Book Review: A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle For Liebowitz could probably be considered one of the classics of science fiction. I’ve heard it mentioned for years. J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, inadvertantly wrote part of an episode that parallels the novel. It’s been recommended by the Writing Excuses guys. Even a friend of mine at work (Hi, Cliff!) was reading it one day when I encountered him in the lunchroom. So I put it on my list, and finally picked up on audiobook.

The premise is simple: Mankind has wiped itself out in a nuclear war, and the survivors are slowly rebuilding. An order of monks has arisen, dedicated to preserving the knowledge of the past. Dedicated to “The Blessed Liebowitz”, a scientist who survived the Flame Deluge and became a monk who sought to save knowledge from a spiteful humanity determined to eliminate all pre-holocaust information, the order have become the keepers of “the memorabilia”, a collection of any books, diagrams, or writing they could find. The novel traces the history of the recovering world through the history of the Order of St. Liebowitz over a period of several thousand years.

Written during the Cold War, the book is far from optimistic about mankind and its future. But by keeping the story on a personal level, Miller avoids much of the didacticism that might have been. When Miller lectures he does so through his characters who, as monks, are natural preachers, so it’s not unexpected nor out of place. In spite of that the novel has little to say on god and religion and much to say about the nature of man. And while we seem to have avoided the fate Miller predicted for us, I’m not certain he was entirely wrong, either.

As a non-Catholic I found the religious aspects of the book interesting. I don’t know how accurate they are, and would be quite happy for anyone who would care to enlighten me on that point, but even if erroneous, it was not done maliciously. Miller seems to have a great deal of respect for Catholicism and the moral dilemmas and responsibilities of the priesthood. Each character in each time period is unique and interesting. I felt for Brother Francis, who inadvertantly finds some original artifacts of The Blessed Liebowitz and finds himself caught up in church politics beyond his comprehension. At times it seems as though he is the only honest man. He deserved a better fate than he gets, but it’s still quite in keeping with the tone of the novel.

I found Miller a solid, evocative writer. He layers meaning into his work, but doesn’t let them interfere with the story. There’s more there to be found, to be sure, but I don’t feel foolish for not having looked harder. Miller has a dry, even sarcastic, wit, and I found myself laughing out loud at parts that may not have been meant to be humorous (though I like to think Miller was aware of it and meant it to be).

The novel was not originally meant to be a novel, but began as a pair of short stories published in science fiction magazines of the time. Miller later realized he had the foundations of a novel and set about knitting the pieces together into something greater than the whole. I believe he succeeded. The novel is simple, yet complex, compelling on a personal level, and filled with hope in the midst of inescapable pessimism. There are odd, unexplained and unfulfilled pieces, such as the character of Lazarus, but that incompleteness manages to be a feature rather than a bug. The structure of the novel as three separate stories within the same setting promotes acceptance of “loose ends.” There are simply too many loose ends to worry over them.

In many ways the novel is much like the lives of the monks it details: Uncomplicated, unhurried, isolated, and thoughtful. I was never in a great hurry to pick it up again, but it was never far from my mind, either. It sits in my mind like a well-worn, comfortable couch rather than a “gigawatt monster” (I don’t recall who originated that term, but I like it) that insists on attention. In many ways it’s quite the opposite of another book I recently read, and yet it was every bit as enjoyable, and may have more lasting impact on me than the other.

I enjoyed this book, and I will likely read it again. There is a reason it’s considered a classic. There is much, as a writer, I can learn from Miller.

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3 Responses to Book Review: A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

  1. I may have been too simple when I read this the first time. You certainly got more out of it than I did, but I did enjoy it, and I may need to go back and re-read it again. But, like you, I really had unsatisfied interest in the Lazarus character.

  2. There’s nothing saying we have to like the same things in books. Though our tastes are closer there than in music, perhaps, there’s still plenty we don’t align over.

  3. I wasn’t expressing a dislike of the story, I just didn’t see as much in it as you did. i suspect that I had not yet your level of sophistication and experience. I read it MANY years ago. If there is that much depth to it, I would like to get a more complete experience.

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