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A Canticle for Leibowitz 108

Our master reviewer of science fiction and fantasy fare, Duncan Lawie has returned. His choice of topic is a favorite book of mine, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-Apocalyptical book by Walter M. Miller, Jr. If you've read, join in the discussion, and if you haven't consider this a must-read.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
author Walter M. Miller, Jr.
pages ?
publisher Bantam
rating 9/10
reviewer Duncan Lawie
ISBN 0553379267
summary A powerful and thought provoking study of human nature in a wellconstructed future history.

Walter M. Miller, Jr wrote most of his science fiction in the 1950s. His work was influential in its treatment of character and for the complexity of his approach to standard science fiction themes. He converted to Catholicism in the 1940s and his faith had a direct bearing on much of his output. His short stories have been collected into a number of volumes but he is remembered principally today for the one novel published in his lifetime, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and, to a lesser extent, its sequel, Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

It is indicative of the nature of science fiction in the 1950s that so much of what was published in novel form had a previous life in the monthly magazines. A Canticle for Leibowitz is no exception to this, being a collation of three separately published novellas covering a long period in the future of humanity. This results in a book that could be described as a condensed trilogy. It is perhaps best read in that manner, with a pause for contemplation between sections separated in original publication by a couple of years and in setting by six centuries. Such a reading is aided by the lyrical drawing away from detail as each part concludes.

The story is of the slow rise of a new civilisation from the ashes of our own, which was ended by the Flame Deluge and the Age of Simplification. Leibowitz was a "booklegger" from this time who was martyred as he attempted to save knowledge from the mob which believed that all learning led to the hubris of Mutually Assured Destruction. The plot is centred on the abbey of a monastic order which honours Leibowitz and treasures the material he and his accomplices saved. As the story opens, this material is more religious relic than literal knowledge. Too much of the foundation of twentieth century culture has been ripped away for the remnant to be understood in a superstitious age. Despite this the Order believes that a time will come again for such work to be understood and so it keeps the holy duty of preservation. The later parts of the story carry through the grand historical process of building a new civilisation.

However, this is not so much a dynastic saga as the illumination of history through a series of vignettes. The characters spring fully formed into print. Their past lives are barely sketched but their hopes and fears are individual and realistic. As the world around them changes, the monks must each confront in their own lives the nature and execution of their duty to God and its relationship with duty to man. The central theme of pride and humility is played out repeatedly but in such different ways that new insight is gained on each iteration.

Whilst the monks of the abbey are restricted to a normal span of years, Miller manages a powerful continuity of presence in the abbey itself. It is filled with the words and ideas of centuries of Christianity. It evokes the belief in eternity of the medieval church builders and echoes the timeless feeling often experienced in any truly old building. Miller also recalls characters from earlier periods in the story through the artefacts and ideas they leave behind them. Partly as a product of this, the tone darkens through the course of the book. The weight of history increases with the rate of progress, along with an increasing fear that humanity may not have learned the lessons of its past.

For most modern readers the book itself almost becomes its own metaphor. It is littered with learning which has lost much of its currency in recent generations. As a result, it tends to represent the books sealed in barrels by the bookleggers of the next age - many of us could use a guide to interpret the Hebrew lettering or Church Latin. Despite this flavour of the arcane, it addresses fundamental questions of our relationship with knowledge and technology. A Canticle for Lebowitz is a well rounded and thought provoking book. Its concepts and conclusions are as relevant today as when it was written.

Purchase this book at fatbrain.

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

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  • is certainly one of the grimmer books I've read in a while. But it's fun! Definitely recommended.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I've been reading this book, got it a few days ago.

    So far, it serves mostly as a reminder of the horror of nuclear war. An apocalyptic wasteland where humanity struggles to survive--I think we've heard that theme over and over. It's hardly original today, but 40 years ago it must have been.

    I like the way he portrays his characters, though, even if I thought Brother Francis in "Fiat Homo" was deliberately dumb or obtuse. Oddly enough, when I was reading "Fiat Lux" it reminded me of Asimov's Foundation, that is, with all respect to the author, there is no action (so far) and a lot of politic manuevering. Other elements are present, like the isolation of a group sworn to preserve knowledge and their struggles with the outside world.

