‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ Is a Big, Beautiful Mess

A Canticle for Leibowitz, a classic 1959 novel by Walter M. Miller Jr., tells the story of a group of monks attempting to preserve scientific knowledge after a devastating nuclear war. Colby College constitutional law professor Joseph Reisert was captivated by the novel’s themes of science, religion, and the cyclic nature of history.

“I thought it was one of the best science fiction novels—probably one of the best novels—that I’ve read recently,” Reisert says in Episode 527 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Nothing is shown in a really shallow or straw-man kind of way, so it really does provoke thinking. And there’s no obvious solution to any of the problems it raises, so I think part of the charm of the book is it leaves you with all these questions to ponder.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that A Canticle for Leibowitz is an amazing accomplishment and notes that its warning about the danger of nuclear war feels highly relevant in light of recent events. “You had all these books and movies [about nuclear war] in the ’50s and 60’s and ’70s, I guess into the ’80s, and then people were like, ‘Well, don’t have to worry about that anymore,’ when really the situation had not changed, materially, that much,” he says. “And so I think this is why people do need to keep reading and writing books like this, because it’s so easy to get complacent about these sorts of dangers.”

Science fiction author Matthew Kressel enjoyed the book but felt that it was sometimes slow or uneven. “I think that when we’re in a close third-person point of view and really feeling it, like when Brother Francis is about to lose 10 years of his work or when we’re hearing this horror story of someone having to euthanize a beloved cat, I was really, really connected with it,” he says. “But when we’re in this sort of zoomed-out view, looking at the whole world and all the stuff that’s going on, I wasn’t as connected with the story.”

One way in which the novel has aged poorly is in its treatment of women characters, who are largely absent from the story. Science fiction professor Lisa Yaszek wishes Miller had included a wider range of viewpoints. “In that last third you’ve got a man from the church and a man from the state arguing over the fate of women and children, and the women and children don’t seem to have a voice,” she says. “It’s as if there are only two perspectives, and I frankly get kind of frustrated by that at the end.”

Listen to the complete interview with Joseph Reisert, Matthew Kressel, and Lisa Yaszek in Episode 527 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Barr Kirtley on science vs. religion:

[A Canticle for Leibowitz scholar] Thon Taddeo has this scientific theory. There’s a work he references about mankind creating machines who rise up against them—it sounded to me like R.U.R. by Karl Čapek. But basically he has this whole elaborate theory about how this means that the present human species is actually a creation of a prior human species. And we know of course that this is completely wrong. But he’s arrived at completely wrong conclusions just like the [religious] people. Throughout the book we see these flawed, mundane things become worshiped or sanctified in a subsequent era, so it was interesting to me that Miller seems to be portraying both science and religion as subject to this same process of drawing completely wrong inferences from the records that history leaves behind.

Lisa Yaszek on science vs. government:

One of the things that people are hashing out at the middle of the 20th century is, “What is the state of science?” As we’re moving from small, independent laboratories to larger, university-based labs—or state-sponsored labs, or corporate labs. I feel like part of what Thon Taddeo has to navigate is which side does he go with? Where is the power? How do you negotiate this? Do you do what the state asks you to do, or do you do what’s morally right? … And I can certainly see where that would have been of interest to people thinking about that—where is science going to ally itself?—in the 1950s and 1960s. And I feel it again today, not as a scientist but as an academic. Increasingly we’re getting a lot of state university boards of regents who are getting pretty activist, so there’s this interesting tension between the needs of the state and the needs of corporations and the pure goals of academia. So I was feeling for Thon Taddeo in all of that drama, quite frankly.

Joseph Reisert on A Canticle for Leibowitz’s Rachel:

In some sense we’re supposed to believe this is a miracle, that Rachel is either Eve again or Christ again. The abbot goes to baptize her, and she kind of waves him off, like, “I don’t need to be baptized,” and she picks up the host and gives the priest communion. And you’re like, “Wow.” Within the Catholic frame of reference, that’s a clear indication of her extraordinary holy status … The Christian story is that if God can turn even the worst of evils into something good—from original sin comes Christ and all that—then from the nuclear holocaust we get this new birth of innocence, or possibly second incarnation, possibly Second Coming. That’s the moment where the author I guess is not giving up on the story, even as the last spaceship is going to blast off of Earth.

Matthew Kressel on Judaism:

Just coming from my own Jewish background, I didn’t really find Benjamin’s plight to be Jewish. There’s definitely not a focus on the messiah as a person to be worshiped. There is some talk of that, but it’s really just a focus very much on the now, and finding joy in the moment, and not much focus on an afterlife or eternity—at least in the tradition that I was brought up in. I guess in a lot of ways I wondered if Miller actually spoke to anyone who was Jewish. I don’t speak Hebrew, but like every Jewish kid I went to Hebrew school, so I can read the alphabet. I can do phonetics, and the letters were wrong. Multiple times I’m like, “That’s not the right letter.” So I don’t know if that was just an editorial mistake or if it was something that Miller himself did. He’s like, “Oh yeah, that looks right.” And I’m like, “No, that’s completely wrong.”


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