- Craig Graziano
Forget the Hunger Games. A Canticle for Leibowitz is the grandaddy of all post-apocalyptic novels. In it, Walter M. Miller Jr. eloquently dissects the nature of mankind in a moving manner that is also surprisingly funny.
Earth has been so devastated by nuclear war that modern society has regressed back into a new dark age, one which contains barbarian two-headed mutants roaming the wilds of America. Hundreds of years after the blast, a group of monks in a Southwestern abbey tirelessly try to salvage some glimmer of a once great civilization.
The novel is divided into three sections, each slightly over 100 pages. We start with the abbey trying to canonize Leibowitz, a scientist from the 20th century who was martyred for smuggling books at a time of severe anti-intellectualism. Knowledge, according to the few survivors of the blast, is what led to such wretched destruction.
One young, sort of dopey novice named Brother Francis discovers a fallout shelter in the desert. He is terrified, knowing that the word "fallout" means something bad. It could possibly even be a demon. This door is sheltering at least one, maybe more!
What he actually finds inside are documents that could make or break the canonization of Leibowitz. We follow Brother Francis' discovery and the reaction of New Rome, as well as the abuse long-suffering Francis receives from his domineering, paranoid abbot.
We jump ahead several centuries and society advances to a sort of enlightenment period, where philosophers and natural scientists are striving for the same goal as the monks but for very different purposes. The main conflict in this section is whether the monks should share what they've discovered and preserved. Even the development of an electric lamp causes much hand-wringing and tension. Sharing scientific advancements might lead to the same disaster that occurred centuries earlier.
In the third part of the book, society catches up and even surpasses 20th-century technology. With that, comes mass weaponry as well as their possibilities for hideous consequences. This time though, the monks have a plan.
The humor is rather dry, and there is much Latin interspersed throughout the narrative. Understandably, Miller's book is not for everyone. Still, the 1961 Hugo Award-winner manages to ask provocative questions about mankind, faith, and our responsibilities to each. More poetic than your average dystopian tome, Canticle both entertains and enlightens. If you enjoy the book, there is a sequel entitled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.