I was doing so well with my review writing until I got to this book, just plodding along reading and reviewing, reading and reviewing. And then I got to this fucker. Not only did it traumatize me the whole time I was reading it, but just the thought of writing about it felt like re-living that trauma (and this isn’t even taking into consideration that the task of writing about this book even without the added pressure of traumatization would be a difficult task). So I am now way behind on my reviews. Thanks a lot, Walter M. Miller, except you can’t read this because you’re dead (but we’ll get back to that later).
A Canticle for Liebowitz is a classic of the sci-fi genre, although there’s barely any science fiction in it at all, excepting the unexplained presence of one character and a bit of spaceship flim-flammery near the end. Mostly, it’s a story about how humanity is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again (and also a story about how part of making those mistakes is struggling against making them as well). Take the circular thematic nature and nuclear weapons of Battlestar Galactica + the social commentary of 1984 + monks and Catholicism and you’ll have a close approximation of A Canticle for Liebowitz. Actually — and I believe I said this in a status update or a tweet or something while I was reading — I think this book is better, or at least more relevant to us now today, than 1984 is.
Because did I mention about how it’s fucking terrifying?
The novel is structured essentially into three smaller novellas that intertwine with one another. The first begins in a post-apocalyptic, post-civilization wasteland, some seven hundred years after the world was annihilated by nuclear weapons and the surviving world’s citizens responded by blaming scientists and people of learning: burning books, spurning education, and lynching those related in the streets. The titular Leibowitz is revered by an order of Catholic monks deep in the desert as one of the few men to successfully attempt to preserve books and knowledge in the face of a world gone mad — for six hundred plus years they have been working to canonize him as a saint. Leibowitz himself was murdered in the streets, essentially turning him into a martyr, and now the monks in the Order of St. Leibowitz follow in his footsteps, working to preserve and further learning, and shed some light on places long kept in the dark.
The first section ends on a rather bleak note, setting the stage for parts two and three, which take place, respectively, right at the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, and at the second coming of the end of the world.
Miller’s novel takes place in a world almost completely devoid of hope, which is what made it such a devastating reading experience for me. He writes about fear and violence with a frightening accuracy, and the ending of the novel all but condemns humanity as a species, a pessimism which is only counterbalanced by the way his monks mix a love of learning with their faith in a higher power. I was raised Catholic so this especially hit home for me, seeing a world in which those who champion educational enlightenment and spirituality don’t necessarily have to be at each other’s throats. But even in the oasis of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, its inhabitants cannot be protected from the blunders of the species they belong to.
I’m not sure this is a book I’ll be reading again, and if I do it won’t be for years and years, but it was a book I’m glad I read the once, even if it was written by a man who was so disillusioned by the world that he eventually killed himself rather than having to face it any longer. I think books like this are important in making us ask ourselves tough questions, but I’m also the kind of person who prefers to look at the world with a little bit more optimism, so this kind of story isn’t one I’d like to read often. Especially if the ending is going to give me nightmares for weeks. I mean, seriously, you guys? It’s pretty fucked up. Smart and really well done, but fucked up nonetheless, which is what is keeping me from giving what might otherwise be called a modern masterpiece five stars.