A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Other authorsMary Doria Russell (Introduction)
Paperback, 2006

Status

Available

Local notes

PB Mil

Barcode

746

Publication

EOS (2006), Edition: Reprint, 334 pages

Description

Fiction. Science Fiction. HTML: Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth-century literature�??a chilling and still-provocative look at a postapocalyptic future. In a nightmarish, ruined world, slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infantile rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes. Seriously funny, stunning, tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze. It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.… (more)

Language

Original language

English

Original publication date

1959-10 (novel)
1959
1955-04 – 1956-08 (serialization)

Physical description

334 p.; 5.32 inches

User reviews

LibraryThing member BeckyJG
The world following a nuclear holocaust will have few survivors and they will be frightened, confused, sick, and angry. In A Canticle for Liebowitz, published in 1959 at the height of Cold War anxiety, survivor's anger takes the form of distrust of and disdain for all things of the intellect. After
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the war (six hundred years before the book opens) and the resulting chaos and destruction it wrought, the masses set their sights first on the governments and rulers who waged the war, and then on those who enabled it with their theories and inventions--the scientists, teachers, writers, intellectuals. This time is called the Simplification, and its bloodletting includes seeking out and destroying machines and books and those who created and understood them. Bloodthirsty simpletons! the intellectuals call the masses, and they embrace the name; eventually, simpleton will become the accepted term for any citizen.

The book is divided into three sections, all of which center on the Abbey of the Order of Albertus Magnus, formed by Isaac Edward Liebowitz (a scientist in the world that came before) in the third decade after the war. Fiat Homo--Let There Be Man--is set six hundred years after what has become known as the Flame Deluge, during a time of gathering and protecting of knowledge by a very few. The monks who follow the blessed Liebowitz are the lone protectors of intellect in the wasteland of isolated city states the world has become. Its members are "bookleggers" (and a more wonderful term I haven't come across in I don't know how long), who seek out surviving books and smuggle them to the abbey where they're buried in kegs, and "memorizers," who commit to rote memory volumes of science, history, literature, and sacred writings. The second section is Fiat Lux--Let There Be Light, and is set six hundred years after that. This period sees the first reblossoming of invention and discovery, as well as the beginning of war among the city states. Finally, Fiat Voluntas Tua--Let They Will Be Done, has the world coming full cycle, eighteen hundred years after the holocaust that toppled the last great civilization.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is grim and extraordinarily pessimistic, but somehow still hopeful. It is peopled with rich, often funny, characters: Brother Francis, the young novitiate in Fiat Homo who, while in the desert on a Lenten fast, discovers, in a buried fallout shelter, a cache of documents belonging to the blessed Liebowitz; the Pilgrim, a mysterious, cackling old man who appears at key points in each of the book's three sections; and the Poet, a professional fool who spends some time in the abbey. Ultimately, although Miller's vision is one of history repeating itself, endlessly, as civilization after civilization replicates the growth, achievements, and pitfalls of the ones that came before, still, he sees the spark of optimism, goodness, and intelligence in the race that keeps us striving and, consequently, alive.
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LibraryThing member elfortunawe
This book is one of the most unique I have ever read. I'm not even sure how to review it properly.

This is, basically, a post-apocalyptic sfi-fi novel. The thing is, that's not what it's about. The setting, which is only sketchily defined, is merely a device for the examination of human nature.
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Granted, this is how nearly all sci-fi stories work. But this book takes the technique much further than most. The author doesn't bother much with the details of technology or politics, though the little the book does have is convincing.

The focus of the book is extremely narrow. The story centers on a secluded (in the first two parts, at least) abbey in the American Southwest in the aftermath of nuclear devestation. What's more, the book is divided into three parts, and in each there is a main character whose introspective deliberations are the primary focus of the narrative. In large part, the book could be described as a set of three character studies which happen to be set in the future.

