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A Canticle for Liebowitz, Pt. I April 26, 2011

Posted by Jeff in Uncategorized.
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The Earth, 600 years after the unthinkable has happened. Total nuclear war has wiped out civilization, and what is left of mankind struggles to rebuild a world. All of Man’s previous works have perished, and little is left of the knowledge that once was. In the Utah desert, a small group of monks zealously preserves the ancient Memorabilia of a nearly forgotten era, striving to bring enlightenment to the new Dark Ages, shepherds of the long slow climb back to civilization. The story begins with Brother Francis who, with the guidance of a mysterious wanderer, stumbles upon the hidden shrine of Fallout Shelter, where he finds the Holy Relics of St. Liebowitz: the Blessed Blueprint and the Sacred Shopping List.

Some say that 1961’s Hugo winner A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is the greatest science fiction novel ever written, and I can’t find much to argue with about that. I’m on my second read-through, and I dare say that I could read it a couple of more times and still get something new out of it each time. It’s a rich and complex novel, made somewhat more challenging by the liberal use of Vaticanesque Latin throughout. Those phrases were interesting enough and seemed to be important enough to the story to make me pause and look them up on Google.

Liebowitz was a pre-disaster engineer who was, unknown to our characters, one of the scientists that created the nuclear weapons which devastated the planet. The story is told from a religious standpoint, but it’s not grim and serious, nor does it try to beat you over the head with excessive proselytizing. In fact it has a humorous and practical element throughout. Did you notice the irony? That the man who contributed to so much destruction is now canonized by the characters, unaware of his role in the catastrophe. The characters are warm and real, each in their own way trying to solve Man’s problems in purely pragmatic ways. Myself having no experience in matters of religion, I found this to be mildly surprising and also endearing. Others more knowledgeable in this subject might not be surprised by that. See? Reading is learning. “The mind opens, and wisdom creeps in.” This is why I do it.

The story comes in three parts, each separated by 600 years, providing snapshots of the progress of the small abbey, built on the site of the Shrine of Fallout Shelter, in bringing civilization back to Mankind. It’s an enclave of humanity and scholarship in the midst of the brutal wilderness that once was the United States.

There’s a fascinating passage in the second part, when the Abbot climbs the nearby mountain to meet with his old friend, the hermit Jew Benjamin, who is half-mad from his solitude and sometimes believes he is several thousand years old. That is not necessarily denied in the story, and it is also hinted that he is the last of the Jews. The two friends have an interesting discussion, touching on the nature of their faiths, and how they differ from each other, and the burden to be carried because of that faith. And again, I think it accrues to the skill of the author that it’s not a dry and pontificating essay, but that while it’s deeply profound it yet manages to be funny, with plenty of jibes and barbs cast both ways between the two:

“I hear you’ve been throwing rocks at the novices who come hereabouts for their Lenten fast in the desert. Can this be true?” He eyed the hermit with mock reproof.

“Only pebbles.”

“Miserable old pretzel!”

“Now, now, Paulo. One of them once mistook me for a distant relative of mine – name of Liebowitz.”

I’m a little more than halfway through the book, so I’m going to go finish it and report back with a final summary when I’m done. Till then, be well.

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Comments»

1. Neil Fein - May 8, 2011

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read it twice, and will doubtless do so again.

2. Jeff - May 8, 2011

Neil, thanks for your comment, I appreciate your hanging in there with me.
It’s funny, this is one of those books I’ve heard about forever, but never thought I’d read it. Now that I have, I have to ask myself, “why the heck not?!” It’s amazing Mr Miller doesn’t have a whole library of work to his credit. Perhaps he’s like Tolkien’s Feanor, who had one moment of blinding white-hot brilliance, but his candle burned too hot and he passed into oblivion soon after.

3. Neil Fein - May 8, 2011

I believe he has a book of short fiction out there, not to mention the sequel to Canticle. (I couldn’t get through it, sorry to say.)


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