Review: “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for sci-fi, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting dystopian novel from 1959 called “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr. I first heard about this novel after watching this fascinating “Extra Sci-fi” video about it (SPOILERS) on Youtube and was intrigued enough to track down a second-hand copy of it a couple of days later.

So, let’s take a look at “A Canticle For Liebowitz”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1984 Black Swan (UK) paperback edition of “A Canticle For Liebowitz” that I read.

“A Canticle For Liebowitz” is a three-part novel, following life in a remote American desert monastery during three different time periods following a devastating nuclear war during the 1960s. The novel begins with a young novice called Francis performing a Lenten vigil in the desert, when he is greeted by a mysterious old pilgrim.

Whilst the two don’t get along very well at first, the old pilgrim finds him a stone for his improvised shelter – which happens to be the capstone of a fallout shelter containing some of the pre-apocalyptic “memorabilia” that the monastery strives to copy, hide and preserve in the violently anti-intellectual climate following the war. Of course, there are questions and doubts about the authenticity of these relics…

The second part of the novel takes place centuries later in a renaissance-like period of history, where America is split into several kingdoms (who are on the brink of war) and it focuses on a brilliant – but arrogant- scholar and scientist called Thon Thaddeo who reluctantly travels to the monastery after they refuse to send their “memorabilia” to him. Whilst there, he discovers that one of the monks has managed to build some primitive electrical technology and also ends up arguing with the abbot about matters of religion and science.

The third part of the novel is set in a more conventional science fiction future, with spaceships, voice-controlled computers etc… The monastery is still standing and now also carries out scientific research too. Yet, political tensions between east and west are gradually building in the background after a series of illegal nuclear tests. Will humanity once again repeat the mistakes of its past?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a well-written, intelligent and creative sci-fi novel that not only rightly deserves its status as an influential classic of the genre, but is also surprisingly timeless too. However, it is also an even more slow-paced novel than I’d initially expected. So, be sure to set aside some time if you want to read it. It’s worth the time, but don’t expect it to be “easy reading” in any sense of the term.

In terms of the novel’s science fiction elements, they’re really creative 🙂 For the most part, this is a literal science fiction novel – in other words, a novel about science itself. By focusing on humanity gradually rediscovering all of their lost scientific knowledge, this novel is not only able to capture the thrill and awe that this knowledge first evoked (seriously, the scene with the arc lamp is epic!), but also the fear that it evoked too.

One of the novel’s many running themes is that of scientific hubris, often shown in the novel’s many conflicts between scientific progress and religious tradition. Yet, in a brilliantly creative twist, the monks are responsible for preserving and interpreting the knowledge – yet find themselves worried when the secular scholars they have been preserving it for finally reach the level of intelligence needed to understand it.

This is also one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels and it includes many tropes that would later become mainstays of the genre – such as violent bands of survivors, the ruins of civilisation and widespread genetic mutations. Interestingly, whilst the novel does include a few other dystopian features (eg: the harsh desert, the harshness of the monastery etc…), the most chillingly dystopian element of this novel is probably its main theme of cyclical history – of civilisation destroying and rebuilding itself over and over again. Although this is shown through large-scale events, it is also hinted at through a recurring character in all three segments of the story, similar tragic endings for all three parts and occasional references to characters from previous parts of the story.

It is also one of the few novels – the only other one I can think of is James Herbert’s “Domain” – that really shows the bleakness, horrors and consequences of nuclear war. Given that this novel was written during the early-middle part of the cold war, and just three years before the Cuban missile crisis, I’m guessing that it would have been even more chillingly topical back then. Even so, the novel is still one of the most powerful and harrowing anti-nuclear novels that you’ll read (it isn’t quite as bleak as an old TV show like “Threads“, but it certainly comes close at times).

This is also a novel about history too, with most of the novel’s backstory being deliberately vague, unreliable or ambiguous. Not only does this add a lot to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but it also helps to emphasise how far humanity has fallen when the only remnants of the past are things like incomprehensible document fragments, wildly exaggerated mythology, rumours and local folklore. It also shows how history is distorted, forgotten and/or re-interpreted over time too – such as when a drunken character’s glass eye becomes a revered relic several hundred years later or how the story of Francis’ unceremonious meeting with the pilgrim quickly morphs into a novel-sized tome, thanks to embellished re-tellings and speculation.