Besides the unusual content of the narrative, the book also sports a formal oddity in it's heavy use of latin. Since the novel takes place almost entirely in a single Catholic abbey, liturgical latin is not out of place, and actually does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the mindset of the monks who inhabit the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz.

Getting past the sci-fi setting and latin liturgy, the primary and ultimate focus of the book is twofold. In one sense it's psychological. We watch as various individuals try to make sense of humanity's apparently irrational behaviour, as well as their own apparently irrational behaviour. Many of the scenes are incredibly compelling. The characters struggle with a number of deeply burdensome human problems, and the reader would be hard pressed not to sympathise with thier agonies.

In another sense, the book is about religion. The role that it plays in the life of the individual as well it's place in wider society. The author gives a great deal of weight to religion's role as a counterbalance to the popular sentiments and destructive desires of humanity. The Albertian Order of Liebowitz (and the Catholic Church as a whole) sets itself up in opposition to the powers and trends of the day, not because they necessarily disagree (although they often do), but simply to prevent society from recklessly pushing too far in a particular direction.

In conclusion, this is a magnificent book. The uniqueness of it's style and message are enough to make it stand out, but the story attains an emotional and psychological weight that few works have aspired to. Along with works by writers such as C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut, A Canticle for Liebowitz belongs to that special subset of sci-fi that truly deserves the label of Literature.
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LibraryThing member danconsiglio
I was worried that I had missed my chance of reading this during the Cold War. The blurb on the Internet said that it was a remarkable blah blah about the horrors of the aftermath of two nations' nuclear blah. The blurb was totally wrong.

Sure the story is a post-apocalyptic set after a conflict
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that looks like one of the more feared possible outcomes of the Cold War, but that's only the first page or two. It very quickly returns to a world marred by the very real and disconcertingly circular failures of humanity. The Cold War is just a prop, quickly discarded once Miller gets the attention of the aliens and lazer guns crowd. It's a dirty trick, but I'm glad he plays it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a gut twisting exploration of humanity on an individual as well as a collective level. I don't just write that because I have a fancy degree in reading fancy stuff. Miller asks his readers horrible, horrible questions and then demonstrates that humans have to answer these questions if they want to make any claim having a soul. As an atheist these questions and their implications are not at all comfortable and Miller does not give up. He hounds his readers, showing them glimpses of the kinds of people who answer in different ways. He shows that nobility does not necessarily lead to pleasant fates or religious Grace. He doesn't let his characters or his readers off his hook. He doesn't seem to let himself off the hook even. Dude killed himself not too long ago, and I can't help but wonder if he stopped liking his own answers to the questions he poses in his writing.

That, my friends, is a friggin' BOOK!
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LibraryThing member Girl_Detective
The book opens in the 26th or 27th century. A novice monk, Brother Francis, is doing a Lenten hermitage in the desert, when he encounters a wanderer, and then comes across an archeologic find from before the Flame Deluge that took place in the 20th century. Francis’ order is of Leibowitz, a 20th
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century scientist and martyr whom they’re trying to have canonized. The book is divided into three sections, which I won’t detail as it might spoil an event I found truly shocking and moving. But the central question is whether history must repeat itself.

This is a satire of Catholicism, while making the monks and abbots of Leibowitz sympathetic, conflicted and complicated. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel, as well as a theological and philosophical one. I’m off to review the legend of the “wandering Jew,” which might have enriched my reading experience if I’d had it in my mind from the beginning. This book made me feel, made me think, and continues to make me think. While we’re fortunate to have avoided a nuclear war in the 20th century, this novel retains a timeless quality as the threat remains, still, and other questions, like the ethics of euthanasia and the dangers and benefits of progress, remain relevant today.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a well-known science fiction novel that anybody who’s familiar with the genre has probably heard of; for some reason I’ve always associated it with Flowers For Algernon (possibly because of the title?) which I’ve never read. I also assumed, because it was
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relatively old and remained a well-known title, that it was one of those books that blurred the line between science fiction and literature.

