This is my latest installment about books that are the pride of my collection. I occasionally read them again for the pleasure of savoring first-rate writing.
When Walter M. Miller, Jr. wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1959, his novel straddled a borderline between science fiction and stark probability. The United States and the Soviet Union were building up nuclear arsenals and aiming their weapons at each other. It seemed insane, yet certain, that one or the other would launch a war that neither side could win.
In Miller’s vision, the battle is over. Six centuries have passed, and the American landscape is wasteland in a new dark age. Power rests in the hands of roving bands of mutants, cannibals and warriors. The only central authority is the Church, which preserves the tattered remnants of American history in its abbeys.
One day Brother Francis, a young novice monk at an abbey somewhere in Utah, discovers the ruins of a fallout shelter. Like his superiors, he has no idea what it is because documents from the past make only vague references to something called “the Flame Deluge,” which destroyed a once-mighty civilization and resulted in “the mobs of the Simplification.” The monk’s discovery is significant, however, because it may help the abbey’s campaign to win sainthood for a martyred scientist named Isaac Edward Leibowitz.
What makes this narrative special is the way Miller challenges the reader. Seen through the eyes of religious leaders, the past is a murky mess held together only by a thread of faith reaching back to the birth of Christianity. Somehow, the Church has survived, and the abbey is an oasis in a desert of chaos. Generation after generation, the monks continue their traditions, worship rituals, and efforts to preserve the shreds of history.
To me, the heart of the novel is the conversations and arguments among monks and visiting dignitaries, flavored by a mysterious old John the Baptist-like character named Benjamin. He personifies the Wandering Jew, still awaiting the Messiah while claiming to bear the burden of humanity’s sins.
Eventually, signs appear that a new Renaissance is at hand, and with it, the threat that history may repeat itself. At a dinner to honor a visiting scholar, an irreverent wag known as the Poet remarks to him, “They say you are writing equations that will one day remake the world. They say a new light is dawning. If there’s to be light, then somebody will have to be blamed for the darkness that’s past.” His point is well-taken. Is the world doomed to rebuild the weapons with which it destroyed itself?
Fifty-two years since Miller published his novel, the threat of a holocaust still hovers over our planet. Today, nine nations possess the nuclear weapons capable of reducing civilization to rubble. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a beautifully-penned and sobering reminder that we still have the power to direct our fate, if only we will learn from the past.