A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three short novellas, the first tells of a bumbling but gentle hearted monk, who during lent pilgrimage into the desert discovers a fall out bunker. This particular bunker seems to have been the final resting place of a Jewish scientist, dead these past 600 years, who sacrificed his life to protecting books and knowledge from ignorant hordes intent on burning them in a period aptly dubbed the “simplification”. The artifacts found in the bunker allow the monastery the monk belonged to, to petition to New Rome to canonize Leibowitz as a saint of their order. The reason they were doing this was that the world suffered a nuclear war that ravaged humankind. The “diluvium ignis” the flame deluge swept the world, sweeping all countries and empires in its fiery wake, in most places leaving nothing but ashes and radiation poisoning. Those that survived for the most part wanted nothing to do with technology and science, and as they once did before, the monks of the catholic church became the guardians of what remained of human knowledge, even if they could barely understand it themselves.
The second part, set a thousand years after the first shows humanity slowly beginning to re-establish order and make tentative attempts to regain the scientific knowledge lost. A young scientist, a singular intelligence, arrives at the monastery in order to study the Leibowitz artifacts and to deliver a secret message from the dictator of Denver who wants to use the monastery as a military fortress. The scientist, Thon Taddeo is shocked to discover that one of the monks has managed to create a crude electric motor, running on physical power that lights a crafted light bulb. The Thon wishes to take the artifacts with him back to Denver but the abbot refuses him.
The third section shows humanity far into the future, having advanced further than even before the flame deluge, but sadly once again on the brink of nuclear war. In an attempt to continue their holy mission the abbot sends a group of monks and nun to a faraway planet with the sum of mankinds knowledge and the Leibowitz artifacts. The earth is swept once again in flames, and as the current abbot lies dying he is visited by what appears to be a new mutant messiah, perhaps a sign that god has finally decided to start over.
This is a remarkable work of fiction, Miller, channeling his guilt and horror of his war time experience as a world war II bomber, especially his having taken part in the bombing of the abbey at Monte Cassino, into a deliberation on morality, duty and mercy . Throughout the book questions of faith versus science, of human morality vs divine law are juggled, and although the author lands in the end on the side of divine providence, it is never anything but respectful of man and his struggles. For it’s heady subject matter this is a surprisingly hopeful book, mankind burns down everything eventually, but god is always there watching over them, even when they are tossed across the stars like lost children in a lifeboat.
Oh, did I mention it is funny! At times hilarious even, from strict, bottom spanking abbots, to drunk poets to the wandering Jew, yeah, he’s in it too. I loved this book, I read it in one sitting, devouring every word and in the I was truly, utterly disappointed that this is Miller’s only published work. I can’t think of a better recommendation than that I was sorry I will never get to read more of his writing.