The novel takes place in three parts, all revolving around a Catholic abbey somewhere in the deserts of the American south-west many centuries after a nuclear war. The first is about 600 years later and roughly corresponds to the Dark Ages; the second is about 1,200 years later and roughly corresponds to the Renaissance; the third is about 1,800 years later and has the nations of mankind once again threatening each other with nuclear war.

I was surprised, given that I’d assumed this was a novel with literary pretensions, by Miller’s style of writing. I mean, it does have literary pretensions, but that’s exactly what they are – pretensions. He reminded me of his fellow mid-century science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, in that his writing was littered with a weirdly comic sense of humour among ostensibly serious subjects, and that he occasionally got a little preachy. Much of the third act, for example, revolves around a battle of wills between the abbot and a government doctor tasked with euthanising people suffering from terminal radiation sickness. I don’t know if Miller was himself Catholic – not that it should matter, since the character is – but the section is told from the abbot’s point of view and, while certainly not verging on Heinlein levels of preachiness, doesn’t quite do a fair and balanced job of presenting the opposite opinion.

I actually enjoyed that segment nonetheless, though, because it was the first part of the book that seemed to touch on anything weighty. The novel is saturated in Catholicism, but it’s mostly skin-deep references. I was expecting such a well-regarded book to tackle big subjects like faith, nuclear war and the struggle between religion and science a little more skillfully. Instead, I was mostly left wondering what Miller was trying to accomplish.

Overall, though, the problem I mostly had with A Canticle for Leibowitz was that it was dull. Miller is a wordy writer and doesn’t create particularly memorable characters – not helped by the fact the novel is really just three novellas, introducing a new set of characters each time. Nor is his imagined world of the future very interesting, existing mostly to serve the morals and allegories of the plot, mirroring fairly obvious stages in real history – and it shouldn’t take 338 pages to spell out the tired old axiom that history repeats itself. A Canticle for Leibowitz may be considered a science fiction classic, but my advice is to skip it.
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LibraryThing member ksmyth
A Canticle for Leibowitz is classic science fiction, a post apocalyptic story set in the American west.

The book follows the tale of a Catholic order founded on the post-apocalyptic St. Leibowitz through three stories, progressively further removed from the Flame Deluge or nuclear holocaust that
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destroyed earth in the late 20th century.

I particularly enjoyed the first two chapters. Their protagonists for some reasons resonated with me, even though they both died at the end. I also liked following the tale of the order and mankind's "progress" from near starvation to a sense of some sort of order. The final chapter I had a hard time with, perhaps because it was a bit to cliche, as man seemed too willing to fail to follow the lessons of history and repeat his mistakes and suffer the catastrophic consequences.

Lots of interesting word play, lots of Latin. It is worth a second read and I don't say that about many books.
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LibraryThing member melydia
This is one of those books that routinely shows up on lists of Best SF Books Evar and is often grouped with other dystopian stories like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. In the first section of this novel, Brother Francis of Utah stumbles upon some artifacts from Saint Leibowitz himself: the sacred
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shopping list and the holy blueprints, among other things. This beginning sounds silly but the story is anything but. We begin about six hundred years after mankind has more or less annihilated itself through nuclear war and is just now beginning to rebuild. The Order of Leibowitz is a group of monks following in the tradition of a man who led others in the storing and memorization of books in the face of the mobs who wished to burn them. Like monks of the Middle Ages, they spend their days copying - and illuminating - blueprints, math textbooks, and other findings. I enjoyed this first section the most. The other two sections were difficult to follow. The second, taking place several hundred years after the first, explores some of the first rediscoveries of ancient technology, such as electricity. The third is several centuries after the second, and man now has space travel, colonies on other worlds, and - you guessed it - nuclear weapons. I wish I’d understood the whole deal with the ancient pilgrim/Benjamin/Eleazar. I wish I knew even a tiny bit of Latin, as I had to skim several passages in that no-longer-dead language (though this also served as a constant reminder of the fact that the book was written before Vatican II). In short, I’m not sure how I feel about this book because I’m not entirely convinced I understood what it was trying to say. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m not positive I would recommend it to someone else. This is often how I react to the rapidly growing pool of Classic Literature I Don’t Get.
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LibraryThing member MusicforMovies
A highly interesting, challenging at times, and fantastic read. Brush up on your Latin and be prepared to experience three lifetime worth of story in this work of fiction. In some ways it bears comparison to 1984 and A Brave New World as a warning to us as humans and the choices we make
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individually and collectively, but I find that it differs from those two dystopian novels in offering hope even in the midst of unspeakable horror. It is a must read and deserves to be better known than it appears to be. Homo Quo vadis?
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LibraryThing member JGolomb
"A Canticle for Leibowitz" is a book that defies standard categorization. I suppose it has enough future-world, post-apocalyptic concepts that it falls in the science fiction realm, but it's not your basic laser beam and alien fare. This story goes much deeper.

