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June 17, 2009

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is one of the few remaining classics that I hadn't read from my Apocalypse Watch reading list. I heard it talked about so much that I approached it with a lot of anticipation.

There will be spoilers in this review! I can't hold back I'm afraid.

The novel starts with a monastery, in a post apocalyptic world, with the monks trying to uncover and maintain the knowledge from before the disaster. A monk finds an underground bunker and gets involved in the politics surrounding such a discovery. At the point where the bunker was discovered the story had the potential to do a PKD and go cool and weird. Unfortunately it does not such thing and labours under heavy pretensions. The post apocalyptic world is barely explored, instead the focus is on the monks and the monastery and some dull politics.

The second third of the book shifts many years later, once again dipping into monastery, but now also telling a fantasy-eque tale of tribal lands and empires.

The final third of the book jumps again, to a comparable modern day situation. The monks are still there, the world is on the brink of nuclear war despite knowing all about the last apocalypse. There's a long ponderous argument about euthanasia, doctors recommending radiation sick patients kill themselves, the monks arguing otherwise. It gets very depressing. The war breaks out, apocalypse again, but luckily the monks have sent a team into space to start a new world. Space monks.

Such hard work. So tedious. So much annoying religion. I didn't enjoy it at all.

Of course we have to look at it in historical context. It was first published in 1960, based, rather obviously, on three short stories published in F&SF. In 1960 talking about the apocalypse and radiation sickness and euthanasia might have been pretty shocking. Perhaps that's an excuse? Perhaps in its day it had more of an impact? Yet look at it's contemporaries such as Alas Babylon, Earth Abides and Dr. Bloodmoney, books I think deal with the subject in better, more interesting and more timeless ways.

It was also interesting after reading this to think about Anathem again. Stephenson has taken the monastery trope and the knowledge curation trope from Leibowitz but done something different, and in my opinion much more interesting with it. Anathem doesn't really have the apocalyptic aspects, but it's a far better book. Don't bother with Leibowitz, if you want monks read Anathem, if you want apocalypse read Earth Abides.

1 Comment

I'll admit it's a tough read. I found I had to approach it in the right mood, and even then I didn't make it through the book until my third try. But once I was finaly able to do it, and digest it, I was quite impressed.

Firstly: Because it *is* unlike anything else. It's not *just* an apocalypse/end of the world tome. It shows some hope, some future, some progress, it shows that people could concievably survive a Nuclear War (An unpopular theory at the time), but that the survival comes at massive cost.

Secondly: I loved it not so much because of it's ruminations about Catholicism, but because it picked religion as the *one* institution that survived the initial apocalypse, the one thing that gives people hope to go on when there's clearly no point in it. Culture, history, patriotism, technology - all gone, but somehow Man's faith in God - and by extention, his faith in himself as God's favored creation - continues, and we just keep kicking along as a race, even though we've got no right to. The actual specifics of religion don't matter - it could just as easily have been Judaism or Islam or Sikhism or what have you.

Thirdly: I think this book nails the cycle of history better than just about anyone else: We're always picking ourselves up from the ashes and then blowing ourselves back in to them again. It's inherent in our nature. The resolution of the book - the idea that something has finally, fundamentally changed in the nature of the universe, and that we may finally be getting out of that cycle worked for me far, far, far better than that same basic plot device in 2001.

It's a very human book, very unique and hard to apprehend, it's own specific subgenre of science fiction. And of course Joe Straczynski hommaged it in an episode of Babylon 5.

None of which is to say that your opinions are wrong, that's just what I took away from it when I was finally able to plow through the damn thing.