I’ll admit it: I like sci-fi. My mom and I used to tease my dad endlessly about how much he liked to watch Star Trek. I finally sat down to watch an episode with him one day, though, and I was hooked. It’s not just the scientific aspects that draw me in, though, it’s the stories. Sure, the characters talk to their computers and use ultra-thin portable document readers, but they’re still ordinary people underneath. There’s still love and war and learning in space. The same is true for police procedurals, medical dramas, and sitcoms.
With that openness in mind, I decided to tackle A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller. Other online reviewers described it as being almost sci-fi. I chose it primarily for its Catholic aspects. It’s also historical fiction, and it’s a dystopia to boot. There’s so much going on in this book I could barely believe it, but Miller handles it astoundingly well.
The novel consists of three parts: Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done). You will need to dust off your Latin here. The book was published in 1959, when Latin was still always the language of the Church (not just officially, as it is today), so I imagine Miller’s original readers would have had an easier time translating the occasional Latin. The important lines are translated, though, so fear not. Each part covers a different chunk of human history in the third millennium. In Miller’s world, human civilization reached its peak with the development of the atomic bomb and promptly destroyed itself. The people of the destroyed world returned to primitive ways of living, punishing anyone who valued learning. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz took on the role of monks in the second dark age, preserving books and teaching the brothers to read. None of them understand the books they’re copying by hand, but they know that man will want his history back someday, so they give their lives to preserve the knowledge of the world.
The monks are the backbone of this novel, because when a single lifetime doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of the universe, you can take the long view of the world. Regarding the dramatic decline of civilization, one character says, “How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely? Perhaps…by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.” We meet characters in one century who are canonized in the next, yet whose very existence becomes doubtful after a few more. We see that some things about the world never change; they just become resurrected. The abbot around the year 3781 has a confrontation with a government medical worker over the acceptability of assisted suicide.
“You heard him say it? ‘Pain’s the only evil I know about.’ You heard that?”
The monk nodded solemnly.
“And that society is the only thing that determines whether an act is wrong or not? That too?”
“Dearest God, how did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has limited imaginations down there. ‘The serpent deceived me, and I did eat.'”
That sounds like a modern-day conversation to me. Miller manages to present issues of his time and ours—euthanasia, the irrevocable canonization process for saints, and even Christian evangelization—from a balanced point of view. Since the monks run the novel and Miller himself was a convert to Catholicism, the Catholics aren’t the bad guys. But since the world is not all Catholic (then, now, or in the novel’s future), the secular point of view is not vilified, either.
In addition to crafting an incredibly rich and complex narrative, Miller injects a liberal dose of humor and dry wit. The monks discover an old shopping list and a set of blueprints and declare them the relics of their founder. The U.S. is dissolved into regions with very familiar-sounding names. The city of Rome falls, so the Church relocates and names some other place New Rome. Miller’s wisdom and creativity shine through, however. It’s hard to explain just how fascinating this book is, but if you give it a try, you will understand. Like the historical scope of the Roman Catholic Church, some things are just too big to shrink down to bite-size.