"Canticle" is made up of three stories
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that span thousands of years. Each story focuses on a distinct time period, looking progressively further into a post-apocalyptic future. The setting is the same abby in the American West, founded to protect and preserve the learnings of the pre-apocalyptic society. Specifically, they've developed a myth around a martyered scientist named Leibowitz.

The first story revolves around Brother Francis who accidentally discovers certain original papers created by Leibowitz, including the blue prints for a technological device. The second story centers on a new technological awakening where future theorists come in contact with ancient (modern) technology. The sequence comes full circle in the third story as our future world is faced again with mutual mass destruction.

Miller wrote "Canticle" in the late '50s when World War II and the atomic bomb were still visible in the world's rearview mirror and the cold war threat was very much a reality. Much of Millers discourse is on the cyclical nature of cultures and societies, the interconnectivities between religion and science, as well as death and politics. It's clear that much of the evocative emotion stems from Miller's time in the military and a youth grown up during a World War.

The story is at times light and humourous but threaded with a very heavy and serious undertone throughout.

The root story I found very interesting - how this future-world's archaeology is our modern world's past. I felt that the first two segments of the book were strongest and was only saddened that each couldn't have more ink themselves. In reflecting upon the discoveries of their past, and their promises of hope for the future, Millers writes, "For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded...Truth could be crucified, but soon, perhaps a resurrection."

The development of religion, while always founded in christianity, morphs over the course of the story and we see a mythology grow over time. This book is successful on many levels...as simply an intriguing story with attractive characters, and as literature built upon a foundation of religion and war. It's solid story telling at its best, with heart, emotion and intelligence layered on top of the tale from start to finish.
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LibraryThing member abbeyhar
One of the most powerful dystopian novels I've read. Spanning almost 2,000 years, it asks the reader to think about the possibly inalterable aspects of human nature, as well as the fate of the world if certain factors can't change. Poses important questions about why human beings need knowledge and
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power, and why we are so discontent when we finally get them. Written in 1959, it is very much simultaneously of its time and timeless.
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LibraryThing member Karlus
Elegant post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi that spans across Novel-of-Ideas better than any other Sci-Fi I have read. From a Stone Age that follows the flaming end of this, our very own civilization, this story follows the milllenia of recovery to a futurist society remarkably like our own again. This book,
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of very rounded characters and plausible scenes and settings of alternative history, traces the struggle of a small group of people to maintain past moral verities through all adversity and against the forward advancement of civilization. And the consequences of man's foolishness may finally break your heart. Highly recommended for anyone who has any sort of conscience at all. In short, I hope everyone.
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LibraryThing member xicanti
The story of humanity's rise and fall after a nuclear disaster changes the face of the world.

Like the best classic science fiction, this book is about ideas. Miller thrusts us into one hell of a "what if" scenario and runs with it. I must say, I was quite impressed with the end product. It's broken
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into three parts, each of which takes place about six hundred years after the previous segment. This doesn't give the reader much of a chance to get to know the characters, but it does give Miller an effective platform from which to develop his themes. He does so very, very well.

