The feast of St. Benedict is an appropriate day to write about A Canticle for Leibowitz, a science-fiction classic by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Just as monks preserved learning in the so-called Dark Ages, the author’s monks perform the same task after a nuclear holocaust.
Miller’s three-dimensional characters are memorable. One interesting character is a Jewish wanderer in the desert, who is searching for He. Because of his quest, no doubt for Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the wanderer represents a type of Everyman.
The clash of ideas between monks and scientists shows a microcosm of friction that points to a far-reaching, disastrous, and repetitive inevitability. Despite the dark undercurrents, though, the monks are witnesses to the fact that God provides hope and redemption through the Catholic Church. The book has a strong pro-life message relayed with such skill in vivid scenes that it evokes a powerful emotional response.
A Canticle for Leibowitz may be science fiction, but it also fits into the literary category. Flowing and sophisticated text highlight the book. Sparks of lapidary prose intersperse that lighten and contrast the weightier material, the sharp humor delivering laugh-out-loud moments. The pace is sometimes slower than readers of modern science fiction might expect, but perseverance yields the reward of an unforgettable story.
Some critics feel that the book, published in 1959, has an outdated emphasis on atomic-bomb paranoia. However, contemporary society may not obsess about nuclear threat, but the danger still exists, and Miller’s work is a chilling cautionary tale.
It’s impossible to discuss the book’s astounding ending without revealing too much, but the finale demands and merits much contemplation. In fact, every reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz guarantees new revelations.