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Cannonball Read V: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

By narfna | Book Reviews | February 20, 2013 | Comments ()


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I was doing so well with my review writing until I got to this book, just plodding along reading and reviewing, reading and reviewing. And then I got to this fucker. Not only did it traumatize me the whole time I was reading it, but just the thought of writing about it felt like re-living that trauma (and this isn't even taking into consideration that the task of writing about this book even without the added pressure of traumatization would be a difficult task). So I am now way behind on my reviews. Thanks a lot, Walter M. Miller, except you can't read this because you're dead (but we'll get back to that later).

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a classic of the sci-fi genre, although there's barely any science fiction in it at all, excepting the unexplained presence of one character and a bit of spaceship flim-flammery near the end. Mostly, it's a story about how humanity is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again (and also a story about how part of making those mistakes is struggling against making them as well). Take the circular thematic nature and nuclear weapons of "Battlestar Galactica" + the social commentary of 1984 + monks and Catholicism and you'll have a close approximation of A Canticle for Leibowitz. Actually -- and I believe I said this in a status update or a tweet or something while I was reading -- I think this book is better, or at least more relevant to us now today, than 1984 is.

Because did I mention about how it's fucking terrifying?

The novel is structured essentially into three smaller novellas that intertwine with one another. The first begins in a post-apocalyptic, post-civilization wasteland, some seven hundred years after the world was annihilated by nuclear weapons and the surviving world's citizens responded by blaming scientists and people of learning: burning books, spurning education, and lynching those related in the streets. The titular Leibowitz is revered by an order of Catholic monks deep in the desert as one of the few men to successfully attempt to preserve books and knowledge in the face of a world gone mad -- for six hundred plus years they have been working to canonize him as a saint. Leibowitz himself was murdered in the streets, essentially turning him into a martyr, and now the monks in the Order of St. Leibowitz follow in his footsteps, working to preserve and further learning, and shed some light on places long kept in the dark.

The first section ends on a rather bleak note, setting the stage for parts two and three, which take place, respectively, right at the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, and at the second coming of the end of the world.

Miller's novel takes place in a world almost completely devoid of hope, which is what made it such a devastating reading experience for me. He writes about fear and violence with a frightening accuracy, and the ending of the novel all but condemns humanity as a species, a pessimism which is only counterbalanced by the way his monks mix a love of learning with their faith in a higher power. I was raised Catholic so this especially hit home for me, seeing a world in which those who champion educational enlightenment and spirituality don't necessarily have to be at each other's throats. But even in the oasis of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, its inhabitants cannot be protected from the blunders of the species they belong to.

I'm not sure this is a book I'll be reading again, and if I do it won't be for years and years, but it was a book I'm glad I read the once, even if it was written by a man who was so disillusioned by the world that he eventually killed himself rather than having to face it any longer. I think books like this are important in making us ask ourselves tough questions, but I'm also the kind of person who prefers to look at the world with a little bit more optimism, so this kind of story isn't one I'd like to read often. Especially if the ending is going to give me nightmares for weeks. I mean, seriously, you guys? It's pretty fucked up. Smart and really well done, but fucked up nonetheless, which is what is keeping me from giving what might otherwise be called a modern masterpiece five stars.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it , and find more of narfna's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • periwinkled

    My high school sweetheart and I had a deal where we exchanged our favorite books. They both turned out to be science fiction without much in the way of spaceships. Mine was "Out of the Silent Planet" by CS Lewis, and this was his. To my shame, I never finished it. I got lost somewhere in the desert, burdened by the Latin I didn't understand. This review (and SLW's comment) makes me want to give the book another try.

  • Claus

    I consider this book one of the most important SF works ever written, and the ending absolutely set a chill in my bones. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  • Jannymac

    In the small Southern town where I grew up, the public libary had science fiction sequestered into its own area and I had to get my mother's permission to check it out. What I mostly remember is how disappointed I was that the book had none of the usual sci fi tropes of spaceships and aliens. And I was far too young to understand that I had met the monstors in the book and he is us. Just flew right over my head.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    Yet another book for the list. This sounds incredibly interesting. Thanks for the review!

  • This is such a beautiful book. And I think that pessimism is only one way to read the novel, that even if Miller succumbed to it in the end, the novel itself is run through with such beautiful hope that it brings tears to your eyes. Although it shows terrible and inescapable darkness, arguing that our species will always burn down everything it builds, there is a kernel of hope buried in that message: and yet we still build. Sic transit mundus, sed semper nos est aedificemus alius.

    "Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?"

  • BWeaves

    I read this book about 30 years ago because my mother told me to. I think she thought it was a Jewish book (we're Jewish) and she didn't get it and wanted me to explain it to her. I remember NOTHING about the plot of this book, except the "writings" Liebowitz wrote were actually shopping lists, like "1/2 dozen bagels, milk, toilet paper." What does it mean? We must preserve this for eternity and study it and worship it. I told my mom that I didn't get it, either.

  • MrTusks

    One of the texts the monks were "illuminating" were a schematic for some kind of circuit or electrical equipment because Liebowitz was an electrician. They clung dearly to things that seemed mundane because they were relics of a time when people valued knowledge. It was meant to be a little joke that society had collapsed to the point of scholars revering shopping lists and electrical schematics as invaluable artifacts. It had nothing to do with being Jewish (don't judge a book by its cover, as they say), nor even much to do with being Catholic. It's about how science is both a precious resource and a potent weapon, and that we must always be mindful of history.

  • BWeaves

    Yes, I know it has nothing to do with being Jewish. You have to understand my mother. She makes weird leaps in understanding, based off a single word, like "Liebowitz."

    For example, she dragged my father to see "The Piano" because she told him it was a Western. Then she called me up and went on a rant, to which I replied, "Mom, I don't want to EVER hear you use the words tattoo and foreskin in the same sentence, again."

  • John W

    Good Book.

  • Anna von Beav

    Oh! I forgot this novel existed. I feel my parents had it in their collection and I never got around to reading it. This sounds like it's probably right up my alley; I love things that depress the crap out of me.

    Well done on the review, despite the trauma!

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