Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s classic (and Hugo award-winning) 1960 post-apocalyptic novel. I read a Bantom Books mass market paperback; a very good printing at a very fair price (and my favorite cover for the book that I’ve seen).
4 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 2
After a 20th-century nuclear war causes most survivors to destroy every remnant of learning and science, a monastery dedicates itself to preserving humanity’s past, believing there will be a time when men seek knowledge again.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a bleak book, not so much enjoyed as endured. If you are depressed, feeling down, or easily drop into fear-of-death malaise, hold off on this one.
The construction is interesting; we get three (mostly) self-contained novellas, spanning several hundred years after the fall of man. The first two stories are technically set in the future but feel like the past, showing monks and a monastery suited for a historical novel. Part three becomes science fiction and Miller pulls off all angles pretty well.
Our protagonists are mostly men of faith confronted with tests and trials. But Leibowitz is not a typical faith vs. knowledge piece. Miller doesn’t make those who oppose the monks (or those the monks oppose) into villainous caricatures. Both sides make valid arguments and try to reason in intelligent ways. The focus of the novel suggest that the monks are Miller’s heroes but there’s a sad and depressing undercurrent; Miller doesn’t quite buy what he’s selling. He lacks the conviction of his characters. The entire work seems like a dialogue of a man trying to convince himself of his faith and unable to get past his own logic.
This is the major strength of the book and what makes it so interesting. I think you can come to this from any belief (or non-belief) and relate to something here. The thing I can’t follow Miller on is the blame he puts on inventors and scientists. From his perspective, the first annihilation was their fault and the second one will be, too. He seems to forget that damage, death and destruction from technology often goes hand-in-hand with religion.
He also uses a tremendous amount of Latin and my two years of high school Latin didn’t help. I usually look up translations in my reading but I quickly decided that if Miller didn’t care enough to give his audience translations, I wasn’t going to waste my time looking them up.
 Part I: Fiat Homo
Takes place in approximately 2560 (six hundred years after the “Deluge” that, from context seems to have happened in the 1960s). “Fiat Homo” apparently means “Let There Be Man.”
Legless, but wearing a tiny head, the iota materialized out of the mirror glaze on the broken roadway and seemed more to writhe than to walk into view.
Saint Raul the Cyclopean, patron of the misborn.
Invented for the book. I assume Raul was a man who was born with only one eye after the Deluge.
 The most compelling character (and the only one to appear onscreen in all three stories) is the wandering man, Lazarus:
The pilgrim was a spindly old fellow with a staff, a basket hat, a brushy beard, and a waterskin slung over one shoulder.
“He must be well over a hundred.”
“Three thousand, two hundred and nine, so he says.”
[The hermit] wore a basket hat and a loincloth of rough homespun that resembled burlap – his only clothing except for sandals and a goat-skin water bag.
“One of [the novices] once mistook me for a distant relative of mine – name of Leibowitz. He thought I had been sent to deliver him a message – or some of your other scalawags thought so. I don’t want it to happen again, so I throw pebbles at them sometimes – Hah! I’ll not be mistaken for that Kinsman again, for he stopped being any kin of mine (…) I think Francis was that one’s name. Poor fellow. I buried him later. Told them in New Rome where to dig for him. That’s how you got his carcass back.”
Giving the first clue of his true identity, the pilgrim/wanderer tells an abbot he’s looking for:
“Someone who shouted at me once.”
“ ‘Come forth!’ ”
Lazarus of Bethany, also known as Saint Lazurus or Lazarus of the Four Days, is the subject of a prominent miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of John. (John 11:43: Now when [Jesus] had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”)
An old beggar clad in burlap paused to listen to the wind.
One of the children soon noticed the old tramp who stood across the roadway, and presently a shout went up: “Lookit, lookit! It’s old Lazar! (…) same one ‘ut the Lor’ Hesus raise up!”
But this, oddly, is the last reference to Lazarus in the book. After three hundred pages of seemingly building to something, the old man drops out of the tale. We have no idea of his fate. Where is he during the final attack? Does he see Rachel? Does he recognize/identify what she is?
