Sunday, February 28, 2010

Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

For some odd reason I just love post apocalyptic books. This is a classic that was originally published in 1960 and won the Hugo Award in 1961. The first part takes place after the world has engaged in nuclear war. After the war called the Flame Deluge, the survivors undertook a Simplification in which they destroyed anyone of learning, any written materials and even anyone who could read because they believed that learning had brought this disaster upon them. Leibowitz attempted to save some of the pre-Flame Deluge knowledge by starting an order to hide, memorize and copy books. That is all I really knew about the book when I read it. I cannot however talk about my reaction to this book without spoilers so if you don't want any spoilers stop reading here.


The first part of the novel is set in the 26th century in which the United States is broken up into various Kingdoms. One of the monks at the Leibowitz monastery doing a fast out in the dessert comes upon an old fallout shelter and finds documents that may have belonged to Leibowitz. The second part of the book takes place in 3174 where the city-states are engaging in political intrigue to enhance their power. The age of reason is returning and the monastery and its riches of preserved knowledge attracts the attention of secular scholars who are fascinated by one of the monks invention of a treadmill powered electrical generator that powers an arc lamp based upon his studies of some of the documents in the memorabilia. The last part of the story is set in 3781 and the world has nuclear power and spaceships again. The Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy appear to be on the brink of nuclear war as the monastery tries to activate their plan to once again preserve mankind's knowledge.

There are many things that I loved about this book - the cyclical nature of history, the allure yet danger of knowledge. But then at the end it turned into this bizarre rant about the church's position against euthanasia or suicide (no mater the circumstances) versus the state's attitude toward euthanasia. To me it just didn't fit with the rest of the book. At the very end we have the Abbot trying to convince a women to not euthanize her child that clearly has more than a fatal dose of radiation poisoning. He tries to reason with her, pleads with her and eventually resorts to commanding her to not spare her child unspeakable suffering before her unquestionable death because the Church does not permit it. I have no issue with the author taking a position that I don't agree with but it ruined the book for me because I thought it was totally out of character from the rest of the book.

This book wasn't about euthanasia or obedience to the church. It was about the idea that knowledge, though dangerous, was valuable and the hope that mankind could learn from its mistakes. I could have understood if in the end the Order lost hope and rejected its centuries mission to preserve knowledge in light of mankind's second destruction of the world but that is not what happened. The Order continued to cling to hope and went ahead with its plan to preserve knowledge in the colonies in space. This book is a classic and I am glad that I read it but the ending just didn't work for me.

I read this for SciFi Experience, Mind Voyages and Speculative Fiction Challenge.


Bekah said...

I am torn, I skipped the spoilers, but I really am intrigued. Since it's a Hugo award winner I ought to at least give the book a go. Thanks for sharing

Carl V. said...

So....I pretty much skipped most of this because I have two copies of the book and thus plan on reading it at some point, LOL! I've heard really good things from many about it and I generally like this sort of novel.

Moo said...

Bekah and Carl - I would love to hear what you think of it once you read it. By all rights I should have loved the book but I really had issues with the end.

Robin of My Two Blessings said...

It's next on my list and the spoiler didn't spoil it for me. Makes the book sound all the more interesting and looking forward to reading it.

Moo said...

Robin - I would love to hear what you thought of it.