The back cover of my copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz calls it "a novel that transcends genre." But if you wanna get technical, the 1961 Hugo winner is almost the antithesis of science fiction.
As we discussed a month ago, there's a decades-old argument over the role of science in science fiction; the corollary debate is whether the genre's name should be changed to something like "speculative fiction" or "philosophical fiction," since so many of the stories that comprise it explore alternate realities, possibilities, and ideas ably and deeply while barely touching on hard science at all. There are problems with those other names too, of course — most notably, what wouldn't qualify under them, since what kind of fiction doesn't explore alternate realities? — but A Canticle for Leibowitz could serve as evidence that the name needs to be changed somehow. Because in the novel, science isn't responsible for anything really happening.
Now, I realize that is a sweeping and seemingly absurd statement, because the (glorious, gorgeous) book is about a post-apocalyptic Earth recovering from nuclear world war over the course of a millennium and a half, and then plunging back into it. And nuclear warfare doesn't happen (especially not twice) without science. Further, in the last of Canticle's three parts, there are starships and robots. And most significant of all, of course, the story in its entirety centers on the attempts of the Catholic monks of the Order of Leibowitz to preserve as much knowledge as they can from their ancestors' advanced civilization. So clearly, science does play a role in the narrative.
And yet, author Walter M. Miller Jr. goes out of his way to show us that throughout the three parts of Canticle, very little really changes. In the first section ("Fiat Homo"*), set during a second Dark Age, the monks discover a cache of pre–Flame Deluge data buried in a fallout shelter, after protagonist Brother Francis is visited by an odd pilgrim who might be the Wandering Jew or might be Leibowitz or might be both. A little progress is made, but in the end, death arrives from the ignorant world outside, and the buzzards circle in the air and then drop down to feed.
In the second section ("Fiat Lux"), a sort of Enlightenment is taking place, and the world looks to be finally ready for the materials the monks have guarded for so long. But war is breaking out; there's more death, the pilgrim is still there, and the buzzards are ever-present.
And in the third ("Fiat Voluntas Tua"), the order has survived to see the modern world return — it's a far-future that resembles our near-future (or our near-future as envisioned in the 1960s), with global electronic communication and interstellar travel. War is brewing again, of the same kind that nearly destroyed humanity before, and the monks are taking steps to preserve our species' accomplishments. But ultimately: more death, more pilgrim, more buzzards.
Between those more obvious symbols and his little riffs throughout the book, it's unquestionable that what Miller wanted to show us was that, for all the external changes we experience, internally the human condition changes very little. Whether we're armed with bows and arrows, guns and sabers, or atomic bombs, there will be conflict and destruction and death; and it's all part of a cycle that's nearly as immutable as the law of gravitation. The technology is irrelevant.
But if science isn't responsible for driving the plot so much as driving that point home, then what does move the story along? Well, it's very clearly a benevolent, inscrutable, extra-natural force operating with intention in this world — or, God. And although I certainly don't think science and religion are diametric opposites, I know a lot of people do,** which is why I submit that A Canticle for Leibowitz is sorta incongruous with the genre it calls home.
A convert to Catholicism, Miller didn't take the out you typically see in SF books dealing with God. In, say, Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, or previous Hugo winner A Case for Conscience, or the next year's winner, Stranger in a Strange Land,*** it's left ambiguous as to whether events took place because of simple coincidence or divine intervention. In Canticle, make no mistake, from Francis' meeting with the pilgrim at the start of the book (there is laugh-out-loud irony in Chapter 1 when you figure out what the monk's prayers are while the old man is yelling for him) to the miracle Abbot Zerchi experiences in the final pages, Miller is not offering the usual modern comfort of letting the reader decide for themselves.
Personally, I have no problem with letting the reader decide for themselves (when it's well done, it's weirdly satisfying), but Miller's take is not only refreshing but thought-provoking. Because in a genre (which Canticle does belong to if only by default) concerned with Big Questions, it's the only book I can think of that presents some practical arguments for believing in a deity, instead of dealing with belief as an abstract philosophical matter.
By taking us through three different eras (and brilliantly getting extra bang for its buck in that regard, since Canticle's future is reminiscent of our past and present), the book hammers home that, whatever you think of specific religious practices, there may be some value in some people, at least, hewing to a fundamentally timeless belief system, because an organized religion can serve as a rock and a harbor in an endlessly shifting world. Canticle suggests that for a religion to be useful this way, it does need to be organized, and that it needs to be built around some kind of eternal Presence, because its practicers must remember that there is more at stake than the needs and wants of the here-and-now.
Believe me, I don't care whether you're convinced by the arguments the book makes or suggests (I am, but I was before I ever read it), and believe me, in an era where the face of Christianity has far more in common with the proudly ignorant simpletons of Canticle's first book than with its monks, I can appreciate that it's hard to hear about any positive impact God or religion might have. But that, I think, is why that aspect of the novel is so important: because we're going to argue, so we might as well have good arguments. And this book makes its humbly and wisely and profoundly thoughtfully. I hope it's still making them a thousand years from now and beyond.
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, from 1962. (The original edition, not the expanded version published in 1991.)
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.
*Section titles are "Let There Be Man," "Let There Be Light," and "Let Thy Will Be Done," respectively.
**PERHAPS EVEN SOME OF YOU READING THIS.
***Actually, the bit I am thinking of may not be in the original edition of Stranger.