A Canticle for Leibowitz was first published in 1960 by Walter M. Miller jr. It won the Hugo Award in 1961 and since it’s first publication, it has never gone “out of print.” Miller is an interesting study: he fought with the Air Force in WWII, flying over fifty missions in the European theatre. After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism and wrote a number of short stories. A Canticle for Leibowitz is the only novel he published in his lifetime. In his later years, Miller became reclusive and suffered from depression. He committed suicide in 1996.
The cover art for this edition was done by the famous artist John Picacio, who has done a number of covers for novels. I am very fond of his artwork, which includes an edition of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway and several Michael Moorcock novels. Since it’s publication, A Canticle for Leibowitz has been blessed [sic] with the seemingly unending fortune of having excellent cover art. One of the things that I like about Picacio’s cover is that there are elements that reflect religion, time, and apocalypse – but also hope and stability. The color work is excellent and this edition is a keeper.
The introduction to this edition is by author Mary Doria Russell. She is the author of the book The Sparrow. Now, I tried several times to read and finish that book, but it was too much and I ended up quitting and selling the book – not that I like to admit that. Her introduction to Miller’s novel is good and bad. I agree with her at some points and yet she seems just slightly too sycophantic about it at other points. As I read the novel, Russell’s introduction stuck in the back of my head and I kept turning it around to see if I really agreed or disagreed. Since I kept at it, I guess that’s a signal of being a good introduction.
The novel is divided into three parts:
- Fiat Homo
- Fiat Lux
- Fiat Voluntas Tua
Before starting the book, I was interested in a “destruction of knowledge/apocalypse” novel. So, I built up my expectations on that front. After reading the first part, I was disappointed – not in the novel, per se, but rather that my expectations were slightly off. Nevertheless, I was enjoying my reading even if the story was not going where I had thought it would.
Reading the second part of the book, I kept waiting for one of the main characters to “turn traitor.” I guess it’s a sign of the jaded and bitter times I live in that I was expecting that to happen. Surely, not all the good guys are that good, right? Thankfully, none of the characters “turned traitor.” I say thankfully because not every book has to use that twist to make the story significant. Sometimes, the good guys are simply good guys. Sometimes it’s okay for people not to give in to evil.
The third part of the book was the most intense part of the book. I do not want to give away anything, but the last part displays all the “history repeats itself because human hubris refuses to learn from it’s mistakes” theme that I feel Miller really wrestled with during his lifetime. Some of the scenes in this last chapter are a bit graphic, although not too terrible for anyone who watches any TV in 2012. And in the end, the concept of hope still hangs in there, regardless of all the stupidity, stubbornness, and violence.
There is a lot of Latin in this book, but not just Latin – it’s basically Church Latin. And in 2012, I am as dismal as Miller is regarding the state of anti-intellectualism and even general knowledge of the Church Herself. I think that non-Catholics will not get as much out of the book as Roman Catholics will. Sure, the plot and themes remain accessible, but some of the tone and feeling is probably going to be lost on many non-Catholics. Some of the themes of the book include religion vs. science, state vs. religion, and faith vs. despair. However, Miller does not write a church that cannot laugh at itself or take a rueful look at itself. There are plenty of times in the novel where there is wry humor and bemused characters reflect on their plight.
I can see why it won a Hugo Award. This is by no means a crappy novel. In parts it is intense, saddening, amusing, and shocking. I really liked the Abbots of the monastery and they are really the tools through which Miller tells us this story. The hints of Leibowitz throughout the story are just enough to be curious and intriguing, but without any solidity. Ultimately, the Church is the one bulwark of salvation – perhaps more material than spiritual – in the novel and that fact in and of itself will agitate some readers. However, readers who are not vehemently opposed to organized religion and who are willing to take a look at human progress as a whole will enjoy this novel. If enjoy is the right word: nuclear warfare/fallout is not really enjoyable, right? I gave it three stars, but I think an argument can be made for four stars. I think I give it three because the first section really seems less purposeful (in a writing sense) than the other two sections. I can honestly say I have not read a book with a plot that was similar and I have a feeling that I will be ruminating on many elements in this novel for years to come.