A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I’m not sure how I stumbled on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a Hugo Award-winning novel from 1961 that depicts a post-apocalyptic earth going through inevitable cycles of progress and regression. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t a reader suggestion, and I very rarely read science fiction, but somehow I added this to my queue about six months ago. I’d say it was worth reading for the obvious influence it had on later works, but found it an arduous read and a damn depressing one at that.

In Canticle, humanity has nearly wiped itself out through nuclear war, but survivors are rebuilding civilization or simply banding together in tribes habitable areas. The Catholic Church figures heavily in Miller’s book (he was Roman Catholic as well), and serves as a preserver not just of morality and faith but of knowledge after the remaining masses rise up against the intelligentsia, especially scientists, in retaliation for the unleashing of the destructive power of the atom, a passage that unfortunately presaged the real-life genocide of intellectuals in Cambodia under Pol Pot. As humanity moves forward again in fits and starts, the role of the Church changes in society in an exploration of the relationship between small-c church and institutions such as state and science.

The novel is actually a collation of three novellas, each depicting a different time period beginning about six hundred years after the nuclear holocaust, but all centered on a Catholic abbey in the Rocky Mountains dedicated to Saint Leibowitz, a former electric engineer who joined the clergy after the war and gave his life to preserve pre-war scientific knowledge. In the first section, a meek monk-in-training accidentally discovers a fallout shelter that may hold the remains of Saint Leibowitz’ wife, as well as other artifacts from his time deemed by the Church to hold great historical importance. In the second section, an agnostic scholar and researcher visits the abbey as one of the monks is preparing to demonstrate the first (post-war) electric lamp. In the third part, the abbey prepares to send several of its monks to a human colony on Alpha Centauri bearing both ecclesiastical “Memorabilia” and secular knowledge to escape an impending second nuclear war, bringing about a debate between the abbot and a nonreligious doctor over euthanasia for victims of the first attack. Through all three books a Jewish wanderer appears, perhaps the same person despite the span of centuries, waiting for the Messiah while assisting (sometimes in peculiar ways) one or more of the monks.

The three epochs demonstrated in the book mirror three major periods in modern human history – the pre-Enlightenment period where the church’s primacy in civilization and in the advancement of knowledge was largely unchallenged; the Enlightenment itself, where science took away domains of learning previously belonging to the church; and the twentieth century, with nuclear weapons, the repetition of past calamities, and, in what I presume was Miller’s view, a loss of morality tied to the gradual withdrawal of religion from the center of everyday life.

As a social document or a theological one, I imagine the book holds great value; Wikipedia – which we know is never wrong – mentions “a significant body of literary criticism, including numerous literature journal articles, books and college courses” around Canticle. That doesn’t make it a compelling read even if it might be an important one, and the lack of compelling or sympathetic characters left the text feeling more like a history than a great novel. I would imagine from the descriptions of both the local setting of the abbey and the state of humanity and its governance that the book had a heavy influence in literature and literary offshoots after its publication; On the Beach followed two years later, and the world described in part one of Canticle reminded me more than once of the post-apocalyptic setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Although I never got into role-playing games, I remember trying one from the 1980s called Gamma World that had to be drawn in part from Miller’s work or its literary progeny, and I’d imagine Wasteland and Fallout (which I’ve never played) drew either straight from Canticle or from it by way of Gamma World.

Influence or importance might get me to read a book, and Miller’s formal prose wasn’t as unbearable as that of Henry James or Theodore Dreiser. But I couldn’t give this much of a recommendation to anyone who reads strictly for pleasure.

Next up: J.P. Donleavy’s comic novel The Ginger Man.


  1. Loved Canticle, but then again I love both Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic works, so this was right in my wheelhouse.

    I thought the best novella was the third, especially the long debate you referenced. The first novella wasn’t bad, but I had trouble getting through the 2nd one.

  2. I had a heap o’ trouble finishing Canticle several years ago, even though I had read it a couple of decades ago when I was a teenager. I thought I liked it back then, but I clearly didn’t understand it. The re-read as an adult left me with a big feeling of meh.

    Good luck with The Ginger Man. I had it sitting on my nightstand for about a year and I was never able to get into it.

  3. I read the first part of this some years ago, and basically enjoyed it, such as it was. But then the book completely abandoned the plot-line and my interest was basically abandoned, too.

    Love Fallout, though, and I basically imagined the whole book from the distinctive isometric, pixeled viewpoint.

  4. Mr. Law,
    I am a huge fan. Thank you for all you do at ESPN, I really respect your opinion.
    My wife and I are going to be going on a short vacation to Niagara Falls and Toronto at the end of June. I was wondering if you could give any good restaurant recommendations for either of those places. We will actually be seeing the Phillies (favorite team) and Blue Jays game in Toronto on July 1st and would love a good place to eat dinner.
    Thanks so much
    Eric from Pa

  5. Brian in Tolleson

    not related: my wife is at a tupperware party. Opinions on storage containers?

  6. I vaguely remember liking Canticle in freshman lit, but the standout in that ‘alternative societies’ for me was The Handmaid’s Tale (we ran out of time in the class and just watched Clockwork Orange instead of reading it, so it was a repeat).

  7. For Eric from PA

    Re: Toronto & Niagara Falls Restaurants

    Hi Eric,

    I live in Toronto. I’m going to volunteer to field this one for Keith (who’s been out of Toronto for approx 5-years)

    For Toronto:

    Lunches downtown:

    -O & B Canteen (King St & John St)
    -Ravi Soups (Adelaide, W of John) Sri Lankian inspired soups and wraps

    -Nota Bene
    -Guu Izakaya
    -Enoteca Sociale

    Late Night:
    -if you’ve never had it, try one of Canada’s artery clogging specialties – Poutine (one the menu everywhere, lots of little shops too)

    For Niagara Falls

    I would recommend to driving to Niagara-on-the-Lake (30 minutes) for dinner. Lots of lovely restaurants there. I don’t think there’s too much in Niagara Falls for foodies.

    **warning! The area directly around the ballpark – the Rogers Centre – is full of very bland, over-priced tourist traps!



  8. Dave,
    Thank you very much. My wife and I are thinking about trying out either Woodlot or Barque. neither or which seem too far from the stadium.
    Thanks again,
    Eric from PA
    ps. GO Phillies!