Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...
read and review the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novels.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was published in 1960 and was the winner of the 7th Hugo Award. The book consists of three distinct sections: "Fiat Homo" is set in the mid-2500s, "Fiat Lux" begins in the year 3174, and "Fiat Voluntas Tua" begins in 3781. The stories take place in North American Earth, but in a world that was first devastated by nuclear holocaust in the mid 1960s and then stripped of its remaining documents, books, and scholars in a global Age of Simplification, leaving the Catholic Church as the dominant world power.

The book's technology ranges with its time period, from candle flames to spaceships, and every stage in between. The few pieces of technology and documentation that are salvaged and protected by the Order of Saint Leibowitz, along with the eventual reinvention and rediscovery of the natural sciences, allow the post-apocalyptic world to slowly rebuild itself from rubble to riches.

Most of the book's characters are members of the Catholic Church, or politicians; as a result, much of the book involves political and religious discussions and debates. There's a lot of Latin, and many references to the Bible; those unfamiliar with either will do a lot of cross-referencing or just miss a lot of the book's levels of meaning.

The author has a clever way with words, and describes things in unusual and often entertaining ways that create vivid mental pictures. Each section of the book is written in a specific style, each is different, and each presents its own challenges. I enjoyed the first section tremendously, but bogged down slightly in the scriptural and political styles of much of the 2nd and 3rd sections. Still great writing, but slow going at times.

I first encountered this book in January of 1986, while I was in 10th grade. An amazing school librarian took it upon herself to expand my already broad literary horizons, and proclaimed this a must-read. For whatever reason, I disliked it immediately and promptly returned it to the library. Coincidentally, some students were there watching the Challenger launch; I stopped to watch the launch, book in hand, and the book's cover art has since been inextricably linked in my mind with the image of the explosion. If not for this project, I wouldn't have revisited A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I'm glad I did. The final scene is hopeful, which is a nice foil to my previous memory of the book. I'm not likely to read this one again, and unlike many people out there, I don't consider it to be the best book in the genre; however, it's a well-written, thought-provoking, original story that I enjoyed reading. Rating: 3/5

1 comment:

  1. I too recently reread Canticle, with much the same result, I'd found the book difficult to read while I was in highschool as an assignment so many decades ago, but thoroughly enjoyed it this time around. I didn't look up the latin references, instead I used my best-guess, probably got about half the intent. I'd agree, not the best of the best, but worth reading, both as a reader, and as an aspiring writer looking at different ways to tell a story.