A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew into richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they-this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness.
Hundreds of years after a devastating nuclear war, the world has been plunged into a second dark age, but the monks of the Order of Leibowitz try to preserve what knowledge they can for when humanity will be ready for it again.
This philosophical classic of post-apocalypse literature is a meditation on the nature of mankind’s impulse to destroy itself. This was my second reading of it, and while I found it too pro-religion for my tastes this time around, it did help give me insight into why some people hold onto faith even throughout the worst disasters.
The novel is broken into three sections, each one separated by hundreds of years. Although the story takes place after a 20th-century nuclear war has occurred, destroying civilization as we know it, the three sections of the novel mirror the stages of human history: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and the Technological Age. Leibowitz strongly asserts the idea that history is cyclical, that we as a species are doomed to repeat events again and again until we can figure out a way to rid ourselves of our own impulse to self-destruct.
There are three constants throughout, acting like an axle around which the cycle of history can wrap itself. The first is nature, represented by carrion birds and sharks, which endure more or less the same, despite what happens in the world of men. The second is the monastery, founded in the remote Southwestern desert by Leibowitz after the first nuclear war as a place to hide away whatever remnants of scientific knowledge can be preserved until they can be put to use again. The third is God, personified is this novel by a wandering prophet and a mutant, a God who is constantly present but does not interfere.
And this is the theme of the novel, that no matter what people do to themselves, God exists and endures. The monks preserve faith in God as much as they do human knowledge; the two seem barely separable. But the monks never apply that knowledge that they caretake. They let others come and study it, scientists and scholars, but they remain essentially the same as well. In the final section of the novel, when the wheel has turned around again at last and humanity is on the verge of launching another nuclear war, the monks clash with doctors and police who are offering to euthanize the victims of radiation poisoning, who are suffering terribly. I sympathized with the doctors, but I could see that after thousands of years of entrusting absolutely everything to God, the monks had no choice but to try to stop it; they had ceded all control over their lives and the course of mankind to God. In light of the novel’s thesis, perhaps if the rest of humanity had fallen suit, we would never have come around to Armageddon again. That is not my view, though, just the view of this novel.
Even though A Canticle for Leibowitz is a deeply thoughtful read, it will likely never be a favorite of mine because of this viewpoint. I prefer to retain faith that people can solve our own problems, that we can even overcome our own flawed natures to survive and evolve. It is up to us, not ancient aliens or God to make that happen.
If you liked this book, you may also like: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; Earth Abides by George R. Stewart; Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank; The Postman by David Brin; The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester; The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin; Ringworld by Larry Niven; On the Beach by Nevil Shute; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury