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

Publication date: 1960
Original language: English


The novel begins some six centuries after nuclear war destroyed twentieth-century civilisation. The anti-scientific backlash which followed this disaster led to almost total illiteracy amongst the survivors, who murdered intellectuals and destroyed books. The monastic order of Leibowitz was founded in the American desert to try to preserve learning by smuggling books to safe places and making copies of them. The circumstances behind the founding of the order and the identity of the iconic Leibowitz are slowly revealed as the novel progresses.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is split into three sections. The first, Fiat Homo, describes the discovery of some relics of the Blessed Leibowitz in a fallout shelter in the desert. The second, Fiat Lux, set in the year 3174, chronicles the beginning of a Renaissance, as half-remembered scientific and technical knowledge is picked up by scholars. The final section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, begins in 3781. Nuclear weapons and space travel have been redeveloped, and the two superpowers of the third millennium, the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, are at a very fragile standoff. The development of the situation depends on mankind's ability to listen to reason and to learn from its mistakes.

Why you must read this book

Even those who hate sci-fi will admit that this is a classic. The transcendent themes of cyclicality and the inescapable nature of history is beautifully dramatised here, alongside the eternal question of the value of learning. The brutality of the post-war “Simplification", in which the literate are murdered and their books burned, is chilling, and yet we are called to question whether the arrogance and greed of the twentieth century nuclear powers was – or is – any less inhuman. The critique of technological advancement for its own sake may have become almost cliché to us, but this novel demands that we make that critique without irony and bearing in mind the real political consequences of our social setup.

Miller has an amazing depth of understanding of human nature and uses it to provide a narrative which never once rings false in its presentation of characterisation and motivation. The grand sweep of political history and the relationship between Church and State form a solid background to the novel, yet it is in the minutiae of everyday life for the monks of the Order of Leibowitz that the real pathos and drama are revealed.

Apart from being a rare sci-fi literary classic, however, this is also an absolute page-turner. The story is inexorable and it is almost impossible to break off from reading it.

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