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A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Orion Millennium, 356 pages

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Best known for his Hugo Award winning novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller published very little during his life. Most of his short work can be found in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr., an out-of-print collection. He won a Hugo for one of his earlier novelettes in 1951.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. Bibliography
Course Materials for the Study of SF
SF Site Review: Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Stephen M. Davis

There are some books that have achieved the status of being a classic without anyone being able to satisfactorily explain why the work demands to be read. The Scarlet Letter and Lord of the Flies jump immediately to mind. A Canticle for Leibowitz demands to be read because Walter Miller speaks through his characters on a number of universal issues -- euthanasia, abortion, the differences between men and animals, and the conflict between the Book of Nature and the Book of God.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, though, is also really good writing, all the way through. Even if you don't necessarily agree with Abbot Zerchi's views on the evils of mercy killing, as he relays them in the section entitled Fiat Voluntas Tua, you will have to agree that his argument is well-stated, and that his character and the situation are perfectly believable.

I'm ahead of myself by about 300 pages, so let me try to begin at the beginning. A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three sections, each of which takes us further into the future. The first section, Fiat Homo, is set several hundred years in the future -- several hundred years from the devastation of a nuclear holocaust, which is given by Mr. Miller as having occurred in the early 1960's.

Civilization is gone, and the survivors have systematically purged themselves of all doctors, scientists, and men of learning. Anyone with knowledge of the old ways is seen as a reminder of the people who brought the devastation in the first place. The church has become, once again, the storehouse of ancient knowledge, with its monks memorizing books and transcribing the pitiful remains of book print into illuminated manuscripts. Leibowitz is a figure from the early days following the holocaust. He is a booklegger -- a man who moves books from place to place at great peril to his personal safety. At some point he is caught and executed slowly. The church has made him a martyr, and the Albertian Order of Leibowitz is in the process of trying to make him a saint.

As A Canticle for Leibowitz begins, one of the newest members of the Order of Leibowitz, Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, is out in the Great Salt Lake fasting. He is bemoaning the fact that he cannot find a rock in the shape of an hourglass that will fit a space in the roof of his shelter. An old man wanders down the road toward him, and after a bit of sparring, the old man decides that he will find a right-fitting rock for Francis, in gratitude for some information that Francis has supplied. Francis eventually stumbles across the rock that the old man has left his mark on, and upon removing it, discovers he has stumbled upon an old bomb shelter. Briefly, certain artifacts are uncovered outside the shelter that may well have belonged to Leibowitz. There is even talk among the lesser members of the order that Francis may have encountered Leibowitz himself -- talk which infuriates the monastery's abbot, who sees the possible negative implications of an order of monks happening upon a cache of saintly artifacts at the exact moment it is bidding for its founder's Canonization.

I'll leave the summarization here. Suffice it to say that Brother Francis spends the better part of fifteen years making a gold-leafed, illuminated version of a blue-print found in a box believed to have been used by Isaac Leibowitz. On the trip to New Rome, Francis has his life's work taken from him by a highwayman.

There is certainly a parallel here with those many people today who are spending their lives doing jobs they don't fully understand, for people who don't appreciate it, and who wake up one day to discover their talent and the better part of their lives have been stolen from them. (I've just been told that this happens, of course).

Fiat Lux, the second part of Mr. Miller's book, takes another large leap into the future, to a time when the church is no longer just a recording society, and has become quite active in applied science. Very rightly, Mr. Miller shows the seductive power of technology.

Brother Kornhoer has developed a dynamo capable of producing a light of stupendous power. As he descends into the monastery basement for a demonstration, he states "Dixitque Deus: 'FIAT LUX.'" Moments later, when he is lightly electrocuted, he shouts "Lucifer!...ortus est et primo die." Even those readers with no Latin will grasp that Brother Kornhoer has moved from an invocation from God to a Satanic oath in the space of a moment, with the electric dynamo acting as the bridge.

Much like an ark for a covenant between man and some new god of man's making, the dynamo has a tendency to maim its keepers, and works by principles that are grasped only in a revelatory fashion -- not through any firm empiricism.

In Fiat Voluntas Tua, the third and final section of A Canticle for Leibowitz, men have reached the stars and are colonizing the planets that circle them. But men have also come full circle in that the planet Earth is once again threatened with nuclear holocaust. I won't be so crass as to give away the ending, except to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it without understanding half of what was going on. Who knows? Maybe that's another guideline for knowing that this work is very rightly considered classic literature.

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen M. Davis

Steve is faculty member in the English department at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C. He holds a master's in English Literature from Clemson University. He was voted by his high school class as Most Likely to Become a Young Curmudgeon.

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