Friday, September 21, 2007

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr.was originally published in 1959. My paperback copy is 320 pages. This is considered a classic science fiction novel by many and was one of the original dystopian novels. In the end, the morale of A Canticle for Leibowitz seems to be that mankind is doomed to repeat the same mistakes of the past.

A Canticle for Leibowitz follows a cloister of monks in their Utah abbey after a nuclear exchange, through three ages of advancement over the course of 1800 years. A working knowledge of Latin and Catholicism would be helpful to fully appreciate A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it's not entirely necessary. The book is divided into three sections: Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done). The middle part of Miller's novel is not as compelling as the first and third sections, but serves as a transitional section. Fiat Homo begins with the excavation of a holy artifact: a creased, brittle memo scrawled by the hand of the blessed Saint Leibowitz, that reads: "Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma."

From Amazon reviewer D. Cloyce Smith
"Walter Miller's only major novel is not simply a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel but also a multi-layered meditation on the conflict between knowledge and morality. Six hundred years after a nuclear holocaust, an abbey of Catholic monks survives during a new Dark Ages and preserves the little that remains of the world's scientific knowledge. The monks also seek evidence concerning the existence of Leibowitz, their alleged founder (who, the reader soon realizes, is a Jewish scientist who appears to have been part of the nuclear industrial complex of the 1960s). The second part fast-forwards another six hundred years, to the onset of a new Renaissance; a final section again skips yet another six hundred years, to the dawn of a second Space Age--complete, once again, with nuclear weapons.

The only character who appears in all three sections is the Wandering Jew--borrowed from the anti-Semitic legend of a man who mocked Jesus on the way to the crucifixion and who was condemned to a vagrant life on earth until Judgment Day. Miller resurrects this European slander and sanitizes him as a curmudgeonly hermit, a voice of reason in a desert wilderness, an observer to humankind's repeated stupidities, a friend to the monks and abbots, the ghost of Leibowitz (perhaps)..."
(I thought the note about the Wandering Jew was quite interesting.)

If you are interested in dystopian novels and want to read an early post-apocalyptic work, then I would recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz. It's not as fast paced as other more recent novels of this genre, but it is certainly thought provoking. While some parts reflect the time in which it was written, other questions raised are timeless.

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