Every now and then, I try to pick up a classic SF novel. This one was published in the year I was born (hmm—let’s not make a big deal about its age, okay?) and I hadn’t read it. I picked it because it’s obviously memorable; it’s always brought up by other SF readers (you’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, haven’t you?)
The book is divided into three parts, each part a different story but involving the Roman Catholic Monks of Leibowitz Abbey (they’d like to be the Monks of Saint Leibowitz, but his sainthood takes hundreds of years to approve). Leibowitz was a scientist who was martyred by a crazed, book-burning mob during the time of the “Flame Deluge.” In the first story, the reader quickly realizes the Abbey exists in a post-apocalyptic world. When Brother Francis stumbles upon a strange structure and finds some holy relics, the reader recognizes the structure as a bomb shelter. The relics are notes and a circuit blueprint from part of a weapon system. The second part is many centuries later, when civilization is entering a scientific renaissance of sorts, and Leibowitz Abbey is trying to protect its many relics, documents, and luminaries. The third part skips into the Space Age, when man is going off planet and initiating nuclear warfare again. The Monks are preparing an off-world expedition of men, women, and children they hope will colonize another world and protect their collected works.
I quickly learned not to get attached to any particular character in this book, because the author killed them off with impunity. Additionally, the time hops between stories didn’t allow for updates on individuals. Yet the observations of human behavior were made by these individuals and their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses were crucial because Miller uses an almost intimate, close third person POV with every scene. So this book is not about individuals nor the effects of their individual lives, but about their interpretations of events.
I expected an overarching commentary on the futility of human civilization (after all, we all know the basic story—monks try to salvage scientific/technological/artistic works from one apocalypse, only to watch another one inevitably grow and destroy them). But what I got was a spectrum of how humans manage to overcome obstacles or endure suffering. It wasn’t always ethical or pretty, and the tools varied: faith, humor, spite, ambition, curiosity, stubbornness, oppression of others, service to others, competition (from the petty to the global), etc.
In a sense, no plot wove through this book. There was no continuing story about any character, not even Saint Leibowitz. There were no epic deeds done, and characters did well to survive. Because I’m always about plot, story, character—you might think I didn’t like this book. But I did. And, because I like to identify with characters, understand them, like them—you might think I had problems staying with this book. On the contrary, I was fascinated by it. Some of the insights by the characters were beautiful, thoughtful, “quotable,” and I had to bookmark them.
So I’m surprised, myself, and I’m still not sure why I loved this book. I think it was the beautiful prose and occasionally dry voice of the author—it’s not a style that’s appreciated nowadays, but it kept me enthralled.