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A Canticle for Lebowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
338 pages, Science Fiction
Reviewed by Lily A.

A sometimes violent post-apocalyptic story of conflict, faith, and the preservation of knowledge.

Plot

In the new Dark Age after a nuclear war has devastated the world, an abbey collects and copies books for the future.

In the renaissance of technology in the Utah desert, a conflict of church and state begins. As the modern age comes again and a new war looms on the horizon, it is up to the Church to preserve what they can, if worst should come to worst. Monks of three generations of post-apocalyptic humanity face their times as best they may.

Morality

Complicated. The available representatives of the people of God and their beliefs are viewed through a sometimes cynical, sometimes respectful eye. The founder of the order around whom the plot revolves, Leibowitz, was a former weapons engineer who joined a monastery to hide from persecution, although it is assumed that his conversion was genuine. A city-state ruler finagles and tyrannizes and double-crosses. Sympathetic characters sometimes seem to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Generally, though, this is a story — or three stories — of protagonists who are, if imperfectly, trying to live out their faith in whatever is the crisis of their time.

Spiritual Content

Predominantly Catholic. Monks and their sayings, arguments, and beliefs — partly drawn from modern Catholicism, partly religious interpretations of events before the apocalypse — are key. Discussion is made of canonizing a man. An abbot has a passionate conversation with a Jewish man in which, among other things, the Christian and Jewish understandings of God are compared. The Jewish man in question seems to be virtually immortal — is he “the wandering Jew” (of Catholic tradition)? Another abbot has what may be a prophetic dream.

The re-renaissance era non-Catholic culture apparently has elements of polytheism, as “gods” is used as an exclamation and a saying references a nature god. Tribesmen speculate on what their gods may drink. A man attempts to bring the Pope a much-treasured gift, and papal authority becomes a subject of conflict between the monastery and a nearby city-state. In actions born from religious conviction, monks attempt to deter persons seeking euthanasia.

Violence

The premise of the story is that war has devastated the world. This war is spoken of many times, sometimes conversationally, and sometimes in stylized religious vernacular. A monk finds a fallout shelter, and there are skeletons of people who did not make it in around the door. Reportedly there was a great deal of mob action with book burnings and lynchings in the early days after the war, resulting from people’s anger at science’s creation of the devastating weapons.

In the medieval time “monsters” or “Children of the Fallout,” irradiated mutants, are cast out of their homes and often become cannibals. A pack of these is met by one of the main characters. A servant is said to have been flogged, and a man is assumed to beat his children. Tribesmen routinely drink animal blood because of the scarcity of water. A monk was tortured, and his injuries are seen afterward. There is a scene in the aftermath of a battle, from the point of view of a man who is wounded and expecting to die, which involves a number of dead horses, a screaming soldier, and references to musket balls and cutting tools, as well as an "on-page" death. Some victims of severe radiation are euthanized. On three occasions, scenes end with reference to predatory or carrion-eating wild animals.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Various characters drink wine.

Sexual Content

A monk speaks in confession of having an inappropriate dream, which is attributed to a succubus. A monk speaks of there having been some doubt as to whether the abbey’s founder’s wife was still alive at the time of his ordination. It’s stated in passing that a peasant has syphilis. A nobleman has an illegitimate son. A reference is made to a man abandoning his wife.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

The word "bastard" is used in its literal sense. “Ye gods,” “oh God,” and “Lucifer” are used as exclamations. A man steals or borrows sacramental wine, jokes about drunkenness, and behaves rudely to his host and fellow guests.

Conclusion

This is a book with a near-constant undercurrent of grimness, from the war which was to the war which is to come. It is brutally honest about humanity’s failings, and is at times quite violent. It is also thoughtful, occasionally humorous, and intimately, inseparably tied up with how its characters live or fail to live for God.

It left me with some good memories, and a great deal to think about, but it also left me somewhat drained on my first reading.

This is definitely not a book for children’s reading, because of its violence and the themes it addresses, and also because it often has slow pacing. But if you enjoy science fiction and philosophy, if you like stories of “it might have been,” and if you are not looking for light reading, this may be for you.

Fun Score: 3.5
Values Score: 3.5
Written for Age: adult

Review Rating:

Average rating: 5 stars
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