    I haven't read the third part yet, and I suppose I'll have to finish it. It's a bit too tedious for my taste, and nothing really spectacular rises to mind when reading the story. All ideas portrayed in A Canticle for Leibowitz are somewhat stale, so I don't really recommend this book, you'd be better off reading Stephenson's Cryptonomicon or (if you feel up to the challenge) even David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Setting aside the question of whether or not any sizable group of people would survive a nuclear war, what about digital information?

    In other words, does the fact that so much info is now digital completely preclude the scenario described in "Canticle"?

    I dunno; maybe I just need an excuse to raise the issue of archiving digital information. I mean, how can you ensure that something will still be around in a couple centuries? CDs don't last that long, neither does tape, I don't even think that Optical-WORM lasts that long.

    Not that I actually care *that* much about archaeologists several centuries from now, but I collect medieval manuscripts and, well, I really appreciate the fact that these materials have survived the ravages of time.

  • by chromatic ( 9471 ) on Friday December 03, 1999 @04:28AM (#1483920) Homepage

    Along with Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" and "The Demolished Man", I picked up "A Canticle for Leibowitz" after a recommendation from JMS (Babylon 5 creator). This is good stuff.

    It's almost like a retelling of the dark ages of Western civilization when the monks (especially the Celts and Irish) spent centuries collecting and hiding manuscripts and preserving knowledge for future generations. (The difference, of course, is that the 20th century world becomes the new Roman Empire in Miller's retelling).

    On the surface, it may not seem as relevant these days, without the Cold War looming in the background. The real meat of the story, though, is in the depiction of history and knowledge, and man's place in that tapestry. Well worth a read -- and not only to show that there's more to a dystopian post-apocalyptic future than Mad Max.


  • I read this book in the mid 90's and I loved it, but as i read it, I wondered how different I would have interpreted it if I had been reading it in the mid 80's. the end of the cold war takes away some of the spookiness of the story, but the threat is still there. If you remember growing up or living through the Cold War, you should enjoy this book
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I found this book to attempt the profound and come up somewhat short. The character development varies from story to story(I wasn't able to feel attachment to any character in the last story), although the Lazarus character needed further development desperately. The writing was so-so, on par with any modern work. If you enjoy 1940's sci-fi/fantasy(as it was) you'll probably consider this a worth-while read. A word of warning - the book Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman is often billed as a sequel to Canticle. It does take place on the same world(time setting somewhere just after the second story in Canticle), but the tone, direction, & style of the work are completely different.
  • Miller includes a mass revolt against learning. A book burning if you will. All digital records could conceivable been destroyed at that time as well. Many scientists, scholars and other educated people were killed (hence the monks' need for 'booklegging'), so its not out of plausibilities reach.

    Along those lines it was rather interesting to read about a monk 'discovering' the electric light, and seeing what they did to a small electrical schematic.
  • Probably not, as nuclear/thermonuclear weapons emit a large electro-magnetic pulse which damages electronics. No electronics, no way to read data. It's somewhat interesting that many war senarios began with the Russians exploding a -large- (20 megaton + ) high over the central U.S. because the EMP would disrupt command, control and communications enough to limit our ability to retailiate.

    As for the book, I've read it several times. Rather dark, but still relevant. Good read.
  • I've read this book twice and recommended it to many people. If you have not read it, do. It's a deal at $9.95.

    Imagine my suprise then when I watched the final syndicated (before TNT) Baylon 5. (The episode looked into the future to see what happened to the station and Earth as a result of what had transpired on the station.) It felt just like "A Canticle for Leibowitz"! Later I found out that the producer/creator of the show acknowledged his reference to the book. Fun stuff.
  • I read A Canticle for Leibowitz when I was in grad school in the mid 80's. Although I can't remember the details, I do remember my overall impression was that the author told a great story that really drew me in to the characters. Miller did an amazing job of writing a book that spans long periods of time.

    There was even a radio drama of the book that National Public Radio broadcast in 1983 or 1984.

  • Ah, but here is where the incredible pace of technology could beat out the wages of war. Can you think of any American cities that don't have at least one computer? I'm sure there may be some, but certainly there aren't many. Nuclear explosions would focus on major population and industrial centers, but a significant majority of the rural areas would only be affected indirectly (nuclear fallout, etc). So it is certainly conceivable that a sginificant amount of computer equipment would survive.