“If it’s meat you want, I’m nothing but gristle, but I’ll fight to keep it.”
The vulgar dialects of the people had neither alphabet nor orthography.
noun – the conventional spelling system of a language.
Dark alternatives to the Paraclete whose coming he awaited.
(in Christian theology) the Holy Spirit as advocate or counselor.
He had finally learned that house cat did not mean cat house.
Brother Francis encountered, near some parched arroyo, a small heap of human bones.
An arroyo, also called a wash, is a dry creek, stream bed or gulch that temporarily or seasonally fills and flows after sufficient rain.
Clearly, the [skeletal] person had died on the spot, struck down by the torrent of stones and half buried by the debris. Only the skull and the bones of one leg had not been covered. The femur was broken, the back of the skull was crushed.
The last death of the book (Abbot Zerchi) parallels this; a man crushed under debris. Ironically, Zerchi discovers Francis’ skull while trapped and dying (Post 2, note ), while Francis is the one to discover this skull hundreds of years earlier.
This line of questioning was puzzling to Brother Francis. In his own mind, there was no neat line separating the Natural from the Supernatural order, but rather, an intermediate twilight zone.
The use of the phrase “twilight zone” is interesting here. Though the term existed (used mostly by pilots, I think), Rod Serling’s television series popularized it to mean a supernatural, spooky, strange realm. Miller seems to be using it in the way Serling would, but I have the feeling both men hit on the phrase somewhat independently. The stories that would make up Leibowitz began to be published around 1955, the novel released in 1960 (reworking the original short stories); The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959.
The abbot, by raising the question at all, had formulated the nature of Brother Francis’ answer, which was: to entertain the question itself, although he had not previously done so.
“They don’t think up questions like that on the basis of what might be true; they concoct the questions on the basis of what might be sensational if it just happened to be true.”
 Typo or weird use of word?
It is nevertheless meet and fitting and prudent.
It somewhat works, in the sense of the word meaning “fulfill or satisfy (a need, requirement, or condition)” but I’ve never heard anyone use “meet” this way without a noun.
Besides dying in battle, there was very little that he could think of to do in his lifetime – little that seemed worth the doing – if he could not devote it to the Order.
Leibowitz had won permission from the Holy See to found a new community of religious, to be named after Albertus Magnus, teacher of Saint Thomas, and patron of men in science.
The Holy See, also referred to as the See of Rome, is the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, the episcopal see of the Pope, and an independent sovereign entity. It serves as the central point of reference for the Catholic Church everywhere. It is often informally referred to as “the Vatican,” but the Holy See is not the same entity as the Vatican City State. The word “see” comes from the Latin word “sedes”, meaning “seat.”
Albertus Magnus (~1200-1280), also known as Saint Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, was a German Catholic Dominican friar and bishop, later canonized as a Catholic saint. The Catholic Church distinguishes him as one of the 36 Doctors of the Church.
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was an Italian and Dominican friar, Catholic priest, and Doctor of the Church. He was the foremost classical proponent of natural theology and the father of Thomism; of which he argued that reason is found in God. In 1245 Thomas was sent to study at the Faculty of that Arts at the University of Paris, where he most likely met Dominican scholar Albertus Magnus, then the holder of the Chair of Theology at the College of St. James in Paris.
 The prose is stiff and trying very hard to be literary. It succeeds for the most part (it sure sounds like Literature-with-a-capital-L) but doesn’t feel like the work of an author who finds satisfaction in the right words or sees beauty in language. This reads like the work of a man who agonized over every sentence before going to the next; viewing this task like pulling teeth:
The abbot’s frown, Brother Francis had come to observe, was the causative source of radiant energy which traveled through space with finite velocity and which was as yet not very well understood except in terms of its withering effect upon whatever thing absorbed it, that thing usually being a postulant or novice. Francis had absorbed a five-second burst of the stuff by the time the next question was put to him.
I think this is supposed to be humorous but it’s awkward as hell and the metaphor doesn’t fit the story. Brother Francis is in a setting where all scientific knowledge is lost or misunderstood. These people don’t know what space is anymore, or atoms, or electrons. They’re still trying to piece together the past. He wouldn’t have access to this language in his thoughts.
