Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Title: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Author: Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Publisher: Spectra Books
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A classic of science fiction and Catholic literature which gives a chillingly realistic portrayal of Catholic monks toiling in the Lord's vineyard in the wake of atomic apocalypse.
I must say the first thing that surprised me was all the overt and orthodox Catholicism. Written in 1959, the book portrays a future Church that is totally traditional, and is told from the perspective of members of The Order of St. Leibowitz, monks who live according to the Cistercian Rule.
The novel is actually a collection of three novellas, each taking place several centuries apart, each following the same dystopic future setting. The dystopia comes from a global nuclear war that took place some time in the mid-late 20th century, with the first novella taking place some 600 years later in a period of darkness and barbarism. In that time, the Church is (as it was c. 500 a.D.) the last stronghold of learning and knowledge.
I have to say that I enjoyed the first novella, which followed Brother Francis of Utah, a novice seeking his vocation in the Order who plays a key role in the canonisation of St. Leibowitz, and the third novella, which follows Abbot Zerchi, leader of the order in the next time of troubles, the most. The middle novella wasn't as masterful as the first and last, in my view, though it was still good.
One thing that impressed me about Miller's writing style was how he was able to portray traditionally Catholic life in a monastery, including prayers in Latin and the like, without coming across as preaching. At least, I didn't find it preachy, but the book sold over 750,000 copies so I think that many others had my impression of "non-preachiness" while immersing the reader in total Catholicism. This is a technique that I continue to struggle with in my own writing.
Perhaps part of the non-preachy tone of the book comes from the excellent characters that play central roles in the piece. They are all very human, with faults and strong points, yet their faults never give an impression of hypocrisy in their devotion and the confessional scenes were very well done. I loved the fact that all the characters in this book were believable, devoted Catholics who I could really relate to despite their monastic state versus my lay state.
Not only were the characters very strong, but the plot was quite well done. I made the mistake of reading the forward to the novel which totally gave away some of the main plot elements (which I am being careful not to do here), yet I still found the book highly enjoyable with a few unexpected twists. The portrayal of a post-nuclear holocaust world was chillingly believable. The depictions of the Church were very well done and traditional, with some well-concieved thoughts on what sorts of issues She might be wrestling with in the wake of a nuclear war and all that it brings. I thought it was a little Americo-centric to think that the papacy would relocate to the United States if Rome were annihilated in nuclear fire, but this didn't take away from the novel.
All in all, I can't really say enough good about this novel, which truly is a masterpiece. It is excellent science fiction with all the right elements of suspense, mystery, strong characters, and new societies.