    Besides, I wrap all my computers in high density Faraday shields. Don't you?
  • Did you notice that the only "non sf" element in the book is The Jew? The one waiting, the one who is several thousands years old?

    For me, discovering The Jew (and The Poet), the mystic elements of the story was a wonderful experience. The book got a new dimension: it really showed the authors talent. This repeating leitmotive... the words - "As long as there is a single Jew, there will be someone to mend their tents" - beautiful. This book acomplished a kind of fullness, completeness which is in my eyes reserved for rare pearls of world literature. It's structure resembles a well written piece of classical music, a... well, it must be said: a canticle.



  • Very good point! Granted, in CFL, the guys spent a lot of time redrawing a schematic, then drawing it again and making a religious artifact out of it. They had no clue whatsoever of what it was they were copying. They were just doing it.

    I think there is always going to be a type of rosetta stone out there. For example, we have dictionaries, and most of them have the history of whatever word it is, which translates to French, Latin, German, etc. So it may take a while, but it could still be figured out. Same with CFL - if they ran across the "Holy Parts Guide" I bet they could figure that out as well. Even two or three thousand years after CFL happened, someone is probably going to discover electricity and start building circuits and someone along the way might say, "Wow! This religious text matches my radio circuit!"

    But, all this is quite high on the woe and intrigue meter. I play around a lot with old audio recordings. How does one make sure that the recording will exist way down the road? I have old reel to reel tapes and those were bastards to get converted because I did not have a reel to reel tape deck. Technology has pretty much passed it by. It does not matter if it is digital or analog - if there are no machines around to play it on, it can't be played.

    Currently NPR runs a segment on Friday afternoon called "Lost and Found Sound" - they have played lots of things that were recorded back in the 1950s - usually stuff from someones grandmother - but the recordings were made on paper records. That stuff was and is lost to the ages every day. Having the original is good, but it is always good to have other copies of it too. Digital copies just let you send multi-generational versions all over without degradation (provided of course you use lossless methods).

    I don't think we are going to see digital copies of actual books until the Holodeck becomes reality - or copies good enough that we can kind of relax some instead of worrying about the originals.

    But, back to digital in recordings - I would not trust just one copy. If you make many copies and spread them around all the better. They would all be identical. Say you made 1000 CDs and 100 years from now you want to read them. Even if only 10 of them survived, chances are going to be pretty good that you will be able to reconstruct the data that was on them. And if you got really stingy and said "every 10 years they must have new copies made of them", then you would be even better off. Those copies 10 years from now would contain the same data that you wrote today.

    Just keep making backups every few years.
  • I was born and raised a Catholic, but as someone said in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I got better."

    That having been said, A Canticle For Leibowitz was one of the best books I read as a teenager, and is a permanent part of my collection (meaning that it gets replaced after it gets "permanently loaned"). The people portrayed are not necessarily saints, but are good people who practice what they preach... something too rare in these days. (Myself included, I'm afraid!)

    Slashdotters might particularly enjoy the character of the "Poet-sirrah", as his irreverent attitude does not stop him from acting out against what he sees as wrong.

    For those of you who have read it and enjoyed it, you probably already understand. For those of you are considering reading it, stop reading this and go pick it up - it's better written than anything else I can add!

  • A Canticle For Liebowitz has been an influence on me for a long time. My first exposure to it (back when I was five or six?) was the Public Radio series, which was thoroughly spooky. My dad admitted later that he erased the fifteenth episode because it scared the ever-living crap out of him (being a 50's veteran of "duck and cover" and an EMT...). I've now read the book seven or eight times, and each time I get something new out of it.

    Before you all get the wrong idea about the Christian aspects, the book does not get preachy as you might expect from the review. Instead, it portrays the conflict between reason and religion from a third-party perspective, showing equally the beneficial and harmful aspects of each. It forces you to look at both sides of the issue - not from the perspective of which is wrong and which is right - and shows how very similar the two points of view can be.

