A Canticle for Leibowitz was a recommendation from a friend, an avid Sorry Television reader who makes my day every few weeks when we run into each other socially and talk books. After our most recent such encounter, I dug through my memory bank for his long-ago recommendation and promptly ordered it online. What arrived in my mailbox two days later (thank you Amazon Prime) was this, a weighty paperback whose intimidating cover art is paralleled only by its introduction’s promise of frequent use of Latin. Apprehensive and intrigued, I dug in.
It’s difficult to explain what ACFL is “about,” a struggle not entirely helped by my edition’s vaguely worded back cover, which devotes a third of its real estate to phrases like “one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of speculative fiction.” The book opens in post-apocalyptic times—roughly the 26th century—when the human race has long since crippled itself in a nuclear war known as the Flame Deluge. Off the bat, we meet Brother Francis, a monk in the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz,” a monastic order devoted to the preservation of knowledge, a task they accomplish by hoarding, hiding, memorizing and copying books whose value has been drastically reduced by a post-Deluge society that frowns upon literacy. Leibowitz refers to Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a 20th-century electrical engineer employed by the U.S. military, who after being martyred for his devotion to scientific knowledge, was beatified by the Romance Catholic Church (“New Rome”). At the time of the book’s opening, he is a candidate for sainthood.
Here—ironically—is where things get wacky. Although it opens in a barely civilized post-apocalyptic setting, Canticle goes on to span centuries. Primary characters—generally the abbots and monks of the Albertian order—are replaced in the narrative by their successors, who each face a host of problems that highlight the progression (or deterioration) of society in the intervening decades. The whole novel is like a time-lapse video: Through hundreds of years of social and political upheaval—stretches of civility and barbarism, literacy and ignorance, peace and warfare—there stands this monastery, with its crew of monks dedicated to the preservation of knowledge at all costs.
But wait, there’s more! As the trajectory of the civilized world moves forward, relative peace shifting back in the direction of balls-out nuclear war, ACFL author Walter M. Miller Jr. throws in some crazy shit for good measure: clunky pseudo-futuristic technology like robot-powered cars and enormous dictation machines that can translate memos into various languages. There’s also mention of space travel and space missiles and testing nuclear weapons in space. Even our monks, ever-present guardians of good-old-fashioned books n’ stuff, eventually take to conversing with their superiors via video chat.
Although it begins in what is already the aftermath of the modern world, Canticle effectively takes us through the (re)dawn of civilization, beginning with a post-Deluge return to tribalism and illiteracy, and speeding through an Enlightenment period all the way to a highly civilized and technological society whose greatest threat is itself (and H-bombs). The novel suggests, satirically but quite directly, that we as people are always mid-swing on the enormous pendulum of history, which takes mankind from chaos to order and back again.
Canticle gives readers plenty of things to think about—the power and value of knowledge, the malice of human nature, the enduring quality of religion—and in so doing covers the terrain of many a dystopian novel (Fahrenheit 451‘s assumption of a backlash against literacy, Brave New World‘s implication that religious institutions would become anachronistic, 1984‘s allusion to nuclear war as the impetus for revolution). It also does this quite ambitiously, focusing not on a singular point in mankind’s storied history (or future) of taking itself for granted, but on the whole kit and caboodle, start to finish to start again.
But while I respect and admire the effort, I couldn’t help but feel that the weight of the book was sometimes lost in its pacing, and in Miller’s attempts to illustrate the world through both sweeping narrative (sometimes 300-odd years would pass in a single paragraph) and detailed moments (one abbot’s flustered attempts to fix his broken dictation machine, for example). Also, the aforementioned Latin, which is somehow the monks’ surviving language of choice. I eventually gave up on bothering to translate its every appearance in the novel, which probably cost me some measure of understanding but made the actual process of reading ACFL much less onerous.
There were many many things I liked about Canticle, not least of which was the apparent fun Miller had in imagining how people—especially slow-to-change people like monks—might react to advances (or regressions) in civilization. But even as I never stopped appreciating the caliber of ACFL, I found that I never quite got into it, in part because I was never entirely sure whether I was reading rising action, falling action or something in the middle. Canticle is a very difficult book to predict, and while that could certainly be considered a strength, it was sometimes a hindrance, not knowing whether the character, setting, time period, society or state of political affairs with which I was absorbed would carry through to the next part of the novel.
Ultimately I suspect my own limitations were to blame here—I can be an adventurous reader, but am not always the most appreciative of the adventure. With A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller challenges his audience: to follow along, keep up, read between the lines and understand that as much of the story is told through nuance as narrative. Also to translate Latin. His endeavors make for a weighty book with an even weightier premise; to the intrepid reader I say: good luck.
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