A Canticle for Leibowitz

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A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle For Lebowitz.jpg
First edition dust jacket - illustration by George Sottung
Written by: Walter M. Miller Jr.
Central Theme:
Genre(s): Post-apocalypse, Science fiction
First published: October 1959
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A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1960. Based on three short stories Miller contributed to the science fiction magazine The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it is the only novel published by the author during his lifetime. Considered one of the classics of science fiction, it has never been out of print and has seen over 25 reprints and editions. Appealing to mainstream and genre critics and readers alike, it won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. The novel has three parts in different time periods and shows how the monastery and the world change over time.

Inspired by the author's participation in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, the novel is considered a masterpiece by literary critics. It has been compared favorably with the works of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, and its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state have generated a significant body of scholarly research. Miller's follow-up work, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was published posthumously in 1997.

Tropes used in A Canticle for Leibowitz include:
  • After the End: All the way up to the second end.
  • Age Without Youth: The recurring Jew appears to grow older but never dies, a fact which perplexes the other characters.
  • Alternate History: A honorary one at least. The Deluge was said to have taken place around the late 1960s, with hints of somewhat more advanced technology than the real one. It can be presumed that Vatican II was never issued in that timeline.
  • Altum Videtur: As the lingua franca of the Church, Latin is used all over the place in the books, sometimes translated, sometimes not.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: It's never outright stated that Isaac Leibowitz was Jewish, though it's heavily implied.
  • And Man Grew Proud: A common theme is that as society develops high technology and becomes able to build weapons of fantastic power, it loses touch with its spiritual and ethical side.
  • Anyone Can Die: And they do.
  • Apocalypse How: Planetary/Societal Disruption, edging towards Societal Collapse, the nuclear war being referred to as "The Flame Deluge".
  • Apocalyptic Log: The papers Brother Francis finds in the fallout shelter.
  • Artistic License Religion: During a debate between the doctor and Fr. Zerchi, the doctor states that he has a soul, to which the Abbot responds that the doctor has a body -- he is a soul. Not according to Catholic doctrine, which says that, as material-spiritual beings, humans are comprised of both body and soul.
  • Badass Preacher: It's implied the monks, despite being generally non-violent, have defended the abbey with arms multiple times in its history.
  • Barbarian Tribe: Most prominently in the tribal peoples of "Fiat Homo" and the Plains Nomads of "Fiat Lux".
  • Bilingual Bonus: With Latin and even a little Hebrew.
    • Also the bits of German used in the intro of "Fiat Voluntas Tua".
  • Bittersweet Ending: The story chronicles the second rise and fall of civilization, including The End of the World as We Know It. But this time, the Church has learned from the past and arranged for a colony ship to be sent out.
  • Black Comedy: Evident throughout the novel, showing the folly of mankind's existence in contrast to the monks' mission.
    • The Catholic Church itself is also given this treatment in the novel, whether it's the endless theological disputes or the irony of the "Pope's Children." In addition, each part ends with the events being viewed from the perspective of buzzards though the end has them replaced with a lucky shark.
  • Call Back: When the abbot finds Francis' skull at the very end of the book.
  • Captain Ersatz: The Green Star is very clearly the Red Cross.
  • The Chessmaster: Hannegan, who is also quite the Magnificent Bastard.
  • Church Militant: Abbot Zerchi, which leads him to a Heel Realization after attempting to stop a victim of radiation poisoning and her infant daughter from euthanasia.
  • Conveniently Precise Translation: Averted; Francis has quite a bit of difficulty translating the technical jargon he finds in the fallout shelter. Later, a machine translator is invented which (like its Real Life counterparts) is somewhat less than reliable.
  • Corrupt Church: What the Catholic Church is blatantly portrayed as in St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It's still to be rooted for over The Empire.
  • Crapsack World
  • Days of Future Past: The cyclical nature of history is a major theme of the book, with "Fiat Homo" modeled after the Middle Ages, and "Fiat Lux" closely resembling the Renaissance.
    • Likewise, the Texarkana Schism bears more than a passing resemblance to the Protestant Reformation. And that's not counting the Manifest Destiny in St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, or the Cold War analogy in "Fiat Voluntas Tua".
  • Distant Finale: 1,200 years after "Fiat Homo".
  • Divided States of America: By the time of "Fiat Lux", where America used to be consists of several city-state "empires" which don't even speak the same language.
  • Eagle Land: The series is set entirely within the American landmass. The papacy has its seat in the vicinity of where St. Louis used to be, and retreats to Denver after the Texarkanan Schism.
  • Ecclesiology Marches On: The novel was published just three years before Vatican II de-emphasized the use of Latin within the Church.
  • The Empire: Texark.
  • Eternal English: Averted. "Modern" English is very much a dead language in the future, and must be studied like one. It's implied that, much like Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire, different dialects of English grew and evolved into full-blown, mutually unintelligible languages.
  • Evil Luddite: The Simplification was the backlash of a group of self-proclaimed "simpletons" against scientists and other intellectuals, whom they blamed for the Flame Deluge. Leibowitz himself was one of their victims.
  • Fantastic Catholicism
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As noted, post-apocalyptic America is essentially medieval Europe, with a Dark Age, a Renaissance and modernity, and the appropriate conflicts between science and faith. By the end of the book, the two poles of the international system are loosely based on the Cold War. And then the Flame Deluge repeats -- with one key difference.
  • Feudal Future: Justified, seeing that an Age of Simplification leads to a new dark age.