Throughout the book, people use idioms and references and colloquialisms that likely would have been lost in the Deluge (someone says that, as a man, he is made of “puppy dog tails” at some point). It’s very weird. Like so:
“Not at all,” said the scholar, looking a bit doubtful, as if thinking et tu, Brute.
He redrew a mandala abstraction, titled “STATOR WNDG MOD 73-A 3-PH 6-P 1800 RPM 5-HP CL-A SQUIRREL CAGE,” which proved completely incomprehensible, and not at all capable of imprisoning a squirrel.
A squirrel-cage rotor is the rotating part of the common “squirrel cage” induction motor. The name is derived from the similarity between the motor rotor rings-and-bars winding and a squirrel cage. The first patent for an induction motor was received in 1888 by Nikola Tesla. In 1889, Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky developed a wound-rotor induction motor, and shortly afterward the cage-type rotor winding.
It appeared to be no more than a network of lines connecting a patchwork of doohickii, squiggles, quids, lamnulae, and thingumbob.
quid – a lump of tobacco for chewing (variant of cud).
lamnula – (Latin) – a little plate of metal.
In a dark sea of centuries, wherein nothing seemed to flow, a lifetime was only a brief eddy, even for the man who lived it.
A prothonotary apostolic.
noun – (historical) – a chief clerk in some courts of law, originally in the Byzantine court.
Brother Huntsman snared plump quail and chaparral cocks for the guest’s table.
Roadrunners are also known as chaparral birds or chaparral cocks. They are found in the southwestern United States and Mexico, usually in the desert.
For men to take it upon themselves to judge any creature born of woman to be lacking in the divine image was to usurp the privilege of Heaven.
“Eat? Eat?” cried one of the robed creatures on the hillside.
“Not this time,” barked the robber. “Too scrawny.”
Brother Francis was not entirely convinced that they were talking about the donkey.
 First mention of females:
Several women, all of whom seemed to be wives or concubines – as best Francis could judge by their actions – of the “converted” clan chief of the panther people; or perhaps they were ex-concubines put away by canon but not by tribal custom.
Women hardly exist in the world of Leibowitz. None get speaking roles until Part III (and, even then, the first is known as “Lady Reporter” (p.247), though the male reporters are “First Reporter” and “Second Reporter”, not “Man Reporter 1”). Even through the Deluge and the Age of Simplification, when literacy was seen as a curse and every written remnant of society was burned and destroyed, humanity still remembered to treat women like shit, refer to them as concubines, and not allow them to be monks or scientists or inventors or leaders.
In Part II, a group of non-literate warrior types have sentiments like:
“Killing captives is woman’s work.”
Secrecy was essential, even if it seemed womanly for a time.
If this group totally shunned the history that came before the Deluge, isn’t it convenient that they fell into such classically sexist thoughts and roles? Miller might not realize it but he’s saying that sexism is not cultural but a biological/genetic inevitability to be “discovered” again and again even if all earlier culture is vanished. (It’s also annoying that the “literate, grass-eater” group uses titles like Kingdom, Prince, Duke while the “warrior, meat-eaters” use “chief,” “clans,” “totem,” “shaman.”)
 Every character we get to know dies, often on screen in abrupt, unsentimental, and upsetting ways. On my first read, it threw me off-balance. On my second, it was hard to connect to anyone, knowing how it was going to end. The deaths are written very well, don’t get me wrong, but Christ, how depressing. Most of us read to escape reality. Miller smacks it back around into our faces.
Together, the Pope’s children stole quietly from behind their brush table and crept down the side of the hill.
They advanced to within ten yards of Francis before a pebble rattled. The monk was murmuring the third Ave of the Fourth Glorious Mystery of the rosary when he happened to look around.
The arrow hit him squarely between the eyes.
“Eat! Eat! Eat!” the Pope’s child cried.
 Last lines of Part I:
Eventually it was the Year of Our Lord 3174.
There were rumors of war.