A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller

A summary, review and analysis of this classic science fiction novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Walter M Miller. Released in 1960 to mixed reviews, it is now rightly considered a classic work of science fiction.

A Canticle for Leibowitz – Summary

A Canticle For Leibowitz opens after a nuclear war has devastated the planet. Human society is undergoing a period termed ‘the simplification’, where illiterate rampaging hordes burn books and attack anyone with any degree of learning. The titular Leibowitz was an engineer dedicated to preserving knowledge. He did this by hiding and memorizing books, until he too was burned for his actions. For whatever reason, Leibowitz’s actions inspired the founding of a monastic order. This order is also devoted to preserving knowledge. The novel is split into three parts:

Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man)

The first story follows the hapless Brother Francis. An unusual meeting in the desert throws Brother Francis into the middle of a theological argument as to whether Leibowitz should be canonized or not.

Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)

The Order of St. Leibowitz continues its mission to preserve knowledge, but the world around it has moved on. If the previous section of the novel took place in a futuristic dark age, then this is a futuristic renaissance. Sadly, alongside the technological resurgence, the rise of the nation-state is also evident.

On one hand, the monks are hosting a brilliant academic and showing off rediscovered inventions that can take the world into a new age of enlightenment. But, on the other, a new nation is rising through manipulation and cruel conquest.

Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done)

The world enters its 40th Century in a more advanced state than it was pre-nuclear war. There are human colonies spread out amongst the stars, but superpowers on Earth have once more armed themselves with nuclear weapons. As new nuclear holocaust seems inevitable, the Order of St. Leibowitz makes plans to forsake the Earth and take a starship to found a new colony on another planet.

A Canticle for Leibowitz – Themes and Analysis

The Relationship Between Religion and Science

A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the few science fiction works to paint religion in a positive light. Walter M Miller shows the danger of the pursuit of scientific advancement without some sort of spiritual overview. Through this, the novel asks the reader to wonder if perhaps scientific progress without moral oversight could lead to anything other than disaster?

The novel balances this by discussing the necessity, or not, of following some of the Catholic Church’s more barbaric rules.

Perhaps Miller has a point. Especially if you replace the religion with basic morality. With the advent of AI and automation of the workforce upon us, perhaps the world would be a better place if we gave morality more prominence in our society than the thirst for technological advancement.

History isn’t a straight line – it’s a circle

A Canticle for Leibowitz starts after a nuclear holocaust and ends with one apparently imminent. If that sounds pretty bleak, it’s because it is.

Society often makes the mistake of believing that progress is always a straight line. That societies technological advancement will continue at its current rate. This is a fallacy, just because we are more advanced than we were 50 years ago doesn’t mean than it in a 100 years time we will be more advanced than we are today. Just look what happened in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

In A Canticle For Leibowitz, the only thing that stopped the world falling into complete darkness is organized religion. As an atheist, this isn’t an idea I would usually give much credence. But Miller’s novel does make you face the fact that, at times in history, religion has done just that.

The battle between Church and State

The birth of the nation-state is bloody and brutal in A Canticle for Leibowitz. And from its very inception is in conflict with the Church. The separation of Church and State is something we in the west are, rightly, very proud of. It’s something that guarantees our basic freedoms and protects us from living under a theocratic dictatorship.

The separation of Church and State also goes a long way towards explaining why the West is so technologically advanced. A Canticle for Leibowitz shows the dark side of this. While the nation may protect our freedoms, it is not in itself a moral body and wars between nations are inevitable. A Canticle for Leibowitz suggests that by removing religion entirely from government war is inevitable. And total war probable.

I’m not sure I agree with many of the apparent conclusions of A Canticle for Leibowitz. But the questions themselves are worth considering. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book fundamentally about life and the soul. It’s also perhaps unique in science fiction, and anyone who enjoys reading works of classic science fiction should make sure they read this novel.

This is one of many reviews of classic science fiction books on the Stranger Views blog, or you can take a look at our list of the best science fiction books of all time.

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