6 July 2009

Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1960

This was Miller’s only published novel (if one discounts his incomplete Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman), and is the cornerstone of his reputation for looking at Christian themes while placing them in a science fictional context. Leibowitz was an ordinary electrician in the military prior to the world’s first nuclear war, after which, repentant, he went on to found a minor religious order. Then came the ‘Simplification’ of humanity, and six hundred years hence an indecipherable artifact is found which was undoubtedly his, and over the following thousand years man learns once again to develop nuclear weapons.

The generally bad temper to Miller’s Catholic humour is what gives A Canticle for Leibowitz its kick: he is at turns comic, often sad but always prodigiously grim and rich. Some superbly cantankerous abbots and monks (most of whom are killed off without a shred of dignity) seem to prove their human fallability on a daily basis while at the same time debate higher morality on a grand scale with perhaps too much eloquence. The final moral dilemma for Abbot Zerchi is direct, painful and graphically drawn, making Miller’s exploration – or was it a defence? – of a self-perpetuating Christianity all the more ambivalent. Part of Miller’s point seems to be that humanity’s beliefs – whether one considers them rational or irrational – will over centuries become exaggerated to the point of having a hold over us that’s often far out of proportion to their elementary simplicity; on the one hand he seems to poke fun at this state of affairs in the wider world though on the other hand he appears to stand by some of the more ornately embellished beliefs of the Catholic Church. And where this discord applies to the story’s last third it becomes an uncomfortably big question mark that hangs over everything – just how useful, or useless, is Christianity? – a question mark with a hook that one detects Miller can’t seem to wriggle off all that easily (at least on the page, and he sits the reader squarely on that fence too, allowing you to jump either way). An angry and ironic book, and there are even iconoclastic aspects that make it as relevant today as ever.  PY


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