Undoubtedly an intellectual powerhouse, but it failed to marry this with the compelling narrative that makes a truly great work of fiction.
Synopsis: 600 years after society self-destructed in nuclear war, a new dark age has descended. Three short stories depict an obscure monastery attempting to preserve the remnants of civilization by hoarding literature from the twentieth century. Over nearly 2000 years, we follow the brothers of this peculiar order as they contemplate their existence under the threat of future nuclear annihilation.
As a Maths teacher, I often introduce my pupils to the concept of happy and sad numbers. By picking a starting number and applying a couple of operations repeatedly, any number can either be reduced to 1 (a happy number), or ends up in a loop that never resolves (a sad number). It’s a nice analogy for life – some repeat a few steps before finding a single niche to settle into, while others get stuck in a cycle they cannot break. In Miller’s bleak vision, humanity has become one giant sad number, stuck in an ever-recurring and inevitable loop.
Dark Ages, Renaissance, Cold War, repeat. Fortunate enough to have survived a nuclear holocaust in the 20th Century, humanity has learnt nothing and a second round of wipeout approaches. Questions naturally arise about fate and the role of knowledge and technology, but Miller isn’t in the business of providing answers. The stories move briskly through the history of the new civilisation without offering much insight into how such a vicious cycle could be avoided, settling instead for a nightmare vision of a world where humanity is fighting extinction with very little success. By exposing the reader to a full turn of this cycle, Miller turns the nihilism up to 11. This book is certainly not for those already questioning the point of life!
This book suffers from a serious dose of disconnect between its three stories, in a far more dramatic sense than, say, Foundation or I Robot. Main characters die abruptly and without consequence and common threads throughout the stories are left unresolved. How the reader reacts to this comes down to how they approach the book. As a series of short stories, the complete changing of characters twice during the course of the book is reasonable, and the common threads become quaint call-backs to previous instalments. Read as a single novel however, the change of characters is disconcerting and the common threads resemble significant clues in deciphering some underlying mystery – clues which never resolve meaningfully. I found myself racking my brains for some deeper meaning behind it all; the best I could do was that odd stuff happens, and we usually don’t get to find out why. To be fair to Miller, this does tie in nicely with the religious elements of the book.
To religion, then. The monks of the book are disciples of Leibowitz, a 20th Century physicist who set out to preserve knowledge from destructive hoards by ‘booklegging’ important works to safety within the walls of the monastery in which the plot is set. Leibowitz only adopted religion when he needed the safe space to store his books, a fact that seems to have completely not registered for the monks. They continue his mission, often blindly, to the point where the reader is driven to question what the purpose is behind this jealously-guarded vault of secrets. Ultimately the role of religion mirrors its role in actual history – initially the focal point of civilisation and the gatekeeper of knowledge, it gradually fades in significance and dissolves into internal arguments about direction and its interaction with the society that has overtaken it. From their aloof viewpoint the ‘Brothers’ see humanity repeat the mistakes of the previous era, and seem quietly resigned when nuclear war once again breaks out. This endless cycle of Dark Ages, Renaissance, Cold War respawns yet again in the final pages, as we see a desperate group of booklegging monks blast off for another planet.
I enjoyed this book a lot at first. I found the worldbuilding fascinating, the initial characters reassuringly relatable, and the monastic element quite unusual. However the book splintered considerably as it wore on, and as a result it became quite dull. A Canticle for Leibowitz is undoubtedly an intellectual powerhouse, but it failed to marry this with the compelling narrative that makes a truly great work of fiction.