Book Review – A Canticle for Leibowitz

Canticle – song used in liturgical services

When looking through the Hugo winners of the past I discovered this book as a winner. I wondered because one of the other nominees that year was Deathworld by Harry Harrison.  It seemed strange to me that Deathworld would lose to a book which I had never heard of at the time.  Having read it now for the first time, I would say I can understand the dilemma.  For my part it would have been close as both books are not only well written but imaginative as well.  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ultimately would have prevailed; I think, because it dealt closer with real life issues at the time.

The book opens after the nuclear holocaust that was so feared in the 1950s.  In many ways nuclear war at the time was not a mutually assured destruction thing.  It was not until the massive proliferation of ICBMs and multi warhead missiles that the nuclear war people theorized became the complete end of human existence.  In the days of bombs and bombers, most people thought humanity would survive but not civilization as we knew it.

The book takes place mostly around an abbey dedicated to Leibowitz who was an electrical engineer and a survivor of the holocaust.  The monks seem to indicate that he turned to religion after this to save what knowledge could be saved after the nuclear war.  The book is three parts that are separated by centuries of time.  The first part deals with the issue of getting Leibowitz canonized as a saint.  The second part deals with the opening of the knowledge of the abbey to the intellectual community.  Part three deals with the abbey and the church dealing with the fact that this opening of knowledge has led humanity back to the same end of nuclear annihilation.

From a literature point of view this is a remarkable well written book.  Its use of Latin and Hebrew is superb and adds to the charm of the book.  My Latin is not at all that good but I understand the beauty of it in this story.  The story is engaging although one character is never resolved – Lazarus the Hebrew.  Other than that, the book flows well and does not insult your intelligence.

The central theme is the interplay between science and religion.  The issue addressed is knowledge verses wisdom.  Sure we can do things with science, but does that mean we should do those things.  Asking the question of are we ever going to be wise enough to stop history repeating itself is one of the great things that kept me going in this book.  Tons of other sub themes and I strongly suspect that every time I would read this book I would pick up something new.  It is that good.  The ultimate saving grace of humanity is that the colonization of the stars saves the race from itself.

As a libertarian, I dislike it when people keep knowledge from advancing and yet at the same time I also know humanity enough to realize that at times we are not wise enough to handle what we know.  I think the book addresses this issue well and does not so much offer answers but gets you to think about the issue.

As a theist but Non-Catholic, I felt like someone who (because of ignorance) does not always get the joke but understands the message. Religion has at times been the preserver of knowledge, but it has also been a source of misery for not being practical enough or being too overly superstitious to realize when that knowledge needs to be released to alleviate human suffering.   At the same time, religious figures often cause people to ask themselves whether things are being done with moral understanding.  Double edged sword.

I definitely would recommend this book. It has an honored place on my shelf.  It is simply a very realistic view of  the science verses religion dichotomy during the rebuilding of society after it is destroyed by nuclear war.  It is intelligently written and I suspect I would like it even more if my Latin was better.

Next Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin from A Song of Ice and Fire.  Yes, I am reading something fairly new and I will probably pick up the first season of the series from HBO to watch and review as well.  After I read the books of course.

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I read this book some years ago; I think there’s still a copy on my bookshelf. It was good, but so depressing that I’ve avoided the author ever since.