    Above all, it's a study of human nature. I can't elaborate much more than that without spoiling it, but it highlights our inability as a race to learn from past mistakes. And scattered through the deep philosophical implications are some of the most humorous situations I've encountered since Douglas Adams (I'm not saying it's a laugh riot; the humor is well balanced to provide just the right amount of comic relief.) All in all, I wholeheartedly recommend this book if you haven't already read it. And if you have, read it again! (Especially if it's been a while...)


  • WARNING: Spoilers follow

    I didn't find this book "grim." On the contrary, it's quite a hopeful book. Even in the midst of cataclysm and a revolt against learning, a small cadre secretly preserves knowledge and technology they themselves don't understand in the hope that humanity may one day grasp it again. At the end of the book, as man once again stands on the brink of self-destruction, the heirs of those original bookleggers prepare to venture to another planet to preserve both humanity and its body of learning. Religious orders played this role as the Roman Empire declined, and eventually made the Renaissance possible. It's entirely likely that they'll play that role again. It's that faith in humanity (if not in God) that enables us to recover from disaster.

    As a (recovering) Roman Catholic I'm fascinated by the doctrinal implications of the end of the book. If the Pope is Christ's Vicar on Earth, what happens when we inhabit another planet? Does someone get to be the Pope of Mars, or will he just be an archbishop? I haven't read the sequel so I don't know if Miller ever addresses those issues. The doctrinal discussions I had with my Benedictine and Holy Cross teachers at the time were very entertaining but we never really came up with a solid answer.


  • After enjoying the short story several years ago, this has been on my reading list ever since. I just started it this week, and have really enjoyed it so far.


  • I read this book about three years ago and fell in love! It has amazing character development and a great story line.

    I'd thought the same thing about the Monks == Irish, etc. especially after reading "How The Irish Saved Civilzation" a few months ago. That's also a great book if you're into history...
  • The poor character development makes sense if you think about the properties of the society at that period of time. Individuals have become depersonalized. Consumerism is going at full tilt. Machines are taking up more and more of an individual's time (remember the incident between the Abbot and the autoscribe?). Considering this was written in the 50s, it's an amazingly accurate prediction of today's society.


  • Compared to better examples of dark sci fi like Iain M. Banks, Strugatzki brothers', etc it is absolute crap.

    Compared to the usual bulshit the press tries to feed us it rocks.

    I would not waste slashdot space with a review on it though ...

  • by Anonymous Coward
    It has religious overtones, therefore I don't understand it, and therefore it sucks.
  • It was a little of both. The narrator would set the scene (almost word for word from the book) with the characters interacting between the narration. In other words, the narrator became the third-person(omnicient) "character" from the book, which allowed the listeners to visualize the action more clearly. The only lack of faithfulness on the part of the NPR series was the things that got left out.

    Anyone know where I can purchase a copy of this? NPR did some really spectacular stuff as far as "audio adventures" back in the '70s and '80s. The Fourth Tower of Inverness and the other Jack Flanders adventures from ZBS spring immediately to mind... It's a shame they don't seem to do that anymore (at least not in my area).


  • I first read this book while taking a class in college on science fiction lit. It instantly became one of my favorites and I re-read it every few years. Even though it's somewhat dated, it's still a great read, though somewhat grim.

    It was my understanding that this was the only book he ever wrote, but Katz mentions a sequel. I assume it was published posthumously? Have any of you guys read it and did you like it or not? If it's any good at all I'll probably get it out of curiosity.
  • The scary thing is I remeber this book all too well. I still have the first edition paperback. It is an excellent book. I agree that living thru the Cold War era does make the book more 'real'.

    People may dismiss this book as either old fashioned or heavy handed, but history has this really neat way of sneaking up on you making you repeat the lessons of the past.

    As for digital media, I recal a story of an archeologist who found a recording device from Egypt, but had no way of making it work because he didn't understand the technology. I wonder if sometime in the future some poor researcher is going to be struggling over that C64 I still have ;)

  • Read the book many years ago.
    Liked most of it. Only the final is a little too much 'mistical' for me [ as I remember it, it ends with a new world wide destruction; during this, there is a sort of 'revelation' : a bit of Holy Mary(?) transpires through a mutant woman hosted at Leibowitz abbey ].

