“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Wow. This is one great example of why I love science fiction. Lots of stuff in here to make you think – about history, morality, faith, technological progress, etc. Amazing that this book was written 50 years ago – doesn’t have much of the “cheese” factor that a lot of older SF had.

After civilization is almost completely destroyed in the nuclear holocaust in ~1970s (at one point there is discussion of who occupied the “White Palace” in the mid to late 60’s, so I’m guessing it’s shortly after that), the survivors blame science and technology and engage in the “Simplification,” where they destroy books and knowledge and murder as many scientists and engineers they feel were responsible for the devastation, thereby entrenching “cultural amnesia” as history and technology are largely forgotten – the Dark Ages are back again.

One engineer named Leibowitz managed to save some books and documents (“the Memorabilia”) and founded a Catholic order of monks out in the desert (somewhere in Arizona – New Mexico – Texas area, I’m guessing) devoted to preserving this knowledge before he was eventually killed. The story of Leibowitz isn’t directly told; his story is gleaned through the points of view of various monks/abbots of the abbey Leibowitz through the subsequent centuries. Three stories are examined.

First is the monk Francis, who discovers a previously unknown cache of documents from Leibowitz several hundred years after the “Flame Deluge.” Among them is a blueprint for some part that Leibowitz himself created, before the war. Francis spends 15 years making a beautiful, illuminated copy of the blueprint. When Leibowitz is to be canonized, Francis is chosen to travel to the ceremony at New Rome. On the way, he is stopped by robbers, who steal the illuminated copy, thinking it is the real thing. They say they will hold it for ransom if he brings them some gold. Francis is saddened, but realizes that his 15 years of work has preserved the original blueprint, which he presents to the Pope. Francis somewhat simple-mindedly goes back to the robbers later with some gold to retrieve his blueprint … they kill him.

Second (the weakest story in the book, IMO) is the story of Abbot Paulo. Several hundred more years have passed, and the hints of a Renaissance are strengthening. A scholar, Thon Taddeo, comes to review the documents preserved at the abbey. He is in the pay of a ruthless ruler plotting war and destruction. Paulo is upset by the thought of the gifts of the abbey (preserved history and scientific fact) being used to further conquest and political ambition; the foreshadowing is that civilization is headed down the same path that led to nuclear holocaust in the first place. Thon Taddeo disagrees: “If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, the world will never have it.”

The third story is the most powerful. Again several hundred years have passed, a full 1800 years since the first nuclear destruction, and now it is about to occur again. The abbey houses some refugees from one of the first nuclear strikes on a nearby city. The “Green Star” (Red Cross) arrives and wants to set up a “mercy camp,” where hopeless radiation cases are advised to go for euthanization. Abbot Zerchi vehemently objects; his faith can’t allow him to permit others to sin (murder/suicide) even if they don’t think it is wrong. Dr. Cors, the foil in his debate, contends that “Pain is the only evil” and “The laws of society are what makes something a crime or not” … ideas which are very prevalent in our world today. There is a powerful scene where Zerchi commands a woman not to take herself and her baby to the mercy camp, but police intervene and convince them to go. The abbey is destroyed in another nuclear strike. As Abbot Zerchi lies dying, he monologues about the mercy camps. “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law – a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.” and, to Dr. Cors’s assertion about pain being evil: “Why don’t you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn’t allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things.” As part of a contingency plan, a group of the monks leave on a starship to the colonies as nuclear bombs explode around the country. They carry with them the Memorabilia. It seems the Earth is doomed. Oh, and there is some weirdness with a lady with two heads in this third vignette. Hey, it’s science fiction.

Other points:

  • I liked how each abbot was very different. Francis’ Abbot Arkos is stern and strict, Paulo is gentle and kind, yet firm, and Zerchi is bold and zealous (he punches out Dr. Cors at the mercy camp).
  • I don’t get completely “Leibowitz”/Benjamin/the beggar … this is an old man who appears in all three stories. Who is he, really? How does he live so long? I think he is the “Wandering Jew”.
  • The monks are not credited one bit by society for saving the world’s history and science, by Taddeo or in the third story’s time (the police call Zerchi a “crazy kook” and the monks his “gang”).
  • I wonder if the author is Catholic? He seems to know a lot about it. Lots of Latin here and there.
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