On a technical level, the prose is readable and occasionally quite funny. The world is realistically delineated, and the characterization is really quite good given how little time we spend with each of these people. I found it easy to sink into the book. This was never a struggle to read. It was often quite a pleasure.

I did feel that the last segment, in which Miller takes a decidedly more science fictiony approach, was a bit weak compared to the previous two. This is likely just my own bias coming through, though; I'm not terribly big on sci fi, as a general rule.

I'm glad I gave the book a try, though. It was certainly worth it. I doubt I'll ever feel the need to revisit it, but I'm happy to have read it. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
*Sigh* another classic that doesn't strike me as all that great.

A Canticle for Leibowitz incorporates some heavyweight themes—religion, science, human nature, an apocalyptic future—and Miller's prose is fluent and expressive, but I thought the narrative ranged from muddled to boring. I'm sure
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my own preferences didn't help since I apparently have a bias against stories about religious orders (see my review for A Morbid Taste for Bones). I mean, c'mon, how daring is your plot going to be if the main players consist of conventional old men?

Thinking long-term and away from the nuts and bolts of the novel, I speculate that Canticle hasn't aged well because the public debate of Science v. Religion has evolved, and the conversation just doesn't carry the weight it used to. The news media might paint a different picture, but in the lives of ordinary people—in a post-nuclear 21st century and more integrated with technology than ever before—we've already begun to make our peace with it.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This is not an easy read. It contains some interesting theological viewpoints and in particular towards the end portrays both sides of the the euthanasia debate in a vivid and gripping way. But as a post-apocalyptic novel, it failed for me as the world described lacked any characters or reference
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points to which I could relate and which make the best post-apocalyptic novels so chilling and haunting. There was no real feel for the lives of ordinary people outside the monastic community that formed the centre of the novel.
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LibraryThing member wendymcf
I wanted to like it. In fact, I was hoping to love it. It's considered one of the Masterpieces of Science Fiction, after all. But the first two thirds felt like work. I wouldn't give it less than 3 stars because of the quality of the writing and so many of the insights, just overall not my kind of
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story. My expectations probably heightened the disappointment.
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LibraryThing member baswood
A science fiction novel published in 1959 and included in the SF masterwork series. It was the only novel by Miller published in his lifetime and is in fact an amalgamation of three shorter stories published between 1952-1957 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Miller has linked the
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three stories well enough to the central themes of his novel; they tell of events in different time periods and so the progression through time, told in chronological order gives the novel a sense of unity.

I had trouble warming to the novel, because it is a novel that is written from a religious point of view; particularly a roman catholic position and as my views tend towards the existential; not believing in an all powerful omnipotent God, I found much of the discussion of themes and ideas irrelevant to me. Had I read the novel in the 1960's when I was a teenager and fresh from a Church school then probably I would have found the religious views more pertinent, but I have moved on since then and so perhaps readers like me will find that the novel has not aged well.

The novel starts in the 26th century when much of the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Brother Francis Gerard is a novice in the order of the monastery of Leibowitz; which is campaigning for sainthood for its founder. During his lenten vigil he stumbles across an old air raid shelter which contains some documents including a blue print with a connection to Leibowitz. Brother Francis is eventually allowed to copy and embellish the documents by hand and is chosen to take them to Rome for the canonisation of Saint Leibowitz. The second part takes place in 3174. The Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz has preserved a number of documents after Brother Francis has paved the way for the monastery to be a repository for half understood knowledge, from the previous civilisation. The world is emerging from a new dark age and one of the monks is experimenting with an electricity generator. A secular scholar arrives to examine the documents at a time when new rulers are threatening war. The scholar says it will take decades to understand the memorabilia, but the soldiers accompanying him are busy examining the monastery as a base of operations. The third part takes us to the year 3781. The world is reaping the benefits of a new technological age. Space travel has been accomplished, but two power blocks on earth are once again threatening nuclear war. The church of New Rome has secured a space ship for the order of Leibowitz to take the teachings of the Roman catholic church to the stars should the earth self destruct.

The two major themes of the novel are the cyclical trend of history. The repetition of mistakes; mankind always moving towards self destruction after periods of dark ages and then renaissance. The second theme is the conflict between church and state, this is particularly well argued in parts two and three of the novel. Contained within these themes are human stories that focus the readers attention. Brother Francis's struggles with the Abbot and church hierarchy to inch ahead with the preservation of documents from the past in part one and Brother Kornhoer has similar problems with efforts to generate electricity in part two. The most poignant story is Abbot Zerchi's struggles with the State during a nuclear attack and his arguments against voluntary euthanasia for those terminally ill with radiation sickness. The church is seen as a repository of knowledge and wisdom, but tends to hold back the advance of civilisation. This idea is seen as essential for mankind's survival as the reactionary nature of its functions looks towards mankind's salvation. The characters are swamped by events over which they have no control and as such they struggle for a foothold to mark their existence. The answer that this book postulates is the teachings of the Roman Catholic faith. From my own point of view I am not thrilled by the idea that the only people escaping the earth's destruction are a spaceship full of missionaries to spread the word to those inhabiting planets in other star systems. This would seem like a repetition of the earths destructive cycle.

I can admire the new ground covered in this book. It is a book without a hero and although it deals with weighty themes it manages to create a micro-climate of human stories connected with the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz. It never lets the reader stray too far away from the characters, even if they do at times function as mouthpieces for the ideas that carry this novel forward. There are no female characters in the book, apart from the mutant woman destroyed by the nuclear attack and the young woman and child terminally ill with radiation sickness. Women as victims is pretty much standard for this period of science fiction writing. There is no overt racism. My rating is 3.5 stars.
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LibraryThing member AZBob1951
A 'Canticle for Leibowitz' by Walter M. Miller, is an excellent read.

Written in the late 1950s, reading Canticle brings back the every day, never-ending, twenty-four hour threat of world-ending nuclear conflict we lived with during the Cold War. And it reminds us, who were around during those
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times, upon reading this story, centered around a Catholic monastery and seeing text littered with Latin phrases, the days when Latin (mother to all the Romance languages) was studied, even in public schools.

I couldn't deter the smile that crept across my face, as I learned a character had lost a bet when he had come in second at the game of mumbly peg, a knife throwing contest popular during the middle of the last century prior to the discovery of 'dangerous' lead in paint, hazardous monkeybars, lifesaving seatbelts or XBox 360s. Yes, those were simpler times, when this boy of five could crawl up onto the sturdy and felt-covered shelf behind the rear seats in our four steel-doored 1951 Kaiser sedan and fall asleep bathed in the rays of the mild Arizona winter sun.

'Canticle' which means religious chant, is unabashedly Catholic, as is demonstrated when a brother fights for a natural death of a radioactive and terminally ill mother and daughter pair, rather than give in to the quick, convenient, and no charge 'Soylent Green-style' euthanasia. Canticle also meets another one of my preferred old-school moral criteria for Science Fiction, and that being that there are no sexual copulations within its covers.

Canticle is not a Harry Potter 'type' happy ending book, and as Joe Bob Briggs says about good horror movies, "Anyone can die, at anytime and anyplace." For a book written almost fifty years ago, author Miller does an excellent job of predicting future technology. And he did not make the mistake I've seen often in mediocre SciFi books, that of centering the majority of the action on the 'predicted' technology, which, if the author has guessed wrong, and when read in later decades simply renders the book just silly.

Covering a span of six hundred years on Earth, the book exposes the unrelenting greed, lust for power and pride of a few men that will forever threaten those wishing to live in peace and, if their weapons are sophisticated enough, threaten continued civilization on this planet.

Canticle offers to the reader a compelling, effortless writing style that, after a few moments, other than the turning of pages, one doesn't feel like one is reading. It allowed this reader to develop affections for believable characters and presented entirely believable future technologies, while at the same time the strong moral code adhered to by the clergy of the Catholic faith, in this day of anything goes, even for this lapsed Lutheran, was quite refreshing.

I give 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' my highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member sullijo
Comparing the United States to the Roman Empire seems to be a fashionable thing to do lately. And the argument is certainly not without merit. As the only superpower left its natural to make judgments based on the worlds great empires and to ask if we are making the same mistakes that caused their
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downfalls. The real question, of course, is whether we can learn from history in order to avoid those same mistakes.

Which is just another way to say that I recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. Published in 1960, the book may be best described as a work of “Catholic science fiction.” It follows the travails of a monastery in a post-apocalyptic world where, following a massive nuclear war, humanity turns against intellectuals and learning in a great “Simplification.” Books are burned, universities torn down and the general populace intentionally becomes illiterate in the hopes that another “Flame Deluge” may be averted. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (ironically, and unintentionally, abbreviated to AOL) have been charged with protecting what writings they are able to smuggle into their great collection (the “Memorabilia”) in the hope that humanity might one day be ready to accept them again.

The book is divided into three sections, each separated by 600 years. The first deals with a young postulant’s discovery of relics of Blessed Leibowitz, whose cause for canonization has been opened. The second chronicles the arrival at the monastery of Thon Taddeo, the age’s greatest secular thinker, and the world’s re-discovery of the treasures hidden there. In the last part humanity is once again threatened by the re-development of nuclear weapons and the Church must decide how best to preserve the world’s knowledge and ensure the survival of future generations.

One of Miller’s main themes is the cyclical nature of history: in forgetting its own past, the world inadvertently makes its second annihilation possible. Miller makes a fairly explicit comparison between ignorance and violence on the one hand and knowledge and peace on the other. The tribal factions of the outside world are constantly at odds, fighting over territory, food and other resources. They are unable to work together and, as a result, can build nothing of lasting value.

Yet there is still hope in the form of community. By maintaining their connection to the past — by remembering who they are and passing on that knowledge to future generations — the monks are able to keep their charge for over 1200 years while, all around them, empires rise, reign and fall. It is the thankless dedication of generations of monks that allows humanity to pull itself from a second Dark Age.

The book also highlights the perennial struggle between science’s pursuit of fact, the state’s pursuit of power and faith’s search for truth. This is especially evident in the second part, during which Thon Thaddeo is at odds with the Order over access to the Memorabilia (he wants to relocate the archive to make them more readily accessible to other scientists) and in the third part in which the state sanctions euthanasia camps for radiation victims. How the monks deal with these threats to their mission says a great deal about how and why the Church pursues knowledge (as opposed to science and the state).

Although it met with mixed reaction upon its release, A Canticle for Leibowitz went on to win a Hugo Award and is now considered a modern classic in science fiction. I highly recommend it to any fan of the genre or anyone interested in the mission of the Church, even in the most trying of times.
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LibraryThing member TTAISI-Editor
This book is often cast as "science fiction," but to me it has always read as one of the most terrifying -- and insightful -- books about the nature of our society, our need for and reliance on some kind of touchstone of faith, and (to drag out the cliche) man's inhumanity to man.
LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Science fiction is not my usual genre, so I thought starting with a recognized classic would be a good way to get my feet wet. It takes place in the American west hundreds of years after a nuclear holocaust wiped out much of humanity in the 1960s. After the devastation, the stricken populace
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revolted against science and a dark age ensued, during which the Catholic Church imperfectly preserved what they could of human knowledge. In the first part of the book, we are introduced to the monks of an abbey who revere Leibowitz, presumably a scientist involved with the bomb who was martyred by the anti-science crowd. Then in two subsequent sections, the narrative jumps ahead far into the future when humanity has recaptured the technology of destruction.

