Home / Articles / A Canticle for Today: Contemporary Lessons from a Sci-Fi Classic
This year will mark the 60th anniversary of a much-beloved novel that falls somewhere between science fiction, philosophy, and religio-historical meditation, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Never out of print since its first publication, with sales in the millions, Canticle won the 1961 Hugo Award for best novel and continues to find new readers. As we consider the problems of our contemporary world, Miller’s work still has much to teach us today about the eternal challenges of human folly and the tools we need to respond to the damage such folly produces.
Built from three novellas Miller published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late 1950s, Canticle is an unusual post-apocalyptic novel in an era littered with them. It appeared around the same time as other classic imaginings of the world after humanity’s ultimate crime against humanity. They include Nevil Shute’s relentlessly grim On the Beach (which became an equally grim blockbuster film in 1959) and Pat Frank’s oddly hopeful Alas, Babylon (which became a grim yet oddly hopeful television film in the classic series Playhouse 90 the following year). Canticle also shared bookstore shelves with such techno-political versions of the genre as those disturbingly similar warnings about the dangers of unchecked technology in leading humanity to perdition: Peter Bryant’s Red Alert (the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s masterful parody, Dr. Strangelove) and Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe. Those last two works were so similar they led both to a celebrated intellectual property lawsuit and to competing 1964 films, which demonstrated how the same story could be played as either existential tragedy or absurdist satire.
That double nature of the nuclear story informs Canticle as well. It is at turns earnest and absurdist, learned and frivolous. Unlike its literary competitors, however, it has never been dramatized, and has been called “unfilmable.” Even as it traced its roots to the same late 1950s nuclear neuroses that haunted the West, Canticle was not quite like any of its contemporaries—for what it chose to say, and how it chose to say it.
Walter Miller’s personal journey shaped the philosophy behind the only novel he completed in his lifetime. A bomber crewman during the Second World War, he participated in air raids that destroyed the historic Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino in 1944. Deeply shaken by his complicity in the destruction of that piece of Western patrimony, Miller became obsessed with preserving culture after catastrophe. A postwar convert to Catholicism, his work also reflects his preoccupation with the role of the Church in preserving such treasures, and to the inherent tension between religious and political authorities in any society. The book includes many references to actual theological and ecclesiological disputes, and generous helpings of Latin (some translated, some not).
As its unusual title suggests, Canticle is heavy on irony as it meditates on the inevitability of human frailty and the hope for a better future. Beginning in the centuries after the “Flame Deluge” that destroyed 20th Century Society, the novel traces the work of the monks of the Leibowitizian Order. Their founder, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, an engineer who converted to Catholicism and had sworn to protect the remnants of human knowledge in the face of both the calamity and the anti-intellectual ravages of its survivors, can be read as an analogue to Miller himself. Following in his footsteps, the Order carefully collects and preserves all traces of human culture and knowledge. Even if they don’t understand the details of the technical manuals discovered in ancient fallout shelters, or can’t quite puzzle out the deeper meaning behind an ancient manuscript that reads, “Pound pastrami… can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma,” the monks nurture the fragile flame through a new Dark Age. We follow generations of them as they continue their work against the backdrop of humanity’s gradual recovery, through a new Renaissance and the rise of a new political order. Historians of medieval and early modern Europe will be pleasantly surprised to see how well Miller re-imagines the emergence of new states after the collapse of empire, and their ambivalent relationship with religious authority. (Indeed, the first time I heard of the book was when a brilliant medievalist colleague at Furman University suggested it to me—thanks, David.) Within an area that stretches roughly from the Mississippi to the Rockies, Miller sketches a struggle between dynasties and warlords, overseen nervously by officials in New Rome (whose location is never precisely described) and observed at a distance by the Leibowitzians.
Preserving culture is an endless and ultimately thankless task. In the novel’s middle section, during the new Renaissance, a long discussion between the current Abbot of the Order, Dom Paolo, and the Jewish hermit Benjamin (who may be anyone from Lazarus to Leibowitz himself) considers the futility of the Order’s centuries of work in preserving the knowledge of the past. When Paolo, after complaining that worldly authorities were seeking to take control of the Order’s sacred relics, asserts the divine nature of their work, Benjamin gently chides his friend and intellectual sparring partner. “The books you have stored away may be hoary with age,” Benjamin notes, “but they were written by children of the world, and they’ll be taken from you by children of the world, and you had no business meddling with them in the first place.” When Paolo tries to argue that Benjamin is merely being cynical, Benjamin concludes: “No, it’s merely the assertion of faith in the consistency of events. The children of the world are consistent too—so I say they will soak up everything you can offer, take your job away from you, and then denounce you as a decrepit wreck.”
Benjamin’s prophecy about the ultimate fate of the Order and of the Church comes true. Generations later, a reborn, technologically advanced humanity rushes toward a repeat performance of its own destruction, pushing aside religious concerns. But the Order remains committed to its calling. After listening to a news report on the world crisis, a later Abbot, Dom Zerchi, muses:
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Empire of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America—burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.
Advanced societies eventually turn on themselves and seek self-destruction, not because they have failed to satisfy material comforts and overcome the hardships of previous ages, but because none of those material successes provide permanent satisfaction. The appetite for more comforts grows with the eating; the accelerating pace of life increases the sense of being left behind. “The closer men come to perfecting for themselves a paradise,” the Abbot sighs, “the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well.”
Even as a new fire descends on the world, the novel ends on a hopeful note. The same institution that had protected culture in previous Dark Ages mobilizes to do so once more. There is no guarantee that this culture being saved will be any wiser than those that went before. But that’s not the point. The point is to make the effort, in the hope that this next time humanity might get it right.
As we survey the world of 2019, hope is hard to find. Humanity faces real problems—economic, climatic, political, and spiritual. What’s worse, institutions such as the Catholic Church, once charged with maintaining hope, are themselves deeply battered by scandal, dragged down by the weight of human failings and corruption. Political leaders find success by identifying real problems and attacking failing institutions, while offering no constructive replacements. Power comes to those who mobilize grievances that divide rather than messages that unify. In the gathering darkness, it is harder to find common sparks to provide warmth. More than ever, humanity needs those whose faith in things unseen and willingness to sacrifice for the future of others can provide shelter and light. Without them, we are each left alone to face our fate and will be lost, abandoned, forgotten. Who will sing the songs that give us hope, who will offer the canticles of grace to light our way through the darkness and preserve our memory? No one can say.
Walter Miller himself was not able to maintain that hope for himself. After the death of his wife, struggling with writer’s block, Miller eventually gave up, committing suicide in 1996. His work nonetheless endures, a monument to the faith that he had lost.
For a society and a culture to survive requires something beyond material knowledge. It requires the belief that others will emerge when knowledge is not enough to save the world from disaster, others whose faith and hope will guide them in preserving what is necessary to rebuild. Humanity must have faith in itself and hope for the future, not certainty or guarantees. We can never know if this time what we rebuild will survive. Experience suggests that it probably will eventually fail as well. But we must rebuild anyway. Again and again and again.