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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.