One of the things I’ve decided to do with this blog is to revisit books or authors that I read in high school and, for whatever reason, that either I didn’t appreciate at the time or I’ve just plain forgotten.  Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz falls into the latter category.  I’m fairly certain I enjoyed it when I read it freshman year in high school for a Western Civ class, but my memory of the story was pretty hazy, so I decided to pick it up again.  (A side motivation for reading a book like this is that I’m always on the lookout for fiction that I might incorporate into class, which, given my subject matter and setting, often leads me to Catholic fiction.)

Miller’s book is a fascinating sci-fi take on the relationship between Church and State, faith and reason, technology and human sinfulness, and the need for grace.  The novel is set in the distant future after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of civilization and focuses on a monastery in the American Southwest dedicated to the Order of Leibowitz.  The story is divided into three parts.  The first describes life in the dark period that followed the nuclear holocaust and continued for centuries upon centuries.  In the second part, the secular world is beginning to rediscover much that had been lost in the war, and it is on the cusp of a new Renaissance.  The third and final part is set in the distant future, after human beings have recovered the learning of the pre-nuclear war civilization and moved beyond it.  Colonies have been established in space, cars now transport people to their destination with no need for a human driver, and machines can take dictation in one language and translate it to another.  In the midst of this technological renewal, however, the threat of another nuclear threat hovers over civilization, poised to sink the world into yet another Dark Age.

Miller paints a grim picture of the world after the first nuclear war.  Radiation has left countless unfortunates maimed and mutated, thought by some to be sub-human, but referred to as “the Pope’s children” by the Church; food is in scarce supply, even for the monks of the abbey; travel is long, tedious, and dangerous.  These harsh conditions serve as a backdrop for one of the main themes of the book, the ambiguity of the Church’s role in preserving knowledge.  The ambiguity lies not in the typical new atheist rant about how the Church suppressed science and learning – in Miller’s story, as in any fair-minded assessment of medieval times, it is the monks who preserve learning, fiercely protecting the fragments that survived the nuclear holocaust.  No, the ambiguity lies in the use to which that knowledge is put.  As Norman Spinrad notes in the introduction to the edition I read, one of the running questions in the novel is whether humankind, once given the technological capability, will inevitably choose nuclear destruction rather than the ways of peace.  In Miller’s story, the answer seems to be yes.  At first glance, this seems like a rather bleak picture of humanity.  And yet, as we look back on the last century, indeed, on the history of the world, can we really think it’s an unrealistic one?  Given the atrocities we humans have perpetrated on one another, one could argue that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we haven’t yet blown ourselves to oblivion.

Regardless of whether one accepts Miller’s seemingly dismal view of the world, the book touches on a number of deep and important themes, and is well worth a read.

Eighteen down, (at least) thirty-four to go.

Ta,
J

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