A Canticle for Leibowitz: Monks, Nuclear Apocalypse, and the Second Coming

This book surprises with its first six-century jump, from dirt-eating survivalism to rediscovery of electrical power, and then shocks with its second leap to a rebuilt world of interstellar travel. That the spectre of nuclear apocalypse hangs over this renaissance, neither forgotten nor properly respected, is only to be expected. But, again, this is not a story about governments or fallout victims. It’s a story about vultures and about the desperate unkillable thread of humanity that remembers itself.

It’s one of those works that, as a devotee of science fiction and, especially, as an editor of an SFWA magazine, I should have read decades ago, but something about the synopses always turned me off.

It’s one of those works that, as a devotee of science fiction and, especially, as an editor of an SFWA magazine, I should have read decades ago, but something about the synopses, exemplified in a glowing review by Andrew Kaufman, always turned me off:

“In Miller’s masterpiece, the Church is the preserver of knowledge, technology and learning rather than the suppressor of it. In a world that has grown violently suspicious of anything even resembling technology or intellectualism, the members of the ‘Albertian Order of Leibowitz’ are the ones struggling to preserve the knowledge of mankind amidst widespread cultural regression.”

I mean, that sounds so boring. The cover to my 2007 Bantam edition, with its stylized candle flame reaching up and becoming the scrawl of a fountain pen, did absolutely nothing to contradict that assessment.

Maybe if I’d had a copy of the 2006 Eos edition with the monk desperately protecting his writings against an inferno, I would have been more interested. I’m not shy to admit that I judge books by their covers. I mean, by what else are we to judge them? We can’t read all of them.

In truth though, the bigger obstacle was that I hadn’t read it when I was young. And, as I have gotten older, I have come to fervently believe that fiction is getting better. There is progress in the art of storytelling as surely as in any of the sciences. The best writers of the 2010s are as talented as the best writers of the 1950s, but they have an additional 60 years of science fiction tradition to build on. The charge of “standing on the shoulders of giants” is less damning when those standing are also giants and, seriously, look at how high they can reach.

But sometimes you’re (and “you” in this case is me) led astray by such beliefs. The simple truth is that A Canticle for Leibowitz may be the perfect science fiction novel.

Canticle is a member of that notorious class of novels known as “fixups,” meaning that it was pieced together for publication in long form from a number of previously published short stories. This is a format that includes such venerable science fiction works as Foundation by Isaac Asimov, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer, and almost every novel by A.E. Van Vogt. Never before, however, has a fixup taken so well to its new form. It’s hard to imagine Canticle’s three acts standing on their own.

Certainly, each of the three tells a self-contained story but, from the very first act, there is an inevitable sense of arc. The story opens in the late 2500s. The world has been destroyed by nuclear holocaust, a common theme in science fiction of the 1950s, and we are introduced to an order of monks dedicated to the preservation of what little technical documentation remains, though none understand it. The act opens with a simple penitent encountering a wandering Jew in the desert, and ends with vultures. The vultures get the penitent, but not the Jew.

When this first act ends, it’s easy to believe that not terribly much has happened. The story is commanding, but this ending would be tremendously unsatisfying. The key, of course, is that the protagonist is not the penitent, but rather the vultures and the Wandering Jew (and by extension humanity). That the Jew returns in all three acts and plays out his destiny, including his final absolution at the second coming of Christ, is one of the broad stroke hallmarks, beyond the transcendent prose and palpable sense of place, that marks Canticle as a masterpiece. We do not need to be explained the mechanism that supports the Wandering Jew. This is a story told through the lens of post-apocalyptic Catholicism, and we the readers must approach it with a greater devotion to that worldview than even the Catholic characters themselves.

This book surprises with its first six-century jump, from dirt-eating survivalism to rediscovery of electrical power, and then shocks with its second leap to a rebuilt world of interstellar travel. That the spectre of nuclear apocalypse hangs over this renaissance, neither forgotten nor properly respected, is only to be expected. But, again, this is not a story about governments or fallout victims. It’s a story about vultures and about the desperate unkillable thread of humanity that remembers itself.

Both do okay in the end. The vultures do better. You should read this book, if you haven’t already.

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