A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller, Jr

“I’m not so sure he’s mad, Father. Just a little devious in his sanity.”

Published in 1959, ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction novel. It has since been described as “the first major post-holocaust SF novel.” It is the only novel its author Walter M. Miller, Jr released in his lifetime. The sequel, ‘Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman’, was completed by the author Terry Bisson and published posthumously in 1997.

I’d never heard of it until a fellow blogger recommended it to me via the wonderful Worlds Without End website. It is a novel made up of 3 novellas which Miller originally released individually. Each novella focuses on a different period in the future after there has been a planet-wide nuclear holocaust. The story is told from the point of view of an order of monks whose task is to preserve any surviving texts or “memorabilia” from before the war.

It took me a while to get into the story, but the more I read, the more I enjoyed it. Something which surprised me was how funny it is in parts. In other parts it is quite moving. The Roman Catholic religion is one of the main themes of this book, and there is a lot of Latin in the narrative – a language I don’t understand. But don’t let that put you off. (Wikipedia has a page of translations here if you really wish to know their meanings.) You don’t need to understand the Latin to enjoy the tale.

Each of the three parts of the novel has a Latin title: “Fiat Homo” (Let there be man); “Fiat Lux” (Let there be light); and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let thy will be done). I enjoyed the first two parts more than the final one, mainly because I found the main character in part three annoyingly close-minded and stubborn. But this could easily be interpreted as a sign of the author’s skill at characterization. There is also a noticeable lack of female characters in the story until the final part. I know it is set in and around a monastery but still, …

Trying my best to keep this review *spoiler-free*, I’ll close with a few impressions the story gave me. How Miller has fun with the way documents from the past can be interpreted, especially out of context. The way he approaches the theme of science versus religion, with the irony of the monks preserving those precious texts and all this entails. How powerless the ordinary person is to prevent the politicians from deciding the fate of the world. Frustration at the seeming inevitability of a “Megawar” as Miller termed it. But as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not all doom and gloom. The humour is there waiting for you, along with the deeper themes of the cyclic nature of history and the fate of the human race. Highly recommended!

3 thoughts on “A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller, Jr

  1. Thank you. It’s another work that seems to split opinions down the middle. Love it or loathe it, it’s a slow-burning trip across the wastelands of a dark future. Thank goodness for the light of the humour. (As regards this review, I feel like I’ve just started kindergarten. It’s a big world out there!)


  2. Pingback: The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor | Who's Dreaming Who

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