I liked the first third of the book very much. It had a fair amount of dry humor and was quite inventive. As the book went on, though, it lost its appeal to me. I realized there was no character development, and since I'm way into character, that diminished the reading pleasure for me. Also, unless I'm thick, and I never discount that possibility, it seemed that in abruptly moving forward in time throughout the book, Miller just abandoned a lot of intriguing plot points. Plus, there were long sections of philosophizing that seemed strictly Catholic. Since Catholicism is the only religion portrayed in the book, it reinforces the notion that the Catholic religion is "the Church," the only Church, and that was irritating.
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LibraryThing member samfsmith
This is an odd book. Plot and characters take a back seat to the idea - in a sense this is a polemical - the author has something he wants to say and uses the book to say it.

Imagine a future where nuclear war has knocked civilization back to a dark age where knowledge is being preserved by
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monasteries, much as it was in the original dark ages. Except the knowledge is incomplete and often misunderstood. The novel is divided into three smaller books that are hundreds of years apart and share no characters, tracing the re-emergence of civilization and the way history repeats itself.

Because of this blocky treatment where character and plot are subservient I don't think this is a very successful book.
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
A look into a possible future after a nuclear war and the fragmentation of the American continent. Miller parallells the Dark Ages and the Church's husbanding of ancient knowledge w another more devastating age in the near future. Well written and paced I look forward to his sequel that he wrote 30
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years later.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
“Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?” – Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

This book is a trio of interrelated episodes, set hundreds of years apart. All are
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set in the Leibowitz Abbey, a monastery in the southwestern desert of what was formerly America. The first episode opens in the 26th century, 600 years after the Flame Deluge has wiped out most of civilization. The remaining people are largely illiterate. Some are deformed due to radiation fallout. The monks of the abbey, working by candlelight, are dedicated to preserving the written Memorabilia of the pre-apocalyptic society, which Leibowitz, a 20th century scientist, tried to preserve during the Flame Deluge. The book closes in the 38th century.

The narrative is filled with irony. For example, the monks carefully preserve documents that the reader will recognize as a shopping list, common circuit diagram, and portions of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. They cannot tell the trivial from the profound, so they preserve everything. The author explores the relationships among religion, scientific knowledge, and humankind’s violent inclinations. It is rich in symbolism, subject to a variety of interpretations, and can be read on many levels. There are theological, historical, literary, scientific, political, and ethical overtones, which may be analyzed or ignored depending on the reader’s inclinations.

Due to the subject matter, it will not come as a surprise that this book is not cheery, but the dark humor, irony, and tiny rays of hope help soften it. There are only a few women and children depicted, but when they appear, their impact is significant. The reader may want to keep a Latin translation tool handy. Published in 1959, it is obviously influenced by the Cold War era, but holds up remarkably well. It is thought-provoking, well written, and deserving of its status as a classic of apocalyptic science fiction.
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LibraryThing member BruderBane
With allegorical allusions to the fall of man, his banishment from Eden and man’s propensity to repeat this act over and again no matter the age are all central to the ideas brought forth in “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. While not exactly my cup of tea, Mr. Miller
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presents a painfully real civilization after a nuclear holocaust in three widely varied stages. It is this change of scenery that enlivens the novel’s prose and promotes rather interesting philosophical debate within Mr. Miller’s work. That I finished this novel while the Antikythera device has been rebuilt was just too good for words.
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LibraryThing member MarcoGaidin
Damn.
I think this has to be one of the best novels I have read in the last year. In fact it has to be one of the best books I have read - ever.
I'm a content over form reader, but Walter M. Miller Jr. provided both in ample supply.

Basic thread is about humanity and the mistakes we make. A lot of
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hard hitting commentary on our deficiencies and how we can't take responsibility for our own actions.

It has a dark, somber undertone with very dry, witty humour that lessens the feeling of hopelessness somewhat. The book is eloquently written and as I mentioned the form is as good as any I think you'll read.

I was left feeling sad and lost, yet strangely comforted at the end.
I would recommend this book to anyone. Read it.
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Pages

334

Rating

½ (3108 ratings; 3.9)
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