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Reviews of Canticle for Leibowitz, a (1959)

Review by ropie (2005-07-12)
It is perhaps too easy to become overly emotional about this book - it is so beautifully written, so evocative of both ancient and future times, so sympathetically economical in its use of language and full of some of the most thoughtfully related characters in all modern fiction, all under the umbrella of the tragic real-life story of the author. There, the trap was too difficult to avoid, and if/when you read 'A Canticle For Leibowitz' you'll begin to understand the fascinating aura that surrounds this very important book.

Every word and phrase here has been carefully considered and conveyed with understated perfection. The brief descriptions of Dom Paulo's stomach illness still make me wince with empathy and yet no more than a few lines are used throughout. And the economic use of language to build up a picture of the landscape: the heat haze, the rubble, the lizards, the hunger - it is a book that is so much more than the sum of its words.

The novel is divided into three distinct chapters that are each separated by many centuries. Initially, the somewhat jarring jump from the Medieval re-renaissance awakenings of the second chapter (itself a far-cry from the post-holocaust monastic simplicity of the first chapter) to the supposed high-technology of the third chapter left me a bit cold. It was if the book had suddenly lost its essential character. Fortunately, I quickly realised I was wrong - the final chapter is every bit as moving and beautifully writen as the first and second. It is especially surprising when you consider that the novel was indeed originally three short stories which were subsequently linked, it has to be said, into one of the finest SF novels ever written.

I won't pretend I understood all of what happened. The book would require several re-readings for that to be the case, maybe even in conjunction with a 'study guide' (yes, they are available on the internet) and/or dictionary - the level of biblical and religious imagery is at times complex, and the use of Latin throughout is emotive but obviously a mystery unless you understand the language.

First and foremost though, the book is a message about the self-destructive nature of humanity. Although the specifics of the nuclear threat may have changed since the book was first published in the late 1950s, the overall picture hasn't. Surrounding this timeless message is some of the finest and most carefully considered writing in all of SF, and it only makes me sad that, aside from the sequel - unfinished at the time of his death - there is not more full length work by Walter Miller Jr.

Review by clong (2005-01-02)
Miller offers a rather bleak outlook on the essential nature of mankind. In this book our raison d'etre comes down to feeding the buzzards.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is composed of three distinct stories set in a post-apocalyptic future, stories that mark key events in man's re-discovery of lost science and learning. I thought the first of the three (about a young apprentice monk who discovers some artifacts of unknown scientific import) was superb, and the second of the three (set in the time that natural science is just starting to reemerge) was the least effective. I didn't really understand the Lazarus character (perhaps reflecting limitations in my understanding of Judeo-Christian archetypes). One of the book's central arguments is that scientists have a profound moral responsiblity for the uses of their work.

This is compelling story-telling, and one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of science fiction. The urgency of the message may seem less pressing today than it did in the 1950s, but in a way that makes it even more frightening.

Review by almuftah (2004-10-06)
I was randomly browsing the shelves of my university library over 10 years ago when I came across a nondescript hardback version of A Canticle for Leibowitz. The title alone must have drawn me in, since there wasnít any art on the cover. I started reading and almost immediately knew Iíd found a story that I would come back to again and again. Itís rare, but wonderful when one encounters a great artistic work to which has not been attached a lot of previous hype. One is free to be surprised and delighted for the first time. Apocalypse, end-of-the-world style SF stories appeal to me in general, but most of them follow the same old tired retread. This one launched out in a completely new direction by using an abbey of monks as the center around which the story revolved. The story follows the monks for hundreds of years of history. It begins just after a cataclysmic global nuclear war, when society is reduced to illiterate barbarians and the monks are the sole keepers of the fragments of manís knowledge. It then transitions to the beginning of manís re-awakening to scientific knowledge and the struggles between science and religion that often result. And finally, it closes on a society that has rebuilt itself back to the level of the pre-war days but tragically is about to make the same fatal error. Each of these stories is told through the eyes of the monks, who I am happy to say are sympathetically portrayed even as they walk out the reality of their faith. A Canticle for Liebowitz is deservedly considered a classic of SF. Though its themes of impending nuclear war and its consequences may come across as a bit dated, there are many other themes explored which will resonate with todayís readers. This is one book which makes you think, but allows you to have a great time while doing it.

Review by sqbr (2003-06-30)
This is a pretty good idea, though once you get the idea the book loses a bit of its appeal.
The portrayal of the arrogance of the newly emergent society at the end, as well as the monks dilemmas dealing with their knowledge are convincing. This idea was stolen for the last episode of season 4 of Babylon five :)
The idea that our society could lose its love and accrual of knowledge is rarely done well in sf, this is an exeption.

©Steven Jeffery /, 2012
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