Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Jess

Matt lent me this intriguingly titled book, one that I’d heard of but never read, and I settled in expecting good things.

I did not expect to be affected so deeply.  A Canticle for Leibowitz left me shaken in a way that few books have done.

And it seems to have affected other readers similarly, as it’s not been out of print for the past 50 years.  It’s often called a science-fiction novel, but Josh Wimmer makes a good case for why it’s not, technically.  He proposes the alternative terms “speculative fiction” or “philosophical fiction.”  It’s certainly got a lot more depth and heart than most sci-fi I’ve read — check out this Washington State University study guide on the novel that defines all the Latin and many of the obscure references from the book, including the Wandering Jew.

A Canticle is divided into three sections, spanning hundreds of centuries: Fiat Homo (translated as Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done).

As the WSU study guide relates, “Part of the novel’s success derives from its richly realized setting, a post-holocaust America where scraps of pre-war knowledge are gathered and preserved by a Catholic Church which no longer understands that knowledge.”  The first section begins in a neo-Medieval setting, and by the final section, a starship is launching a small contingent of monks off to space.  At the end of each section a character dies, and the third-person omniscient narrator pulls back, like a camera slowly zooming out, and we see the natural world continuing completely unfazed by the death.  It sounds cliche, and it is, but it’s a bit chilling when you realize how Miller plays hard and fast with his characters.  Faulkner may have adjured us to kill our darlings, but readers (and writers) tend to fall in love with their characters, and we don’t want to see them die.  Not only does Miller kill them, but no one cares, and they are forgotten.

Perhaps that is part of the reason I felt a punch in the gut after reading this book.  I was floored by the realization of how frail we truly are, how utterly out of our control our lives are, and how quickly we return to dust.  We are but a breath.

I like Wimmer’s use of the term philosophical fiction for A Canticle, because it delves into such deep waters.  Dr. Bradley Birzer lists, in his review, a few of the weighty questions the novel wrestles with:

Can man escape Original Sin? Or, will man, doomed, carry it wherever he goes, whether it be into the American West or into the new frontier of space? And, if so, can man do anything by his own will to attenuate the great evils of which he is not only so capable, but seemingly so desirous? …  What is the human person? How does one man recognize the dignity of another man? … By what means and by what authority do political bodies govern? In what ways can and does the power of political bodies ignore, mock, or usurp cultural and religious bodies and authorities?

Miller committed suicide in 1996, which seems to undermine the book for many of his readers, but I think it only further underscores one of his main themes: we each have choices to make.  We can bend toward the evil as easily as toward the good.

A Canticle for Leibowitz has settled heavily onto my heart.  I’ll be pondering it for a long time to come.