A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a science fiction novel published in 1960. The novel, divided into three parts, takes place between 600, 1200, and 1800 years in the future, respectively, chronicling a new Dark Age in the aftermath of a nuclear war. As in the Middle Ages, the Church survives and preserves learning over the centuries until a new Renaissance can occur. However, with the rebirth of knowledge and technology come the same forces at work a millennium earlier, and once more the world stands on the brink of nuclear destruction. Wishing to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that (you can read more in the linked Wikipedia article above). I certainly encourage everyone to read it–no summary does it justice. In my mind it’s one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and probably the greatest sf novel dealing with themes of faith and religion. Despite this, I think anyone of any religious persuasion can enjoy the novel, and more importantly find food for thought on the topic of knowledge and whether or not mankind can use it responsibly.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a bit of an enigma. He is considered one of the most important writers of science fiction of the mid-20th Century, and yet his output was small. During World War II, he was part of the crew of a bomber that participated in a series of raids against the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino is the historic monastery founded by St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, and as such the mother house of the Benedictine order. During the Italian Campaign in 1944, British intelligence erroneously thought that the monastery was being used as headquarters for German troops, and therefore ordered the bombing raids against it. The monastery was almost completely destroyed, with the only casualties being Italian civilians who had fled there for shelter, rather than Germans. Ironically, German troops later did camp in the ruins of the monastery, which were good cover. Miller was deeply traumatized by the effects of this tragic error, and the effects of this–what we’d now call PTSD–lingered for years. After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism, which was to be a major influence on his work.
During the 1950’s, Miller published many short stories and wrote scripts for television, winning a Hugo Award for his much-lauded short story “The Darfsteller“. From 1955 to 1957 he published a series of novellas dealing with an order of monks dedicated to preserving human knowledge in a distant, post-apocalyptic future. The novellas were originally titled “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, “And the Light is Risen”, and “The Last Canticle”. In 1959, Miller substantially edited and reworked the material in the novellas and published them in novel form as A Canticle for Leibowitz. The three-part structure was preserved, with the sections being renamed as “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy will be done”). The novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961, and has been in print ever since. After this, Miller never published anything again during the rest of his lifetime. Despite his small oeuvre, Miller is widely considered to be one of the most influential science fiction writers of his time.
Sadly, as the years progressed, Miller became increasingly reclusive, avoiding even most of his family and refusing even to meet with his literary agent in person. He struggled with depression and the aftereffects of PTSD. Though he published nothing, he worked for years on the manuscript of a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. “Sequel” is perhaps not quite the right word–the second novel takes place in the time between the events of “Fiat Lux” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” in the original novel. In any case, Miller completed some six hundred pages of manuscript over a period of many years. By the 1990’s, though, he was in ill health and suffering from writers’s block, so he commissioned sf novelist Terry Bisson to complete the novel. According to Bisson, the vast majority of the work had been completed, and he merely tidied up the text and tied up a few loose ends. Tragically, in 1996, shortly after the death of his wife, Miller committed suicide. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published the following year.
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