Friday, February 5, 2010

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

I think I first saw this book on the 100 Writers of Faith list. Although I struggle to enjoy science fiction, I decided to give it a try because it grapples with theological issues. Locus magazine has voted A Canticle for Leibowitz the best all-time science fiction novel THREE times and I thought that ought to count for something too.

The story opens in the desert of the Western United States 600 years after a nuclear holocaust. The survivors decide to save the world from another “Flame Deluge” by killing all scientists who could create further nuclear weapons. This led to the eradication of all educated people (and books) through a movement called “The Great Simplification”. A small order of monks (the Albertian Order of Leibowitz) took it upon themselves to preserve the few remaining printed documents.

I was not sure if I liked this book at first. Its three sections did not flow together very well. (Later I read that Miller joined three separate novellas by re-writing some parts to make them more cohesive.) Frequent use of Latin phrases also added to its choppiness and one scene at the end of the book was downright weird.

BUT as I began writing my post and reviewing the quotes that I’d copied down, I realized why people love this book. Miller’s insights into the themes of suffering, the purpose of knowledge, euthanasia, and original sin will take your breath away. None of the three sections end happily and yet somehow you retain a wisp of hope. Of course, I liked the fact that the Church played a part in the possibility of redemption, but this is not a “preachy” book. The religious folks are divided between the God-fearing and the power hungry – just as they are in real life.

Here is a sample of Miller’s impressive writing style:
The sun blazed its midday heat upon the parched land, laying its anathema on all moist things. (p.16)

On death: There was tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons; then there were aches and pains, finally, Extreme Unction, and a moment of blackness at the end – or at the beginning, rather. (p.84)

A world smug in its illiteracy (p.96)

Euthanasia: The false god of expedient mercy (p.302)

“If I thought I had such a thing as a soul…I might agree with you.” Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily. (p.281)


Laura said...

I'm glad you reviewed this book. I was familiar with the title, but knew nothing of the plot.

Phyllis said...

Great review, great quotes! I found the book thoroughly engrossing when I read it last summer, and definitely one I want to reread some day since there was so much that went over my head and so much to think about. I think I know what you mean by the "weird" scene, but I also think there must be a lot of symbolism there that I'd like to study and reflect on further; I thought it was extremely fascinating.

DebD said...

I had mixed feelings about this book and enjoyed the 2nd and 3rd parts the most - especially the issues you bring up. I couldn't even write a cohesive review myself! There were good things to chew on, but I don't know that I'd put it on my list of top reads.

I enjoyed your review..thanks!

Girl Detective said...

I recently read and enjoyed this one, too. Which weird scene did you mean--with Mrs. Grales/Rachel and the abbot at the end?

I wondered at the scene of Brother Joshua deliberating at the bush--was it the old man in the bush, the wandering Jew, and had he finally found the messiah he'd been searching for?

So much to think about with this book, and it was interesting for me to read after another post apocalytic tale, McCarthy's The Road.

hopeinbrazil said...

Hello Girl Detective, Yes, the scene with Rachel smiling was rather odd. I enjoyed Miller's references to the Wandering Jew (you mentioned it in your post if I recall). Although I'd heard the term I'd never seen it used in literature before. Fascinating.

Janet said...

This is a new title to me. Your review makes me very curious about it.

I can handle science fiction in small doses. :-) Maybe I'll try this after I recover from 'The Hunger Games.'

Jenny said...

I absolutely loved this book, which I didn't anticipate AT ALL when I first started it - Miller's writing is so gorgeous. I really need to get some of his short stories!

JoAnna said...

I LOVE the last quote! said...

I'll be adding this to my list for the year. Love your blog!