Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Canticle of Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Reviewed by Lori Wilson 

Walter Miller’s novel “A Canticle for Leibowitz” is much more than a post-apocalyptic science fiction story. Millers plot is not driven by a single human protagonist, nor by the conflict of man striving against the harsh elements, and neither is it about the historical and political happenings that occur throughout the novels five-thousand-year timeline. Instead, a single relic, a blueprint of an electrical circuit, drives the entire plot. While it acts as a catalyst for the advancement of civilization the relic also allows for civilization’s self-destruction.

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Written from the viewpoint of a community of Catholic monks in an ‘ancient’ monastery, Miller has the natural advantage of presenting the ever-constant qualities, values, and culture of the Catholic Church. As the reader continues through the three-part novel, Miller casually informs him of the political, historical, and civil state of humanity as it evolves throughout the future centuries. I was surprised and tickled that Miller gives his audience a story of humanity incredibly familiar to the Traditional Western history they already know, and presents a future eerily akin our present reality.

The book begins at an old monastery in the 24th century, hundreds of years after the Fire Deluge of the Cold War turned hot, in an era where human knowledge and technology are still despised and blamed for the destruction of civilization. The action begins when Brother Francis, a novice of the Albertian order created by the Blessed Leibowitz, mysteriously discovers a pre-Deluge relic, an image drawn by the Blessed Leibowitz himself. Br. Francis takes great delight in this seemingly insignificant document full of squiggles and lines. He even spends his entire life devoted to its successful preservation. But the mysterious relic discovered and preserved by Br. Francis disrupts the peaceful community and brings reoccurring trouble to the monastery.

This mysterious blue print of an electrical circuit, used to reinvent the lightbulb, indirectly casts a light upon man’s integrity, creating a shadow desiring to darken man’s rational capacities. The power available in the science re-discovered brings fear to the monks who once preserved the technology for the advancement of man. While the world is in a renaissance, with a more stable political structure ripe to receive the treasures of the past, the monks are hesitant to reveal their wealth of knowledge to a world devoid of the belief in God and fear the secular world will not handle the precious knowledge justly.

But despite all good intentions, pride takes a hold of the monks when they find that the secularist scientists have access to many of the same ideas they have preserved for ages, through natural discoveries. The monks, proud of their work of preservation, now question their purpose. Cautious of casting pearls before swine the monks appear to be in support of deterring the advancement of Civilization although their order was created for the opposite.

The secular scientist who comes to study at the monastery, even faults the monks for hiding such treasure. He points out the monks’ pride and fear shown in their guardedness to prevent worldly access to the beneficial knowledge they hold. The visiting scientist though, is naturally prideful of his self-discovered knowledge and while he admonishes the monks and argues for them to free what they preserved, the secular scientist primarily and personally seeks worldly glory rather than scientific recognition. He hungers to regain his political position in hopes for his father’s acceptance. If the reader fails to acknowledge the role of the unchanging Catholic Church presented along this four or five-thousand-year timeline, every life and every sacrifice, would indeed be fruitless and human knowledge understood only as a necessary evil for civilization to rise before its fall, rather than a blue-print of man created in the Divine Image. The presence of the Church and the community of the monks are the only subjects in Miller’s story that are consistently ever present.

Masterfully, Miller kindly untangles the fine line of hope and despair, of good and evil, of what has meaning and is meaningless. Each of his imperfect characters expose the reality of man when faced with a conflict that allows the reader to cheer on the protagonists and antagonists into making certain choices. Perhaps in response to the current political turmoil and the darkness of his time, Miller, with his flowing poetic prose and entertaining dialogue, crafts charming characters fighting to find the significance of man’s life on earth. A Canticle for Leibowitz opens one’s eyes to the hard choices man faces and introduces a world where the deeper reality of God and the Church makes a difference in each character’s life. I believe anyone doubting the significance of the Catholic faith and the meaning of their life should read this book.

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Genre: Science Fiction

Catholic Themes: Free Will, Original Sin, Dignity of Human Life, Eternal and Apostolic nature of the Catholic Church, Value of Human Reason, Hope, Suffering

Author: Catholic

Published: First Published in 1959 by Lippincott; 1986 by Perennial; 1997 by Bantam

Audience: Adult

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