A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The idea of the post-apocalyptic tale is all the rage these days, a recurring theme in books, stories, and motion pictures. From weird, literally earth-rending Mayan prophecies to legions of the walking dead, the end of the world as we know it appears to be endlessly entertaining. A common theme in these disturbing visions of the near future is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for whatever catastrophe brings civilization down. If we’d been less selfish and more far-sighted, if only we’d refrained from tinkering with the “natural order of things” – usually in the name of greed – we could have avoided these grim fates. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, and so each technological leap makes the next repetition of foolish human behavior more deadly than the last, until in the end – it ends.
Those currently exploiting this interest in violent ends for civilization sometimes seem to think this is all a new way of writing fiction, but of course this fascination with the end of the world is anything but new. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember such visions all too vividly, and as all-too-believable realities. By its sheer destructive power, the “bomb,” in the hands of leaders cursed with blind stupidity, seemed destined to bring everything to an end. It was a fearful time to grow up, and frightening fiction was written, and filmed, to point out the dangers we faced. For a long time it seemed no one was listening, but I suppose that when you use giant ants and fleshy-headed mutant humans for cautionary tales, nuclear war becomes a little harder to take seriously. In time the danger was taken seriously and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse now – while still all too real – seems a bit less likely. This was not the case in the ’50s and ‘60s, when I was a child. It felt imminent, and no few of us expected to die very young.
Science fiction writers of the time were in some measures as guilty as Hollywood in exploiting the fear of things nuclear, rather than driving home the idea that this was not only a serious and dangerous business, but an avoidable fate. Published science fiction from that time included many tales of a world in ruins, in which determined men and women struggled to preserve civilization while fending off the mutant progeny of nuclear war. That there might be NO survivors in the end, mutant or otherwise, was a long time entering the popular imagination – Nevil Shute’s grim novel On the Beach being an outstanding exception to the rule at that time. Another author who stands out from the crowd in this regard is Walter M. Miller, Jr., whose post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz stood far enough apart from the rest to be recognized for the exception it was, and to be awarded the 7th Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961.
A Canticle for Leibowitz opens centuries after the Flame Deluge consumed the world, destroying civilization and taking the human race to the brink of extinction. Something like a civilization has risen from the cold ashes of that terrible event. Curiously enough, the Roman Catholic Church has somehow survived and kept its history and traditions alive – more than its own, actually. A new monastic order exists, named for Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, who was martyred trying to preserve the knowledge that made civilization possible, when most other survivors sought to erase the past in a misguided effort to avoid repetition of history through cultural amnesia. The mobs attempted to eradicate science and literature, blaming these for creating the technology that incinerated millions, and left millions more to die less merciful deaths. Leibowitz led a small band of folk who hid books from the mobs, and memorized others, something like the book people of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The new monastic order grew from these heroic and often deadly efforts to save books, repeating the Church’s earlier medieval roll as a repository of knowledge in a dark age. The story begins with the tale of one Brother Francis, who discovers a cache of pre-deluge material that quite likely is connected to the not yet canonized Leibowitz himself. His grim life and its times set the stage for the next phase in the restoration of civilization, a civilization that evolves pretty much along the path of its predecessor, with the same old greed and lust for power. In the end, over millennia, humanity not only restores what was lost in the nuclear fires of the Flame Deluge, it reaches further, sending human colonies out to the stars. But it would seem that even in a star-faring age, when people still give birth to monstrous reminders of a horrible past, certain lessons remain unlearned.
This is not a “fun” book to read, and it’s quite clear that it was never meant to merely entertain. The B-movie two-headed mutants sprinkled through the narrative illustrate the cost of ignorance, but never really challenge the rebuilding of civilization. They are a burden to it, instead; a reminder of a past that can be willfully ignored, but not truly forgotten, or left behind. It’s a grim and regrettably believable tale, especially for anyone who has made even a modest study of human history. This book asks uncomfortable questions of a sort that have no tidy answers. The writing is some of the best you will find in the genre, with characters as believable as they are at once flawed and determined. No, not the escapism so many assume all sci-fi to be. It is instead a compelling work of literature, and one you will either appreciate for its quality and its message, or hate for its grim reminder that those who refuse to learn history may very well be consumed by it. For while history can be deliberately rewritten, or willfully ignored, its consequences are inescapable. This, in the end, is what I believe Miller is trying to say, a message that remains for the most part ignored, even though the continued popularity of apocalyptic fiction reveals that we are not entirely unaware of our danger.