Monday, December 30, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1961 Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M Miller, Jr
Read in fall semester 1981, late 2012, and completed again on 12/18/2013, reviewed 12/18/2013
5 stars

How do you review a book you love so much that you read it multiple times and after each reading, hold it in complete awe?  Canticle for Leibowitz is that book for me.  I find so many themes, ideas, and questions in it that I don’t know where to begin my review.  So I’m just going to start writing and see if I can communicate the profound effect this book has on me.

“Canticle” was originally written as three distinct short stories.  When Miller converted the stories into a novel, he made heavy revisions to create continuity while keeping each story distinct.   The first story is set in the post-apocalyptic dark ages of the 26th century.  Somewhere in the American Southwest, Brother Francis, a novice monk at the Albertian Order of Leibowitz abbey, finds what might be relics of Isaac Edward Leibowitz and his wife.  Leibowitz was an engineer who, after a great nuclear war, and coming to the conclusion that his wife was a casualty of the war, converts to Catholicism and starts a monastic order whose mission is to save books which are being purged by the angry rabble left in the war’s wake.  Leibowitz is discovered and martyred as one of the intellectual elite who contributed to the buildup of technology that caused the war.  The relics may lead to the canonization of Leibowitz.  The story details Brother Francis struggle as the discoverer of the relics and receiver of a possible vision of Leibowitz himself.

The second section is set 600 years later.  The abbey is at the center of controvery over its guarding of the ancient memorabilia of the 20th century.  Thon Taddeo, a brilliant scientist from a nearby kingdom, goes to the abbey to inspect the documents himself, discovering that the monks themselves have discovered how to generate electricity and create a light bulb based on the memorabilia and Thon Taddeo’s work.  The world appears to be at the dawn of new Renaissance.  But like the Renaissance of the 15th century, there is fighting between the kingdoms, conflict over the new discoveries, and a potential schism in the Church, not unlike that Henry VIII’s formation of the Church of England.

The third section takes us another 600 years into the future.  Now the abbey is coping with a world on the brink of another nuclear holocaust.  The current abbot, Dom Zerchi, has the task of selecting some of his monks to leave the earth in the event the war comes to fruition, taking the holy ancient memorabilia with them and keeping the Church alive on one of earth’s colonies.  Zerchi must also deal with the question of euthanasia for severe victims of radiation poisoning, and whether the second head of woman with a genetic mutation has its own soul. 

The three stories create a future history of the earth, covering a second dark ages, renaissance, and nuclear age, mimicking our own history after the fall of the Rome.  Once again, the Church saves science, although this time, it’s not Plato and Aristotle, and Euclid, but Newton, Einstein, and Leibowitz.  No one may still be able to understand the past, but the Church works to preserve it.  What’s different this time, at least according to the novel, is that the Church isn’t burning what may be heretical.  It’s the common people who are burning books, all books.

When I first read this book, I found it to be a criticism of Christianity.  Now I’m not so sure.  As another reviewer noted, it’s hard to tell if this is a critique of or a love letter to the Church.  For example, I initially thought the suffering of Brother Francis and the road to Leibowitz’s canonization was a statement about Church hagiography.  Now it feels more like an homage to stories like St Bernadette of Lourdes and the early missionary martyrs.  If you’ve seen the old film “Song of Bernadette” with Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price, might get the Lourdes analogy.

Another good example of my quandary is Dom Zerchi’s fight over euthanasia.  I can’t tell what side of the issue Miller was on.  In fact, the whole third section initially felt like he’s criticizing the theology of pre-Vatican II Rome.  But on my third read, I felt more like he was siding with the Church.  It seemed more like he was really speaking to the Church’s lack of moral authority in the secular present.  Yet, if Miller was siding with the Church’s stance on euthanasia, then the more ironic is Miller’s own death from suicide. 

Probably the most confusing point is his description of New Rome.  It is full of all the splendor and vulgarity of our Rome.  But upon closer inspection, the plaster is cracked and falling, the paintings are faded, and the pope’s vestments are worn and moth-eaten.  Again, at first I thought he was describing the fa├žade of Rome in the late ‘50’s.  It looks wondrous, but is it really just lipstick on a pig.  And is the pope just a nice, old, friendly guy, or is he just a doddering fool oblivious to the hardship of life on the plains?

I don’t have answers to any of my questions.  I just know it makes me want to read it again and again, and maybe even do some real research on Miller… I mean, besides Wikipedia.

Miller’s characterization is very strong.  I found that I could fully experience the viewpoints of all the main characters.  Brother Francis is my favorite character, maybe one of my favorite characters in all of SF.  He grows from being a terrified novice to a deeply spiritual monk.  His journey is at times comical, but is more often poignant and incredibly touching.  His innocence and reverence serve as a stark contrast to Abbot Arkos’ fear and cynicism.  As much as I love the whole book, I could read a whole novel just of him.

The hermit is an awesome character.  I love the question of whether or not he is Lazarus, as well as the mystery of a resurrected being.  If Lazarus was raised from the dead, then shouldn’t he be immortal, and what is the implication?  Here, he gets to be a comical character, offering interesting perspectives, often like a Greek chorus. 

I do not want to dissuade potential readers from discovering the magic of this book because of my quandary over what Miller’s message might be.  It is a brilliant book.  As I have read through all the Hugo winners, my experience with this book was the standard against which I held all the others.  This is what a 5 star book should be.



2 comments:

  1. I didn't initially rate this super high but it has stuck with me over time in a way that none of the other early hugo winners have. Really great, and I can't wait to reread it myself.

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    1. And this is a good one for a reread, as it is relatively short, and still has the feel of being three short stories.

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