Another cool thing about this novel is how it manages to be both a large-scale and a small-scale drama at the same time. By focusing on life in the monastery during various time periods, the novel achieves a “close-up” level of intensity and humanity that really makes you care about all of the large-scale stuff that is relayed to the reader in a few short scenes, extracts from letters, dialogue segments etc… This blending of small and large-scale drama works really well and helps to add a lot of realism to the story.

Another main theme of this novel is religion. Although I’m guessing that you’ll probably get more out of this novel if you are a Christian (especially if you are Catholic), the novel uses religion not only to add atmosphere to the story but also to ask questions about humanity, science etc.. and to debate various topics. The novel’s presentation of religion is fairly nuanced with, for example, some of the monks’ questions and thoughts seeming valid and others seeming either dogmatic or cruel (such as Abbot Zerchi’s objections to euthanasia during one especially bleak part of the novel).

Likewise, despite the emphasis on tradition and the frequent use of Latin (not all of which is translated), one of the fascinating things about this novel is how a lot of the novel’s events end up being incorporated into the monks’ religious beliefs over time. With, for example, the patron saint of their abbey being a scientist from before the apocalypse, history being translated into religious stories etc…. This is either a nuanced comment about how people use religion to make sense of the world or perhaps an amusingly irreverent critique of things like religious traditions etc…

And, yes, despite the bleakness, this novel has a surprising amount of subtle and/or quirky humour in it too. Not only does this make the post-apocalpytic elements seem harsher by contrast, but it also adds a level of realism and humanity to the story in a way that you don’t always see in post-apocalyptic stories too.

As for the characters, this novel is really good. Although it covers a large sweep of history and therefore contains a fairly large cast of characters, all of them seem like flawed and realistic people who have a reasonable amount of emotional and psychological depth.

The writing in this novel is excellent, but challenging. As you would expect with a slightly older novel, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a slightly more formal and descriptive way than a modern novel. Whilst this allows for a lot of extra atmosphere, complexity and personality (seriously, this novel has a brilliant narrative voice), it will make the novel feel very slow-paced if you’re used to more streamlined modern fiction.

Another cool thing about this novel is that the early parts of the “futuristic” third segment of the novel are written in a vaguely beat literature/ modernist literature kind of style (vaguely reminiscent of parts of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“, James Joyce, William Burroughs etc..) – although this is only a short segment, this really helps to add a “retro future” atmosphere to these parts of the story.

However, this novel also assumes that the reader understands Latin – and, although I was still able get the basic meaning of many of these parts of the novel from the context, there are probably some subtle elements of the story I missed out on because I don’t know that much Latin.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good when you get used to it. At 356 pages in length, it may seem relatively short, but the slow pacing will mean that it’ll take you as long to read as a 500-700 page modern novel. Still, the slow pacing is a good fit with the story and it allows for a lot of extra depth and complexity too. Likewise, the novel’s three-part structure is absolutely genius and it really helps to add a sense of grand historical scale to the story.

As for how this sixty-one year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless 🙂 Not only are the futuristic post-apocalyptic settings pretty much timeless (evoking both the middle ages and classic sci-fi), but the novel’s characters, atmosphere, themes etc.. are almost all handled in a very timeless way too.

Plus, not only does this novel include a critique of some of the attitudes of the age (eg: with regard to genetics and racism) that seems slightly ahead of it’s time, but the novel has also been influential on several later sci-fi works (eg: a later episode of “Babylon 5”, the ‘all of this has happened before…’ saying in the modern remake of “Battlestar Galactica” etc..) and was also one of the first sci-fi novels to get mainstream recognition/respectability. Pretty much the only clue that this novel was written in 1959 is the slightly more formal writing style (and maybe some slightly dated/stylised dialogue from a vaguely Native American-style warrior character during a brief part of the novel’s second segment).

All in all, this novel deserves its reputation as a classic. Yes, it is very slow-paced and rather gloomy/pessimistic but, if you can get over this, then you’ll be richly rewarded with an atmospheric, complex and intelligent novel that has stood the test of time extremely well and had a major impact on the sci-fi genre as a whole.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

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