The Hugo Project: 1961 – A Canticle for Leibowitz

11 Feb

Previously on the Hugo ProjectBobby Heinlein and the Merits of Facism.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. I hope you all enjoyed last week’s supplemental edition concerning the cinematic travesty that is Starship Troopers. This week we return to something resembling serious discourse as we visit Walter M. Miller’s post-apocalyptic future. Please don your complementary radioactive hazard suits before exiting the vehicle; we would hate to lose anyone to radiation poisoning before we finish our tour of sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
published as 3 short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1955, 1956, and 1957
published as a unified novel in 1960


In the 20th century, humanity destroyed itself. Nuclear holocaust lead to a backlash against scientific learning, and the survivors plunged themselves into a second Dark Age. Only a few “bookleggers” dared try to preserve the learning of their ancestors. Over the course of centuries, the Order of Saint Leibowitz – one of the original bookleggers – safeguards what little remains of humankind’s scientific knowledge. Civilizations rebuild, but will humans be any wiser the second time around when it comes to nuclear physics?


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

This is the second time I’ve read this, the first being at the tender age of 15 for my high school sci fi lit class. I liked it better the second time around, perhaps because I had a better grasp of Miller’s complex world – although I freely admit that I still don’t quite Get It when it comes to this book. Trying to write this review is giving me a massive headache, and most of it is just me mocking the Catholic Church.

Reading Canticle had a few unanticipated side effects; namely, from the moment I (re)read the first page, Catholicism began stalking me – and not just in the usual, Catholic-relatives-at-the-holidays-finding-every-excuse-to-mention-their-awesome-Catholicness way. And now that it’s come time to post my thoughts on the book, the Pope has shocked everybody (or at least everybody who actually cares about the whole Papacy thing) by announcing his retirement.


…okay, so I still have Major Issues with Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. At least I’m dealing with it humorously, rather than angrily? Look, it’s my blog. I’ll be as sarcastic and irreverent as I damn well please when it comes to this nonsense. My feelings of Catholocism are well-represented by a recent quote to my mother (discussing the Ruth Kolpack/Robert Morlino debacle):

It’s Catholocism. You can only do things if you have dangly bits – so long as you don’t use the dangly bits. Because LOGIC.

Anyway. Given my less-than-cordial relationship with Cathol and his teachings, I rolled my eyes a lot at the characterization of Catholicism as the savior of knowledge in the Second Dark Ages. Admittedly, this is not a wild and crazy idea, given the role of the Church during the original Dark Ages. In fact, it kind of makes a lot of sense. There was a time when the Catholic Church was a preserver, not a denier, of scientific knowledge.

The central theme, so far as I can distinguish, of the book is knowledge, wisdom, and the difference between the two. Miller has a fairly bleak opinion of humankind’s ability to use its knowledge wisely (SPOILER ALERT: we nuke ourselves again), but his postulation of the cyclical nature of our acceptance, expansion, and use of knowledge is interesting, if depressing. The problem for me, of course, comes from the holier-than-thou-ness of the Catholic Church’s self-imposed duty of Saving Knowledge and Civilization Because People Are Too Stupid to Do It for Themselves.

Anyway…social equality review!

Race: There’s frankly not a lot of mention of race, which leads me to the default assumption that we’re supposed to picture everyone as white, although I honestly don’t know. There is this interesting quote:

…the Asian rulers had sent the first colony ship. Then in the West the cry was heard: ‘Are we to let the “inferior” races inherit the stars?’ There had been a brief flurry of starship launchings as colonies of black people, brown, white, and yellow people were hurled into the sky toward the Centaur, in the name of racism. Afterwards, geneticists had wryly demonstrated that – since each racial group was so small that unless their descendants intermarried, each would undergo deteriorative genetic drift due to inbreeding on the colony planet – the racists had made cross-breeding necessary to survival. (286)

I can’t vouch for the scientific veracity of that claim, and my brain started to hurt when I tried to look into it, but I love the irony. I wonder if JMS has read Canticle

Gender/Sexuality: Where dem girls at? I mean, okay, most of the book takes place in a monastery, but still. What few women there are (and they mostly show up only at the very end) are planted firmly in the ‘innocent child’ category, which is just getting old at this point.

Oh, and I have another quote, regarding a statue created to be a composite of the most “trustworthy”, “attractive”, etc. facial characteristics. I’m not sure what Miller’s purpose was in writing this scene – I’d like to think he’s showing some of the flaws in patriarchal thought, but he could agree wholeheartedly with Zerchi. Either way, it’s thought-provoking.

This statue, Zerchi was dismayed to notice, bore a marked similarity to some of the most effeminate images by which mediocre, or worse than mediocre, artists had traditionally misrepresented the personality of Christ. The sweet-sick face, blank eyes, simpering lips, and arms spread wide in a gesture of embrace. The hips were broad as a woman’s, and the chest hinted at breasts – unless those were only folds in the cloak. Dear Lord of Golgotha, Abbot Zerchi breathed, is that all the rabble imagine You to be? He could without effort imagine the statue saying: “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” but he could not imagine it saying: “Depart from me into everlasting fire, accursed ones,” or flogging the money-changers out of the Temple.  (p 299)

To which I reply: “And this is a bad thing? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we stopped looking for reasons to be angry and started looking for ways to be kind to each other?” Then I pull out this poem.

Disabled/Other-abled: Well, nuclear fallout will create a lot of people with ‘abnormalities,’ who are either monsters or innocents. It’s like the virgin/whore dynamic for women.

In the end, I do have to admire the depth of Miller’s worldbuilding. Canticle is a book one can sink into quite easily, although you’ll probably contract a serious case of WTF? when you come up for air. It’s worth a read, and it feels like a Hugo, whatever that means. I’ll probably re-read it again over the course of my life; I hope I continue to get a little bit more out of it with each reading!

OVERALL RANKING: 7 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).


All quotes and page numbers are from the J. B. Lippincott Company edition, first published in 1960.

1 Comment

Posted by on 11.2.2013 in Books, Spirituality/Paganism


Tags: , , , , , , ,

One response to “The Hugo Project: 1961 – A Canticle for Leibowitz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: