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A Canticle for Leibowitz, a Canticle of Speculative Warning

A 1959 novel's speculation of nuclear fallout is yet a story of hope.

This past year seems to have been the year of the atomic bomb, at least in what I’ve read and watched. I started 2023 by reading The Passenger and Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy, a pair of novels that consistently alludes to Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer arrived a few months later in July, sobering audiences worldwide and reinvigorating public interest in the godlike power these brilliant scientists had unleashed on the world. Most recently, I read the 1959 dystopian novel by Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a speculative tale about nuclear holocaust and the perennial human tendency for self-destruction. What a cheery year it’s been! Maybe I’ll switch things up and read Anne of Green Gables as a heart warmer.

Written at the height of the Cold War by a man who experienced the horrors of World War II firsthand, A Canticle Leibowitz takes place at an abbey in barren Utah and spans hundreds of years. It is broken up into three novellas. The first depicts a barren, brutal world post-nuclear holocaust. The second novella leaps several hundred years to a sort of Renaissance age in which old inventions and breakthroughs, most notably electricity, are again being developed. By the third novella, we’re almost back to where we started: total destruction via nuclear war within a highly technological society.

While it’s a bleak and gritty story, the book is far from nihilistic. The abbey, a knowledge-and-book-saving institution, remains throughout each span of time. The young monk Brother Francis discovers remnants of writings from the namesake of the abbey, St. Leibowitz, which in turn helps future monks develop the technology that can lead them out of the dark ages but also threatens to hurl them back into the same catastrophe.

While the book, in the words of C.S. Lewis, is “well-executed,” it is written from such a broad view and over such a long period of time that Miller doesn’t allow much time to get attached any one character. I thought Brother Francis was going to be the protagonist throughout the narrative, but (without outright spoiling the poor monk’s fate) let’s just say he had a premature ending in the novel. Nonetheless, its ambition and scope do well to show the cycle of mankind’s rise to technological power, its fall into ruin, and the consequent rebirth of a civilization fated to undergo a similar kind of demise. But, as the book’s final pages attest, renewal is always possible, even from the ashes. The novel, to quote Lydia McGrew’s review of the book, espouses a powerful humanism in which even the ugliest and most defective people are still valuable and endowed with intrinsic dignity. Fortunately for us, although the nuclear bomb has existed for going on 80 years, we haven’t yet seen the worldwide devastation that Miller warned of in his novel. That might be cause for optimism. However, technological progress, when uncoupled with a concern for the broader wellbeing of human individuals and communities, can unleash chaos. Maybe it’s time to hold tight to the abbeys and stores of knowledge of our world knowing how easily it might all be lost.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, a Canticle of Speculative Warning