic spanning centuries.

In the beginning, the Earth has been made desolate by nuclear holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, roving mobs hunted down scientists and world leaders. They burn books and eventually turn their wrath on anyone who is literate, erasing gigantic swaths of knowledge from human memory. An obscure pre-Deluge technician named Isaac Edawrd Leibowitz founds a monastic order to preserve and copy the scraps of scientific knowledge that remain.

Centuries later, a novice of the Albertian Order of Blessed Leibowitz is visited in the desert by an apparition that may or may not be the Beatus himself. The old man leads the novice to a buried fallout shelter, where some of Leibowitz’s papers are preserved in an old toolbox. This incident prompts vigorous interest in the work of the Order and a renewal of the canonization process for Leibowitz.

The monk makes an illuminated copy of one of the blueprints he found. When the Vatican finally declares Leibowitz a saint, many years later, he brings the copy and the original relic with him on a pilgrimage to New Rome. On the way he is waylaid by bandits and the copy—but not the original—is stolen. So far this is all in keeping with the 1955 short story. Miller rejiggers the ending of this section and calls it part 1, “Fiat Homo”. The next two parts deal with the reinvention of electric lighting (“Fiat Lux”) and a second nuclear war between spacefaring civilizations (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”).

Miller manages to say his piece while avoiding the common pitfalls of this type of story, at least for a while. Part 2’s Thon Taddeo is no Hollywood-style Santa-slaying atheist, but neither is he an Ayn Rand hero. The various priests and abbots are dogmatists but not cruel ones, and they have some sense about morality and leadership that one can only wish was possessed by actual Catholic clergy. Miller presses his point without compromise but also without self-righteousness. He acquits himself well, at first. But toward the end it starts to come apart.

In part 3, once the first bomb drops, the ersatz Red Cross organization “Green Star” sets up a medical camp near the Leibowitz Abbey where those affected by the radiation can receive treatment. Since there are obviously a lot of deaths, the camp includes a crematorium to handle bodies in large quantities. In extreme cases of fatal exposure, patients are issued a writ of euthanasia that allows them to commit assisted suicide without legal repercussions. In a novel with overt Catholic sensibilities, you can imagine where this leads.

At first the abbot merely bans them from setting up in Leibowitz Abbey, forcing the abbey’s refugees to walk two miles to get to the Green Star camp but keeping his principles intact. It’s a decision that is painful for him—he is unsure of his position and he knows the Green Star doctor is sincerely trying to help his patients, not to lead them into perdition. But the medical facility quickly turns into a circus, complete with carousel and mawkish Jesus statues and the euphemistic name “Mercy Camp”. The obvious historical parallel is not overtly drawn, but it lurks constantly beneath the surface.

What started as a clash of moralities, with the doctor bound by his commitment to do no harm and the priest by his commitment to God, devolves into the mere moral pageantry of the heroic God-fearing priest martyred by the heathen who has no knowledge of God and therefore no reverence for the dead, no compassion, no understanding. With it, a story that had been eminently Christlike abruptly becomes something monstrous, and Miller’s Vatican reveals itself as not unlike the real thing: just another power, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but never morally authoritative. There is no point rehashing the familiar arguments here, but suffice it to say that the official Catholic positions on suicide, assisted suicide, and other end of life issues are grotesque, and Miller’s novel suffers for its association with them.

On the mechanical side, the book is a bit slowly paced but short enough that this does not get annoying. Miller is an uneven prose stylist in that way common to science fiction writers: good at glib humour and abstract, quasi-poetic passages, not so good at moving his characters around the room without bumping into the reader.

Make no mistake: I’m not trying to say that A Canticle For Leibowitz is bad. On the contrary, it’s one of the best SF books I’ve ever read. It expands on the original short, adding depth and intricacy that you wouldn’t think possible. But it also introduces ugly little stains that aren’t in the short story. My advice is read them both, in the order they were written. If you average it out, you’ll find that somewhere between the two of them, there is wisdom.