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Literature: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1960. Based on three short stories Miller contributed to the science fiction magazine The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it is the only novel published by the author during his lifetime. Considered one of the classics of science fiction, it has never been out of print and has seen over 25 reprints and editions. Appealing to mainstream and genre critics and readers alike, it won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. The novel has three parts in different time periods and shows how the monastery and the world change over time.

Inspired by the author's participation in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, the novel is considered a masterpiece by literary critics. It has been compared favorably with the works of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, and its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state have generated a significant body of scholarly research. Miller's follow-up work, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was published posthumously in 1997.

Examples:

  • After the End: All the way up to the second end.
  • Age Without Youth: The recurring Jew appears to grow older but never dies, a fact which perplexes the other characters.
  • Alternate History: A honorary one at least. The Deluge was said to have taken place around the late 1960s, with hints of somewhat more advanced technology than the real one. It can also be presumed that Vatican II was never issued in that timeline.
  • Altum Videtur: As the lingua franca of the Church, Latin is used all over the place in the books, sometimes translated, sometimes not.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: It's never outright stated that Isaac Leibowitz was Jewish, though it's heavily implied.
  • And Man Grew Proud: A common theme is that as society develops high technology and becomes able to build weapons of fantastic power, it loses touch with its spiritual and ethical side.
  • Anyone Can Die: And they do.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 1, edging towards Class 2, the nuclear war being referred to as "The Flame Deluge". The end implies that the result of the second nuclear war was a Class 3... on Earth, anyway.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The papers Brother Francis finds in the fallout shelter.
  • Badass Preacher: It's implied the monks, despite being generally non-violent, have defended the abbey with arms multiple times in its history.
  • Barbarian Tribe: Most prominently in the tribal peoples of "Fiat Homo" and the Plains Nomads of "Fiat Lux".
  • Black Comedy: Evident throughout the novel, showing the folly of mankind's existence in contrast to the monks' mission.
    • The Catholic Church itself is also given this treatment in the novel, whether it's the endless theological disputes or the irony of the "Pope's Children." In addition, each part ends with the events being viewed from the perspective of buzzards though the end has them replaced with a lucky shark.
  • Bilingual Bonus: With Latin and even a little Hebrew.
    • Also the bits of German used in the intro of "Fiat Voluntas Tua".
  • Bittersweet Ending: The story chronicles the second rise and fall of civilization, including The End of the World as We Know It. But this time, the Church has learned from the past and arranged for a starship to be sent out to the Centaurus colony.
    • "Fiat Homo" likewises ends with a bittersweet note. Francis successfully gives Leibowitz's relics to the Pope, thus leading to the man's canonization only to be killed by the "Pope's Children" later on.
  • Call Back: When the abbot finds Francis' skull at the very end of the book.
  • Captain Ersatz: The Green Star is very clearly The Red Cross.
  • The Chessmaster: Hannegan, who is also quite the Magnificent Bastard.
  • Church Militant: Abbot Zerchi, which leads him to a Heel Realization after attempting to stop a victim of radiation poisoning and her infant daughter from euthanasia.
  • Conveniently Precise Translation: Averted; Francis has quite a bit of difficulty translating the technical jargon he finds in the fallout shelter. Later, a machine translator is invented which (like its Real Life counterparts) is somewhat less than reliable.
  • Corrupt Church: What the Catholic Church is blatantly portrayed as in St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It's still to be rooted for over The Empire, in part because it's not so much a conventional Corrupt Church as it is an exceptionally complex and institutionalized Dysfunction Junction. The only sane one is Cardinal Silentia.
  • Crapsack World: Although many characters choose to interpret it as A World Half Full.
  • Days of Future Past: The cyclical nature of history is a major theme of the book, with "Fiat Homo" modeled after the Middle Ages, and "Fiat Lux" closely resembling the Renaissance. Likewise, the Texarkana Schism bears more than a passing resemblance to Henry VIII's English Reformation. And that's not counting the Manifest Destiny in St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, or the Cold War analogy in "Fiat Voluntas Tua."
  • Distant Finale: 1,200 years after "Fiat Homo".
  • Divided States of America: By the time of "Fiat Lux", where America used to be consists of several city-state "empires" which don't even speak the same language.
  • Eagleland: The series is set entirely within the American landmass. The papacy has its seat in the vicinity of where St. Louis used to be, and retreats to Denver after the Texarkanan Schism.
  • Ecclesiology Marches On: The novel was published just three years before Vatican II de-emphasized the use of Latin within the Church. And the texts for a votive Mass for Pilgrims and Travelers, movingly said before the rocket launches, have not migrated to the current liturgical books.
  • The Empire: Texark.
  • Eternal English: Averted. "Modern" English is very much a dead language in the future, and must be studied like one. It's implied that, much like Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire, different dialects of English grew and evolved into full-blown, mutually unintelligible languages.
  • Evil Luddite: The Simplification was the backlash of a group of self-proclaimed "simpletons" against scientists and other intellectuals, whom they blamed for the Flame Deluge. Leibowitz himself was one of their victims.
    • To clarify: first the politicians, then scientists, teachers, students, and finally people who can read. No this isn't Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking.
  • Fantastic Catholicism
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As noted, post-apocalyptic America is essentially medieval Europe, with a Dark Age, a Renaissance and modernity, and the appropriate conflicts between science and faith. By the end of the book, the two poles of the international system are loosely based on the Cold War. And then the Flame Deluge repeats — with one key difference.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: After the Flame Deluge, the entire purpose of the monks' work is to preserve a fragment of human knowledge for future generations who will be able to understand it better.
    • After civilization rises again, and falls again, the church survives by sending off a mission ship to one of the offworld colonies.
  • Flying Dutchman: The Wandering Jew. Maybe.
  • Feudal Future: Justified, seeing that an Age of Simplification leads to a new dark age.
  • Future Imperfect: So much. Often Played for Laughs though, especially when the Church relocates the Prime Meridian in order to liberate it from the influence of the "Green Witch".
    • One of the monks in "Fiat Lux" suggests that the Pre-Deluge Church may have used arc lamps on their altars instead of candles. The Abbot is not pleased.
    • Brother Francis plays an important role in getting Leibowitz canonized. Centuries later, one monk doesn't even remember who he is.
    • Thon Taddeo is described as a brilliant genius comparable to Einstein. But by the time of Fiat Voluntas Tua, even the monks have trouble recalling his name.
    • The circumstances behind the Flame Deluge and its immediate aftermath, such as who the US President was at the time or who fired first, are hotly contested. Yet every monk seems to take for granted that Leibowitz's wife had a gold tooth.
    • The narration regarding the Simpletons and the last days of the pre-Deluge world, reads like a liturgical sermon that would be more fitting for Martin Luther's time than Martin Luther King's. Hilariously enough, the Simpletons' rallying cry, which managed to survive intact down the generations sounds much more like what working-class Americans would say.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Brother Kornhoer, who builds the first working electrical generator.
  • Gainax Ending: The Second Coming of Christ (or the return of the Virgin Mary) is a tomato saleswoman's green-eyed radiation-eating conjoined fetus head.
  • Here We Go Again / History Repeats / Eternal Recurrence : One of the main themes of the novel is the cyclical nature of human history.
  • Hope Spot: The Quo Peregrinatur starship.
  • Idiot Hero: Brother Francis Gerard, who is quite the Wide-Eyed Idealist.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Some of the mutants practice cannibalism.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: Why humanity develops nuclear weapons and destroys civilization a second time.
  • Istanbul Not Constantinople: Texark and the Misery (Missouri) River.
    • The town near the abbey has its name corrupted to "Sanly Bowitts".
  • Just Before the End: The third part of the book.
  • Kill Sat: The Asian space platforms that destroy Texarkana and the abbey in the end.
  • Knight Templar: All three of the abbots in their own way.
  • Lost Technology: Electricity and computers are unknown to the monks. Humanity at large does figure out how to build them for themselves later in the story.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It may feature the Wandering Jew. Or may not.
    • The strangeness of the Poet also counts.
  • Magic Realism: On the whole, the story is fairly plausible, except for a few supernatural elements such as Benjamin's apparent immortality and the fate of Rachel. Note that the story is vague about whether Zerchi is imagining the whole thing because he's dying.
  • Meaningful Name: Many of the place names in the stories vaguely refer to places that readers might know; some, like Denver and Chihuahua, survive remarkably intact.
  • Mercy Kill: What the medics authorize for radiation victims. The monks, especially Abbot Zerchi, protest against them vociferously with signs.
  • Mutants
    • In many different flavors, from simply having patches of skin in various shades to a full-on Multiple Head Case.
    • Known as 'The Pope's Children' after the Pope issues an edict that they are not to be harmed. Unfortunately for Brother Francis, they didn't return the favor.
  • Mysterious Watcher: The Old Jew, who lives on a mesa and watches over the abbey.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: What the secularists want to believe, despite consistent evidence that the monks are actually closer-to-earth.
    • Curiously, it's implied that in general, people were no more religious than they were before the Deluge.
    • It's even lampshaded during the debate with Thon Taddeo that it never was any better at all. Just richer or poorer.
  • Patchwork Story: The book started out as three short stories, "A Canticle for Leibowitz", "And the Light Is Risen", and "The Last Canticle".
  • Patron Saint: The monastery's founder, St. Leibowitz, becomes the patron saint of electricians once the world has them again. There is also a reference to Saint Raul the Cyclopean, patron of the misborn.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: Part of the aftermath of global nuclear war. After the enraged survivors slaughter the scientists who developed the bombs, they begin to target other scientists...and then other scholars...and then anyone with a formal education. The result is a society where it's dangerous to admit that you know how to read and ultimately, the collapse of society itself.
  • Posthumous Character: Saint Leibowitz, though just how posthumous he really is is up for debate.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The nomadic chief.
  • Ragnarok-Proofing: Bits and pieces of the pre-Deluge world become increasingly rare as time passes. Even in Fiat Homo, it's stated that many of the ruins were picked by scavengers long before. It's also mentioned, however, that a group of monks stumbled on a relatively intact nuclear missile facility hidden beneath a village which they accidentally detonate.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Pope Leo XXI.
  • Saintly Church: The Catholic Church is portrayed both realistically and sympathetically.
  • Scavenger World: At least initially.
  • Science Is Bad: One of the chief conflicts of the story is how to use the knowledge gained from civilization's renaissance properly. Science and knowledge in general in itself is not bad, but people's applications of it can be.
    • In-universe, it's this sort of attitude that led to the Simplification immediately after the Flame Deluge. People blamed the scientists and intellectuals for the war and started lynching them en masse.
  • Shout-Out: the fourth-season finale for Babylon5 (filmed when it was confirmed there would be a fifth season) hints at the future of humanity and how the legends of the show's heroes would endure. The third part occurs after a planetary civil war, where a monastery secretly run by The Rangers is attempting to re-introduce technology. JMS realized halfway through writing the script that he was "channeling Canticle" but left it in as a homage.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History: Subverted. Although humanity does recover from World War III and rebuilds civilization, history ends up repeating itself. This differentiates the book from other works at the time, which tended to treat history as linear instead of cyclical.
    • This also to a degree defines the conflict between Thon Taddeo and the presiding Abbot in Fiat Lux.
  • Technology Marches On: At one point, Abbot Zerchi turns off a television with such anger that he breaks the knob off. Possibly justified in that this occurs almost 1800 years in the future, after technology has re-emerged.
    • Anti-ballistic missile systems started emerging in the 1970s, more than a decade after publication. The Asian Coalition would have to be very sneaky or very lucky to surprise-nuke Texarkana if anything like NORAD was re-emerged.
      • On the flip side, even today low-altitude cruise missiles are tough to detect and neutralize.
  • The Spymaster: The Vatican Diplomatic Service has gained notoriety, to say the least.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The Simplification, where most technology and knowledge was actively destroyed in a backlash against technology after the nuclear war.
  • Translation Convention: The language the characters speak is not actually English, but a distant descendant of it which is translated for the reader. See Eternal English.
  • Translator Microbes: A large device in Abbot Zirchi's office. It kind-of works.
  • Walking the Earth: The Old Jew takes to wandering at times.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of Benjamin (and his true nature) is left unclear, as is that of Rachel.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Brother Francis is honest, sincere, and hopeful, though he does take the basic honesty and decency of others for granted. This latter fact ultimately gets him killed on his trip back from New Rome.

The Sirens of TitanHugo AwardThe High Crusade
The Butterfly RevolutionLiterature of the 1960sCatch-22
Camelot 30KScience Fiction LiteratureCaptain French, or the Quest for Paradise

alternative title(s): A Canticle For Leibowitz
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