Six hundred years after the end of civilization, a novitiate monk of the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz (confirmation of sainthood pending) is interrupted in his devotional suffering by an ancient pilgrim walking through the roasting desert. Before vanishing into the heat haze, this rather prickly wanderer points the novitiate in the direction of exactly what his order has always longed for, getting him into all kinds of trouble in the process.
This is a world where, as in a distant, forgotten past, the church alone preserves the last glimmers of human learning against the all pervading ignorance and brutality of the world outside. A meagre shrine of tattered remnants, barely understood by those who keep them, is all that remains of the thousands of years of advancement eventually laid waste to by man’s inevitable fall. However, in the hearts and hands of those like the noviciate – or, perhaps, others less prone to fainting fits and flights of fancy – there is the slightest hope for an escape from darkness, a return to God’s grace – with the blessings of Leibowitz, of course.
Six hundred or so years later, as a new age of enlightenment slowly struggles towards fruition, a singular scholar makes the dangerous journey from the seat of local power, the city-state of Texarkana, to the small monastery of Saint Leibowitz. He seeks to examine in person “sacred” texts too valuable to risk transporting across the domain of the desert tribes, only to witness revelations of technological advancement being conducted by some of the more forward thinking monks – shocking blasphemies in the eyes of the traditionalists; merely an outrageous presumption to one who would have preferred to achieve them first…
Now there are more provocative voices than that of the argumentative hermit who somehow has the ear of the current head of the order; the scandalous poet’s, for example, whose visit to the monastery coincides with the scholar’s rather too well to be coincidence, perhaps; but none more than the that of the scholar himself, cursed with genius while being forced by necessity to serve petty, violent warlords and humour pious, credulous worshipers for the opportunity to set his magnificent mind to its task. Of course, attaining civilisation need not always be a civilised process; the drums of war are being beaten on the plains and in the cities alike. The wisdom of the ages may prove a needless luxury, yet again.
Finally, six hundred or so years still later, civilisation threatens to destroy itself once more and the Order of Saint Leibowitz again prepares to play a central role in the fate of mankind. While nation states rattle nuclear sabres and the ordinary people, some still baring the marks of centuries of radioactive influence, live their lives in the shadow of a second – a third? – holocaustal cleansing, the monks and nuns of an almost forgotten Order continue to do their duty; the overlooked memory of humanity, unnecessarily securing knowledge and technology in a time when both are commonplace, or so it would seem.
This is an age when faith is hard to come by. So many years have passed, and so much is known about the times of darkness – is there still a place for belief in the sainthood of those who were simply normal men and women, survivors of a global tragedy and surely nothing more? Is the monastery of the Order of Saint Leibowitz (now popularised as the patron of electricians) even a valid haven for knowledge, lying so close to such a prime target as it does? Some still retain belief, such as the ancient tramp who walks beside the automated highway to claim a free meal from their kitchen; or the old mutated crone with an infant’s head forever sleeping on her shoulder; but amongst the monks sprout seeds of doubt. Maybe this time none shall live through the wrath, because maybe mankind no longer deserves to.
Walter M. Miller Jnr. was a writer of short fiction, and A Canticle for Leibowitz was first published between 1955 and 1957 as three stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Inspired by his experiences during World War 2, participating in bombing raids over Italy and the destruction of the monastery at Monte Cassino, it was only during the completion of the final part that the realisation struck that he was writing a novel, and over the following two years Miller revised the material significantly to make it one. It proved a huge success, remaining in print ever since and winning the Hugo Award in 1961.
Right, enough of this Wikipedia burglary. I really enjoyed ACFL – the writing is rich, the characters vividly human (and occasionally vividly inhuman), and the story is engrossing. After the dark and middle ages of the first two sections, I was initially put off by the third set in a technology-heavy future that could have slipped into the sort of unfortunate clichés that aging sf tends to experience after a half-life or two has passed; instead, following the comparatively light-hearted opener and the progressively deeper middle, it becomes the strongest of the three, ending the story with a real knock-out blow. In the way we see the expansion of a culture across ages I was slightly reminded of Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, though that series focused more on examining the various sciences, plus some Gaia-ish spiritualism; ACFL is, though, far more succinct and readable, and though both enjoy a similar circular quality in my opinion it was generally more satisfying as well.
I am also delighted to learn (Wiki-again, sorry) that it is well regarded outside the boundaries of genre – sf always seems to suffer under the burden of too little regard, but here is an example that does exactly what I love best about science fiction: taking themes that could be examined perfectly well by any other genre, or literary lack of, but use the conceptual freedoms of sf to express and explore them in ways other forms could not. This was a top quality read and, going over the book briefly just now to refresh the memory, I’m suddenly taken with the urge to enjoy it again.