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A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.


This title from the NPR Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy list came highly recommended from my coworkers, and I found it to be well deserving of the praise. Divided into three sections, the novel begins in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic world where monks and the Church work to preserve memories and relics of the time before. A young novice is out on a vision quest of sorts in the deserts of Utah, which are notorious for wolves and grotesque disfigured monsters (humans born with defects due to the nuclear fallout), and encounters a strange pilgrim who can read and write. The novice later stumbles upon an old abandoned fallout shelter, which seems to him like a holy ground, full of artifacts and ancient writings harkening back to the days of Leibowitz, the saint for whom his order is named. This discovery is received with mixed reactions at the monastery, but the novice believes fervently that he was meant to make this discovery, and spends many long years labouring over the documents found. In the second section, the society is beginning to experiment with technology, and the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz are working on a machine to produce artificial light. In the third section, nuclear warfare has once again returned, and the monastery, a place of refuge, is preparing to evacuate in the face of total annihilation.

Although this book is now over fifty years old, it has aged gracefully, and is still very readable. The first section is the longest, and most engrossing; however, the third section poses a number of questions regarding conduct in the face of destruction, as well as ethics and making decisions in spite of persecution. Mary Doria Russell wrote the introduction to the edition I read, and I would definitely recommend it to fans of her work, as well as those who enjoy Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2011/09/26 12:26

    Wonderful review! One of the all time great post-apocalyptical tales — set the tone and subject mater for so many books to follow….

    (I have to admit that I’m very skeptical of that NPR list — a lot of new series popped up on it which are very run of the mill — it ignores a lot of the great classics — although some, like this one, appear — I suggest the Hugo Award list — best sci-fi/fantasy award by year. A Canticle for Leibowitz won, of course!).

    Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, or C. J. Cherryh’s Down below Station?

  2. 2011/09/26 15:42

    I read Le Guin a long time ago, it’s probably time to revisit her work. I have heard of Cherryh but not attempted any yet!

  3. 2011/09/26 17:50

    Cherryh is somewhat more along the political sci-fi lines — Cyteen is her best work, by far — but also gigantic (so you have to be in the mood).

    Joanna Russ is also one of my favorites — And Chaos Died is quite the experience.

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