  • Fling a Light Into the Future: After the Flame Deluge, civilization rises and falls again, but this time humanity survives by sending off a colony ship.
    • The entire purpose of the monks' work is to preserve the sum total of human knowledge for future generations who will be able to understand it better.
  • Flying Dutchman: The Wandering Jew. Maybe.
  • Future Imperfect: So much. Often Played for Laughs though, especially when the Church relocates the Prime Meridian in order to liberate it from the influence of the "Green Witch".
    • One of the monks in "Fiat Lux" suggests that the Pre-Deluge Church may have used arc lamps on their altars instead of candles. The Abbot is not pleased.
    • Brother Francis is single-handedly responsible for getting Leibowitz canonized. Centuries later, one monk doesn't even remember who he is.
    • Thon Taddeo is described as a brilliant genius comparable to Einstein. But by the time of Fiat Voluntas Tua, even the monks have trouble recalling his name.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Brother Kornhoer, who builds the first working electrical generator.
  • Gainax Ending: The Second Coming of Christ (or the return of the Virgin Mary) is a tomato saleswoman's green-eyed radiation-eating conjoined fetus head.
  • Here We Go Again / History Repeats / Eternal Recurrence : One of the main themes of the novel is the cyclical nature of human history.
  • Hope Spot: The Quo Perigenitur spaceship.
  • I Am Not Shazam: There are some tantalizing hints that the Old Jew may be Leibowitz himself at first (note the Hebrew initials he scrawls on a rock - L.Tz.) but later in the story he denies this and explains he's only a distant relative.
  • Idiot Hero: Brother Francis Gerard, who is quite the Wide-Eyed Idealist.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Some of the mutants practice cannibalism.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: Why humanity develops nuclear weapons and destroys civilization a second time.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Texark and the Misery (Missouri) River.
    • The town near the abbey has its name corrupted to "Sanly Bowitts".
  • Jerkass Woobie: Brownpony.
    • Also Abbot Zerchi in Fiat Voluntas Tua.
  • Just Before the End: The third part of the book.
  • Kill Sat: The Asian space platforms that destroy Texarkana and the abbey in the end.
  • Knight Templar: All three of the abbots in their own way.
  • Lost Technology: Electricity and computers are unknown to the monks, who only figure out how to build them for themselves later in the story.
  • Magic Realism: On the whole, the story is fairly plausible, except for a few supernatural elements such as Benjamin's apparent immortality and the fate of Rachel. Note that the story is vague about whether Zerchi is imagining the whole thing because he's dying.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It may feature the Wandering Jew. Or may not.
    • The strangeness of the Poet also counts.
  • Meaningful Name: Many of the place names in the stories vaguely refer to places that readers might know; some, like Denver and Chihuahua, survive remarkably intact.
  • Mercy Kill: What the medics authorize for radiation victims. The monks, especially Abbot Zerchi, protest against them vociferously with signs.
  • Mutants:
    • In many different flavors, from simply having patches of skin in various shades to a full-on Multiple Head Case.
    • Known as 'The Pope's Children' after the Pope issues an edict that they are not to be harmed. Unfortunately for Brother Francis, they didn't return the favor.
  • Mysterious Watcher: The Old Jew, who lives on a mesa and watches over the abbey.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: What the secularists want to believe, despite consistent evidence that the priests are actually closer-to-earth.
    • Curiously, it's implied that in general, people were no more religious than they were before the Deluge.
    • It's even lampshaded during the debate with Thon Taddeo that it never was any better at all. Just richer or poorer.
  • Patchwork Story: The book started out as three short stories, "A Canticle for Leibowitz", "And the Light Is Risen", and "The Last Canticle".
  • Patron Saint: The monastery's founder, St. Leibowitz, becomes the patron saint of electricians once the world has them again. There is also a reference to Saint Raul the Cyclopean, patron of the misborn.
  • Posthumous Character: Saint Leibowitz, though just how posthumous he really is is up for debate.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The nomadic chief.
  • Ragnarok Proofing: Bits and pieces of the pre-Deluge world become increasingly rare as time passes. Even in Fiat Homo, it's stated that many of the ruins were picked by scavengers long before. It's also mentioned, however, that a group of monks stumbled on a relatively intact nuclear missile facility hidden beneath a village which they accidentally detonate.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Pope Leo XXI.
  • Saintly Church: The Catholic Church is portrayed both realistically and sympathetically.
  • Scavenger World: At least initially.
  • Science Is Bad: One of the chief conflicts of the story is how to use the knowledge gained from civilization's renaissance properly.
    • Though it's mentioned that science itself isn't evil. Rather, it's how people use it that's one of the key points of the novel.
  • The Spymaster: The Vatican Diplomatic Service has gained notoriety, to say the least.
  • Standard Sci Fi History: Subverted. Although humanity does recover from World War III and rebuilds civilization, history ends up repeating itself. This differentiates the book from other works at the time, which tended to treat history as linear instead of cyclical.
  • (Implied) Tearjerker: The fate of Emily/Emma Leibowitz and the trapped people in the shelter Francis finds.
    • The ending.
    • Abbot Zerchi trying to persuade a mother not to euthanize her child. The child is stated to be so badly burned by the atomic blast that her gender is not apparent until her mother refers to her as such. Also note that the mother is referred to as "the girl" (implying she is very young herself), and has also been diagnosed as so irradiated as to be untreatable.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The Simplification, where most technology and knowledge was actively destroyed in a backlash against technology after the nuclear war.
  • Translation Convention: The language the characters speak is not actually English, but a distant descendant of it which is translated for the reader. See Eternal English.
  • Translator Microbes: A large device in Abbot Zirchi's office. It kind-of works.
  • Walking the Earth: The Old Jew takes to wandering at times.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Brother Francis is honest, sincere, and hopeful, though he does take the basic honesty and decency of others for granted. This latter fact ultimately gets him killed on his trip back from New Rome.