A Canticle for Liebowitz is another of these science fiction novels that avowed fans of the genre really should read before being able to claim proper fandom; now it may be a bit dated in style and content but it remains one of the landmark works from the late 1950s. Admittedly, the post-apocalypse subset of science fiction isn’t exactly a jolly day in the park, though this is at least mildly humorous here and there; it does, not surprisingly, touch on the very grim “destroyer of worlds” aspect of nuclear armaments that the earlier researchers in the field of atomic fission realized of their work.
On a more literary aspect, A Canticle for Leibowitz bends the concept of what precisely constitutes science fiction (for which see this review). Really, the driving force behind this book isn’t science at all. It’s religion…no two ways about it.
Divided into three sections corresponding to approximately five, twelve and seventeen hundred years “post deluge” (an all out nuclear war), A Canticle for Liebowitz concerns largely the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a Roman Catholic order of monks set up in order to preserve the works of one Isaac Leibowitz, a Jewish weapons engineer. In the first book, Fiat Homo, Brother Francis discovers a bomb shelter (though he does not wholly understand what it is) containing artifacts of Leibowitz himself, just as as the Order is petitioning for Leibowitz’s canonization. In the second, Fiat Lux, Earth is undergoing a renaissance of science; Brother Kornhoer has created a dynamo capable of producing light…and electrical current, as he discovers when he interrupts same. In the last book, Fiat Voluntas Tua, humanity has surpassed current technological levels and gained the stars–there are colonies on other planets–but Earth is once again on the verge of nuclear annihilation. The Albertian Order of Leibowitz gathers together ships and evacuates what remnants of Earth’s inhabitants it can, as humanity finishes itself off.
Written while Earth was still wrangling with the fear and danger of nuclear war the first time around, A Canticle for Leibowitz is very much a product of its time and its author, combining short and long term effects of nuclear war with the cohesion of organized religion preserving information and building on (scientific) knowledge. (Miller’s Catholic monasticism is not that of today’s stereotyped history; they are among the instigators of science in Miller’s future.) It’s a very laconic work of apocalyptic fiction and the least hopeful of the books in this subgenre that I’ve read–in the epilogue after The Ultimate War has come and gone, the book ends with “The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the cold clean currents. He was very hungry that season.” The other post nuclear war apocalyptic science fiction novels I’ve read at least hold out some hope that we’ll have learned our lesson and backed away from ruinous destruction or managed to piece the world together afterwards at any rate; in Miller’s world, we just do it all over again and manage to do it “right” the second time, in the sense of destroying ourselves and our planet completely.