Walter M. Miller Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
Author: Walter M. Miller Jr.
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
After the "Flame Deluge", the civilization of the world collapsed, with the few survivors lashing out and persecuting teachers, scientists, and politicians, who they blamed for the catastrophe. As in the previous Dark Age, the tattered remains of civilization are preserved in monastaries, only now electrical blueprints and scraps of physics textbooks are venerated as holy relics. The discovery of such relics by a young desert monk leads to tensions in his monastery, as they can influence the canonization process of its namesake, the "Blessed" technician Leibowitz. After this episode, we are flung 600 years into the future, as the monks of the order of Leibowitz prepare to welcome the great secular scholar Thon Taddeo, whose studies have greatly advanced understanding of pre-Deluge civilization. On the brink of renaissance, however, the ambitions of Thon Taddeo's patron Hannegan, leader of the nation-state of Texarkana, threaten the stability of the monastery as well as the entire region. The final episode opens another 600 years in the future, where mankind has reclaimed the culture and technology of the ancient times, along with the capability for worldwide nuclear destruction. As international tensions reach the crisis point, the monks of the Order prepare to send a delegation to the Centaurus Space Colony, to preserve the church in the event of a second Flame Deluge.
Geographical Setting: Texas-Utah-Colorado region of the former United States
Time Period: 3 episodes taking place in roughly 2600 AD, 3174 AD, and 3781 AD
Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a deep exploration of the impermanent nature of human civilization. It raises the question of whether humanity can escape the cycle of creation and destruction before it is not just nations and empires that fall, but the earth itself. Many now-standard elements of postapocalytic fiction, like deranged mutants, wandering scavengers, and desolate, sterile wastelands appear in this early book, but the emphasis is not on events on the physical, but the metaphysical sphere. Long philisophical discussions, packed with symbolism and untranslated Latin, make this book heavy reading. A Canticle for Leibowitz never fully explains the "true" history of its earth, but challenges the reader to find clues and hints scattered among its pages. This work lends itself well to multiple readings.
Read-alikes: A sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was unfinished at the time of Miller's death, but completed by Terry Bisson in 1997. Readers looking for a more optimistic, less dense exploration of the rebirth of civilization after nuclear disaster will find Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe (1989) a good match. This collection of short stories is also set in the Utah - Colorado area, and again places a religious group, in this case the Mormons, as the guardians of civilization. The church takes a very different role in Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts. In an alternate timeline, England's defeat at the hands of the Spanish Armada leads to its domination by the Catholic Church and the religious suppression of technological and cultural progress. The church of Margaret Atwood's Clarke Award-winning feminist take on the apocalypse, The Handmaid's Tale (1986), is even more authoritarian, establishing a "monotheocracy" in the 21st century United States, and forcing the few remaining fertile women into roles as birth machines for elite families. Religion is not a central theme in the Campbell Award-winning Malevil (1973) by Robert Merle, which raises issues of a more humanistic and political nature. The theme of nuclear war driving society back to the Dark Ages is made clear by the novel's small group of survivors taking refuge in a French medieval castle. A more character-focused exploration of postapocalyptic society can be found in George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949). In it, intellectual "Ish" Williams leads a group of survivors of a worldwide plague and witnesses the beginnings of their cultural descent. David Brin's The Postman (1985), another Campbell winner,is a cinematic tale of a wanderer who, by scavenging a USPS uniform and mailbag, unknowingly brings the hope of rebuilding an America that has descended to tribalism after nuclear and biological war.
Red Flags:Controverisal religious themes, euthanasia, references to cannibalism, monastic jargon and Latin quotations may baffle unfamiliar readers