A Canticle For Leibowitz (1959)
Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1923 - 1996)
In 1959, with Cold War tensions mounting, Walter Miller wrote a dark vision of mankind’s future in a post-nuclear world.
Miller’s novel, "A Canticle for Leibowitz," opens many centuries after man has unleashed a world-wide nuclear war in the late 1950’s, leaving much of the civilized world destroyed. With relatively few survivors left to pick up the pieces, the world has been reduced back to small, mostly independent communities and groups and the effects of the war remain visible from generation to generation as the mutations caused by the nuclear fallout are passed on. The novel is split into three sections; the first takes place roughly 600 years after the war, the second and third parts some 600 and 1200 years beyond that.
The story centers on a small abbey in the desert south-west of what had been the United States. The abbey is a part of what is left of the Catholic Church, which has attempted to maintain its structure in the re-ordered, post-war world. This particular abbey has taken on the roll of preserving what it can of the scientific documents of the old civilization, saving them from the hysterical mobs that roamed the post-nuclear world, killing the educated and destroying any texts of science, all of which they blamed for having led to the nuclear war in the first place.
As the centuries pass, the generations of monks at the abbey are left with no understanding of the meaning of the documents: they simply keep them safe, making copies from time to time to preserve the now incomprehensible words and figures for the future. Gradually, as the proscription against knowledge and learning disappears, scientists discover again nature’s laws, and begin linking up what they learn with the bits and pieces of knowledge saved by the monks, re-discovering the science of the past. The question for Miller is how man will handle this second chance at civilization, with the knowledge and evidence of the near complete elimination of our species that had occurred before. His devastating conclusion is mixed with a tentative flicker of hope.
In his novel, Miller creates a compelling psychological portrait of mankind, combining a scathing critic of our inability to alter an at times fundamentally destructive behavior (even in the face of the visible and dramatic effects of past mistakes) with occasional scenes of charity and sacrifice, and a humorous look at our many foibles.
Other reviews / information:
A review in Challenging Destiny, a science fiction and fantasy magazine.