On Thursday, March 19th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book club met and discussed Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller’s novel takes place on earth, beginning in the 26th century, centuries after the “Flame Deluge” has scoured the earth clean. The book is separated into three parts, each taking place 6 centuries apart, and is told through the experiences of different members of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a monastery located in the Utah desert. A Canticle for Leibowitz is identified as foundational in post-World War II dystopian speculative fiction and is considered a significant landmark in 20th century American Literature.
There is something chillingly familiar about the world in A Canticle for Leibowitz. The massacre of nearly all humans at the hands of nuclear warfare has lead to a drastic abandonment of all technological development, which seems somewhat plausible. Humanity, at times, has practiced wide-spread rejection of a particular mode of being over a relatively short amount of time. Just as plausible (or perhaps even more so) is the swing back towards embracing technology. Whether it be the result of our insatiable curiosity, fueled by a compulsion for obtaining power, or some blend of both and more, humanity tends to lust after what is placed out of reach–for better and for worse.
While trying to nail down different ways in which A Canticle for Leibowitz may be categorized, one genre that came up was “Catholic Fantasy” (or Jesuits in Space, which is actually a thing). Apart from taking place in a monastery, Miller explores many familiar Catholic themes including temptation, salvation, patience, fortitude in the face of great adversity, the value of suffering, and especially social service. The primary objective of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz monastery is the preservation of society. Over the 18 centuries Miller covers, the Albertian Order, not unlike many monasteries throughout history, transcribes ancient texts, records dictation, and works hard to preserve knowledge. Despite not knowing the meaning of much that they record and preserve, the Order is fervently dedicated to knowledge to whatever end is necessary, even if that end requires starships and leaving planet earth during the final moments of humanity’s habitancy.
In the spirit of identifying a classification for a text by means of its dominant themes or narrative tendencies, a topic of interest that often comes up in our discussions is the depiction of and consistent absence of female characters. Many books considered “classic” SF in the western canon are written by white males. The result we’ve observed in our group has been a disproportionate number of one-dimensional, and/or offensive depictions of women. While there is little value in lambasting an author or discounting their work based solely on their conception of female characters, there does seem to be value in considering what the this void can show us about how their text fits into the context from which it emerged–the end goal being insight into a way life was experienced within that particular context. In the case of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it’s interesting to consider how women are mostly absent from the narrative (granted, the story primarily takes place within the walls of a monastery, but still).. When women do appear, their actions and presence is of particular, exceptional importance. Of the two female characters with any significant page time, one justifiably acts in defiance to the long established moral code of the Order and the other provides a vessel for the birth of humanity’s next iteration.
Like the work of many mid-20th century SF short story writers turned novelists, Miller’s novel reads at a break-neck pace. There are a number of small details that give a considerable amount of depth to the universe, but Miller also puts a significant amount of trust into the reader’s imagination. I, for one, appreciate the compliment and enjoy fleshing out the text with my own mind. I also find that books like A Canticle for Leibowitz are ripe for rereading and often reveal additional, unique insights on subsequent reads.
Join us on Friday, April 17th at 7pm for a discussion of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.