Saturday, October 12, 2013


A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M Miller Jr, J B Lippincott & Co, 1960, 334 pp

This science fiction classic, though published in 1960, won the Hugo Award in 1961. It messed with my head.

The only other sci fi I've read that included the Catholic Church was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. For my tastes, she did a better job because she used a light touch with the religious stuff. The paperback copy of Canticle that I read, published in 2006, contains an introduction by Russell. She has read it three times. I don't know if I could stand to read it again.

Miller covers three periods of time over thousands of years. Each section, originally written as a novella, deals with a nuclear disaster and a monastery where monks preserve whatever relics of the ruined civilization they have been able to find. They work tirelessly in the hopes that a "civilized" culture can be rebuilt.

Spoiler: the final section says IT CAN'T.

These monks speak Latin to each other. I was forced to take two years of Latin in high school in the early 1960s and I confess I hated it. I saw no use in studying a dead language. When I grew up I discovered a use: understanding words more fully by knowing their Latin origins.

I certainly did not retain enough skill to be able to understand what the monks were saying. Fortunately, because you do need to understand, I found a nifty Wikipedia list of all the Latin phrases in the book with their translations.

Miller's writing isn't bad but it lacks smoothness. Even after getting the Latin translations, I could not read quickly. Though I suspect that human life on Earth may be doomed, it sure did not cheer me up to read Miller's take on it.

All that back-breaking and thankless work to preserve and reinvent scientific knowledge over and over, only to have the psychotic element in mankind demolish it again and again! What a rat race, a squirrel cage, an exercise in futility.

No wonder people need religion. But at least the secular humans get to have some fun and enjoy the good times. The popes and abbots and monks just worry and struggle and try to promote reason while they do a lot of praying.

There is a last ditch, hopeful bit at the end, involving extreme uncertainty, hardship, and more suffering. Reading A Canticle For Leibowitz was like going to the doctor to see about some health problem and finding out you only have a short time to live; no cure. But you may as well draw up your will in case the ones you leave behind might have a better time.

If you have read this book and can give me another viewpoint of it, please leave a comment.

(A Canticle For Leibowitz is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. Judy, the last paragraph of this review made me smile. I too sometimes feel puzzled by books and in need to discuss them further.

    1. Well I am glad you smiled, but I was hoping you would say you had read it and found another way to look at the book. That's OK. I am also happy to have your comment:)