If you know nothing about this book – and I didn’t know much about it before reading it, other than the fact that it was famous – here’s the gist: published in 1960, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo award for best novel in 1961. It’s a novel, but one made out of three short stories, each one set at different points in the future and each concerning the monks of a monastery in the desert of what is now the southern USA.
The first part, ‘Fiat Homo’, is set 600 years after a nuclear apocalypse has all but obliterated modern civilisation. What’s left resembles the Dark Ages of Europe, with only fragmentary knowledge remaining of the earlier time. The monastery is one founded by Beatus Leibowitz, a priest who, it turns out, was a Jewish scientist and who converted to Christianity in order to avoid the Simplification – the surge of destruction and murder of learning and the learned that followed the nuclear war. His monastery is a secret repository of knowledge. Helped by a mysterious pilgrim, the main character, a novice called Francis, discovers a fallout shelter (he believes that ‘Fallout’ was some kind of demon) containing holy relics – some notes and blueprints of once belonging to Leibowitz.
The second part, ‘Fiat Lux’, is set 600 years after that and sees the world having progressed somewhat, but not that much – the equivalent era of past history might be the Renaissance. Leibowitz has been made a saint and his fortified monastery (made from the ruins of the pre-Flame Deluge era) has become known as a repository of knowledge, attracting the attention of scholars and rulers.
The third part, ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’, is set a further 600 years after that and sees mankind having developed nuclear weapons and space-faring technology. With the prospect of a new all-out nuclear war looming, the monks of the monastery send a mission to one of Earth’s colonies in other solar systems in order to preserve the Apostolic succession should the Church be destroyed on Earth.
Each of these three parts started life as a short story, each published separately in magazines. Miller then rewrote them and glued them together to form this novel. This format works with mixed results. On the plus side, it gives you an idea of the grand procession of history and its depressingly cyclical nature. Each is linked not only by location, but by more subtle elements: each part of the book ends with violence, the magnitude of which escalates dramatically: the main character is murdered at the end of the first part, war sweeps across North America at the end of the second part and nuclear holocaust returns at the end of the final part; the abbot in the first part is called Arkos, while the abbot in the last part is called Zerchi, reminiscent of the Christian symbol of the Alpha and Omega and suggesting that the whole story represents everything important in human history.
On the other hand, these separate parts are separate narratives, meaning each one has to establish a new set of characters and a new plot, so the novel feels fractured and incomplete. They also diminish in quality: ‘Fiat Homo’, was the best – perhaps because it was so novel, but also because of its hapless hero; ‘Fiat Lux’ was also good and had an interesting interplay between the abbot and the scholar; ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ was OK; the return of high technology meant it didn’t have the same appeal as the earlier parts and it had some less interesting discussions – of the rights and wrongs of euthanasia, for instance.
The book contained a number of mysterious elements that were never explained. The prime example being a Jewish hermit who apparently turns up in all three parts and who may be the Wandering Jew or may be Leibowitz himself. A poet with a glass eye, which he takes out and sets on an upturned cup to watch over a meal after he leaves, may have been more than just an eccentric character. And the mutant extra head of a simple tomato-selling woman coming alive when the bombs go off was apparently a miracle, although a very bizarre one.
The writing was pretty good throughout. The novel opens with Francis spotting a wiggling dot in the distance – which turns out to be the mysterious Jew. This was great image, but really one of the few instances of especial poetry. There’s a lot of subtle humour in the book (for instance, Francis makes an illuminated copy of one of Leibowitz’s blueprints; everyone is amazed at the beauty of his work, so he’s sent to New Rome with both as a gift for the Pope; unfortunately he’s ambushed by a bandit who takes the copy believing it to be the original, while the ratty old blueprint is assumed to be Francis’s cack-handed copy), and it moves along at a fair pace – although a lot of what happens is conversation (for instance, while war engulfs the land or the world, the reader never sees it directly, but only through the speech and thoughts of the characters in the monastery).
A Canticle for Leibowitz appears to be a novel with a message – that message being the importance of religion as a preserver of knowledge, culture, tradition and morality. That’s not a message that appeals to me, but the book is undeniably evocative of the monastery as a lonely island of civilisation in a sea of barbarism (as I say, the final segment of the book lacks this feeling). Many of the obvious science fictional elements feel pretty dated – Abbot Zerchi has a translating machine that fills a cabinet, and he tries to fix it by fiddling with its wiring – another reason why the last part is the lesser of this particular trinity. The novel is also full of Latin – which gives it a unique feel of authenticity, but is not so easy to understand.
On the whole, though, definitely an interesting, entertaining and worthwhile read.