Books

Futuristic classic, “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” hauntingly pertinent today

The author, who wrote the book at the height of the Cold War, takes "a dim view of fallen human nature and the survival prospects of a civilization ruled by technology"

I’d been running into references to the book every now and then for years. People told me I really ought to read it. But somehow I never got around to that.

Then a friend forced my hand by buying a copy and sending it to me. No excuses now, so I sat down and read.

I was amazed.

The book is A Canticle for Leibowitz (HarperCollins). Its author is Walter M. Miller, Jr. Miller published one other book, but apparently it never took off. He died, a suicide, in 1996, leaving Canticle as his unique literary achievement.

It isn’t a book for everybody. Some people will be offended by its eccentric but unmistakably Catholic religiosity, others will find the story it tells simply too disturbing to be read with equanimity.

The story is futuristic fiction about a post-nuclear holocaust world hell-bent on repeating the mistake and next time finishing the job. It is organized in three sections, each of them a distinct narrative separated from the other two by many hundreds of years. They are joined by a common theme: human folly groping toward and eventually achieving technological mastery—and then making use of it to destroy itself.

Such sanity as exists in Miller’s crazy world is found in the Church and, especially, in a monastic community founded after the first outburst of nuclear madness by an atomic scientist named Leibowitz. The founder intended that his monks, like their predecessors centuries earlier after the collapse of the Roman Empire, should serve as preservers and transmitters of civilized knowledge in a dark age.

During World War II Walter Miller flew 55 combat missions as a radio operator and tail gunner on a bomber. Among the targets: the historic monastery at Monte Cassino. Given that experience, it’s hardly surprising that he took a dim view of fallen human nature and the survival prospects of a civilization ruled by technology. One hears the author’s voice in the reflections of a fictional abbot:

“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing…some tree or shrub that would not grow.”

Human perfection? And it is that absence, Miller suggests, which drives human beings in frustration and disappointment to the precipice of self-destruction.

A Canticle for Leibowitz was first published in 1959, at the height of the cold war. Massive retaliation was the heart of  U.S deterrent strategy. Just three years in the future lay the Cuban missile crisis, with the threat of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange a real possibility.

That was then. This is now. But during a presidential campaign in which whose finger will be on the nuclear trigger is an issue, Walter Miller’s dark vision remains pertinent. Seventy-one years after the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nine nations possess nuclear weapons and several more could develop them rapidly if they chose. “When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier,” Miller wrote.

A Vatican message for the anniversary of the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appealed for “the graces of pardon, reconciliation, solidarity and hope.” That also—in its strange, funny, alarming way—is the message of  A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw is the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and former secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.