A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (1960) 338 p.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a well-known science fiction novel that anybody who’s familiar with the genre has probably heard of; for some reason I’ve always associated it with Flowers For Algernon (possibly because of the title?) which I’ve never read. I also assumed, because it was relatively old and remained a well-known title, that it was one of those books that blurred the line between science fiction and literature.

The novel takes place in three parts, all revolving around a Catholic abbey somewhere in the deserts of the American south-west many centuries after a nuclear war. The first is about 600 years later and roughly corresponds to the Dark Ages; the second is about 1,200 years later and roughly corresponds to the Renaissance; the third is about 1,800 years later and has the nations of mankind once again threatening each other with nuclear war.

I was surprised, given that I’d assumed this was a novel with literary pretensions, by Miller’s style of writing. I mean, it does have literary pretensions, but that’s exactly what they are – pretensions. He reminded me of his fellow mid-century science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, in that his writing was littered with a weirdly comic sense of humour among ostensibly serious subjects, and that he occasionally got a little preachy. Much of the third act, for example, revolves around a battle of wills between the abbot and a government doctor tasked with euthanising people suffering from terminal radiation sickness. I don’t know if Miller was himself Catholic – not that it should matter, since the character is – but the section is told from the abbot’s point of view and, while certainly not verging on Heinlein levels of preachiness, doesn’t quite do a fair and balanced job of presenting the opposite opinion.

I actually enjoyed that segment nonetheless, though, because it was the first part of the book that seemed to touch on anything weighty. The novel is saturated in Catholicism, but it’s mostly skin-deep references. I was expecting such a well-regarded book to tackle big subjects like faith, nuclear war and the struggle between religion and science a little more skillfully. Instead, I was mostly left wondering what Miller was trying to accomplish.

Overall, though, the problem I mostly had with A Canticle for Leibowitz was that it was dull. Miller is a wordy writer and doesn’t create particularly memorable characters – not helped by the fact the novel is really just three novellas, introducing a new set of characters each time. Nor is his imagined world of the future very interesting, existing mostly to serve the morals and allegories of the plot, mirroring fairly obvious stages in real history – and it shouldn’t take 338 pages to spell out the tired old axiom that history repeats itself. A Canticle for Leibowitz may be considered a science fiction classic, but my advice is to skip it.

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