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A Canticle for Leibowitz Mass Market Paperback – June 1, 1984
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“Extraordinary ... chillingly effective.”— Time
“Angry, eloquent ... a terrific story.”— The New York Times
“An extraordinary novel ... Prodigiously imaginative, richly comic, terrifyingly grim, profound both intellectually and morally, and, above all ... simply such a memorable story as to stay with the reader for years.”— Chicago Tribune
“An exciting and imaginative story ... Unconditionally recommended.”— Library Journal
From the Trade Paperback edition.
From the Publisher
Down the long centuries after the Flame Deluge scoured the earth clean, the monks of the order of St. Leibovitz the Engineer kept alive the ancient knowledge. In their monastery in the Utah desert, they preserved the precious relics of their founder: the blessed blueprint, the sacred shopping list and the holy shrine of fallout shelter.
Watched over by an immortal wanderer, they witnessed humanity's rebirth from ashes, and saw reenacted the eternal drama of the struggle between light and darkness, life and death.
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Keep in mind that Miller was writing in the 1940s and 1950s. Among other things, he has characters argue or mull over intelligent design, euthanasia, "removable" conscience, politicians placating their country's "patriotic opinionated rabble," the line between church and state, and the destruction and rise of civilizations over millennia. Two examples of some phrases that jumped out at me:
- When scholar Thon Taddeo questions how a great civilization could destroy itself, the answer from the monsignor is "Perhaps ... by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else."
- Brother Joshua, about to colonize space in order to save shreds of civilization as his current world implodes, thinks that, "the closer men come to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well." Joshua thinks that a dark world can yearn and hope, but a world "bright with reason and riches" begins to "sense the narrowness of the needle's eye," and the realization rankles.
My one complaint is that Miller uses way too many Latin phrases that I didn't take time to look up the first time through. (And I'm Catholic and even studied Latin in high school.) I will re-read this book with a dictionary at hand in order to mine even more from its depths.
What has been buried is the entrance to a bomb shelter, for this is the age after the world has gone through nuclear annihilation. Few people remain and those that do mistrust each other. Roaming tribes kill everything in their path and intellectuals are disdained as they were the ones who created the bombs that ruined civilization. As the initiate explores, he finds a box with fragments of writing. Even more amazing, the fragments carry the name of Leibowitz, who is the man for whom the monastery exists. For these monks are charged with preserving what little writing and knowledge exists. They bury barrels of writing material in remote places and copy the words of existing manuscripts, even when they have no idea what the words mean.
What follows is a bleak exhibit of humanity. The reader sees the world through the eyes of time. Over the centuries, men start to value knowledge again. They rediscover the natural principles that underlie all progress, and painstakingly, over centuries, civilization rebuilds to the point that sophisticated machines and computers once again exist. Yet, every time progress is made, it is accompanied by the human nature that cannot help but tear it down again.
This novel is considered a classic of science fiction. It demonstrates a fear of learning and an underlying negativity about human nature. Yet, along with the bleakness, there is always a tendril of hope, someone who risks all in order to learn and spread knowledge. This book is recommended for science fiction readers.
This book kept being drawn to my attention until I finally purchased it, drawn in to a certain extent by the stunningly beautiful cover art of the Eos/HarperCollins edition. I would be interested in seeing more work by John Picacio (the cover artist). The introduction was mixed, and I was not sure what to expect, but was sold almost instantly once into the actual novel. The three-part structure is used to great effect, and each parcel of the overall story has its own merits. Unless I am mistaken, A Canticle for Liebowitz was Miller Jr.’s first and only novel, not counting the posthumously published sequel finished by Terry Bisson, St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997), which is very firmly on my to-read list. Intriguingly, it seems that after writing A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller Jr. released no further work. What a shame! If all first novels could be this powerful!
Miller Jr.’s religiously motivated philosophy is made fairly clear throughout the work, and will not be to everyone’s taste, but it was to mine. I became very attached to many of the characters and especially to the Abbey, a bastion of pre-disaster knowledge that is being safeguarded for future generations against the twin monstrosities of barbarian military might and soulless scientific scholarship. The author destroys arguments for euthanasia in a supremely satisfying sequence in the third part; I metaphorically stood up and clapped.
The back cover claims that the work is “seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable”. Now, back-cover copy is often wont to gush, sometimes in disturbing excess of praise for hellaciously untalented work, but in this case, the back cover has nailed it. This book is one of the finest pieces of twentieth-century American literature, let alone speculative science fiction. Do yourself a favor and give it a read.
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