A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. | Review
Publication: Ashland : Blackstone Audio, Inc., and Buck 50 Productions, LLC, 2011 (Originally published in 1959)
Genre: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Audio Length: 10 hours, 56 minutes | Pages: 334
Formats: Paperback, Audiobook
This might be my favourite SF book of all time, a true classic right up there with The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Ubik. For those of you who know, these comparisons should make complete sense, since Miller influenced Ursula K. Le Guin, by her own admission, and most probably Philip K. Dick, even if only on a subconscious level. It’s been argued, and I’ll buy it, that Miller’s once-in-a-lifetime novel set the stage for many of our modern apocalyptic speculative SF stories, up there with the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert.
As an off-hours archivist (that’s the profession that labors in the dark to save the dregs of society’s documented, and sometimes undocumented, history, in case you were wondering), not to mention a medieval history enthusiast, this book’s rendition of humanity’s sad tendency to forgot itself, to completely lose all knowledge in the face of the most basic survival, takes the cake. The Romans had central-heating systems (albeit built on the backs of the smallest slave boys most handy), city-wide sewage systems, steam engines, flushing toilets, and much much more, yet all of these technological advances were suddenly swept away in a wave of mass forgetfulness by the early Middle Ages. It’s as if our species has a chronic case of cyclical amnesia.
Howard Zinn talked endlessly about this concept of the loss of perspective in our rendering of history, as the winners are too often our only voice carrying forward the thin veil of remembrance. I speculate whether Miller’s novel might have also had some hand of influence in Zinn’s ideas, even if only via the permeation of those ideas’ seeds throughout at least Western culture for the last 60 years.
Okay, so if topics concerning the cyclical nature of history aren’t your idea a fun-filled Saturday, what might be another reason to read this book? In a word, its population. Miller’s characters are people we see every day and can recognize acutely. As each monk, booklegger, scientist, and radiation-deformed nomad is introduced, the reader is drawn into raptures of sympathy. I found myself longing for Brother Francis’s voice to be heard without threat of punishment as he tries to explain to his fellow monks the import of the Memorabilia he stumbled upon in the desert; later, I was gasping at the stubbornly backwards-leaning brothers who poo-poo the scientific rediscovery of electric lighting in their candle-lit libraries at the emotive expense of their religious relics; and finally, I found myself trembling at the realization that Dom Jethras Zerchi might not survive the revitalized world he’d been struggling to create.
I’m not sure I fully comprehended the intended conclusion (if such a thing even exists in the confusion of fiction writing) of Miller’s book. The ending rushes another 600 years forward (into a future The Expanse authors seem also to have dreamt about), pulling the circle closed as Miller illustrates the dragonhead of over-extending greed, donning the ironic mask of self-preservation, again devouring its own tail of ever-following technological advancement. I’m looking forward to several re-readings of this genuinely epic novel in the coming years, which is usually the sign that a piece of story-telling has reached that magical place of a lasting work of art, worth many cycles of reconsideration.