    /*** Start Offtopic
    Speaking of End of World, I reccomend Terry Pratchett's & Neil Gaiman's novel "Good Omens"
    [if there is anyone who didn't read it yet]!
    *** end offtopic */

  • There was a sequel, but I understand that it
    was incomplete and patched up for publication
    after his death. The impact of the work is
    probably lesser (after all, how can you
    write a sequel to the end of the world?)
  • The real strength of the book is a well-balanced and nuanced exploration of the tension between scientific and faith-based worldviews, wrapped up in a fictional shell. Many of the viewpoints on this topic found in Western culture and thought over the last 500 years are re-hashed out in this post-apocalyptic setting, and the story uses the setting to explore flaws and strengths in the thinking of religious people, scientists, and government figures. All this while remaining readable fun fiction.

    Assessed just as fiction, it's a nice treatment of a few what-ifs. What happens to civilization after a global nuclear war? What happens to religion? What happens to science? It presents a plausible and thought-provoking scenario.

    Skeptics who find the faith/science tension intriguing or thinking Christians, either of whom like fiction will probably find this book very enjoyable. It was my favorite discovery out of several college lit classes.


  • has anyone actually read the sequel? the comments on amazon scared me away. 'canticle' is truly a classic though.
  • I second the motion.

    The Hyperion/Endymion saga is a must-read, having everything one can ask of a book: great characters, excellent story-telling, strong plot, and thought provoking.

    It even gets better (IMHO) as you move from one book to the next.
  • Hmm..let's see:

    1) It has good character development.
    2) It has a good storyline.
    3) It has a strong message, well told.
    4) It's unusual.

    Most of the writers you mentioned would probably
    consider themselves fortunate to write a book this good.
  • Sigh .. everything has to be spelled out to you young whippersnappers :-(

    So nobody has heard of the Wandering Jew? That legend has disappeared completely?


    Another earlier response speaks of the character of Lazarus desperately calling for fleshing out.

    It's been done, folks.

    But Canticle was a great read when I first encountered it (probably as a teenager) .. and it has MUCH longer legs than the Heinlein of that era :-)

  • it is definitely not a JonKatz review.
    This book does have religion in it. But it does not try and preach it to the reader; it is merely there to give a background to the story.
    The religion that is followed through the book is a religion based on the works of an engineer! The larger Church is not, but even then it is not a religious spiel.
    I loved this book. It was recommended to me by a teacher in high school, and it was worth it. Don't view this book in terms of the religion in it, view it as a view of the future from a Cold War perspective. A second Dark Ages, where *scholars* worked to preserve knowledge until another civilization arose to use and understand it.
  • This isn't trying to troll or start a flame war but it seems like the book has gone down on everyones list of favorites of all times. I'd love to agree , and after reading all these glowing reviews I may try to reread/finish it. Yes, finish it. Somehow it is one of the few books I've ever picked up that I was not able to finish and put down about half way through. Granted I was reading it when I was about 16 somewhere in the mid-eighty's so I may not have either experianced the same things that those who read and enjoyed the book did, or else I may have simply been too young to enjoy it and get the most out of it. At the time it seemed rather dull and dragging and at a time when I was going through an average of a book every few days, I was still trying to get through this one after a month.

    I'll have to go find a copy in the library (I gave mine up when I moved) and give it another look. I hope its better the second time around.

    P.S. I was sitting around one day and after finding out my father had read a fair amount of fiction growing up (before switching to Mysteries ) he had found the same problems I did, and it also goes down as one of the only books he's been unable to finish also.

    - Reunite Gondwana-land
  • Good question! I want to say that it was just a narrator, but the images the program created were so vivid I have to think it was more of a dramatization. I just dunno. Too many beers since then...
  • As a (recovering) Roman Catholic I'm fascinated by the doctrinal implications of the end of the book. If the Pope is Christ's Vicar on Earth, what happens when we inhabit another planet? Does someone get to be the Pope of Mars, or will he just be an archbishop? I haven't read the sequel so I don't know if Miller ever addresses those issues. The doctrinal discussions I had with my Benedictine and Holy Cross teachers at the time were very entertaining but we never really came up with a solid answer.

    if this interests you, you should really check out The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russel.

    people of earth discover radio signals from a "relatively" near star system, and the JESUITS are the first group to really respond.

    not only was the treatment of the jesuit order just fabulous, but the detailed views into the inner lives of the clergy was some of the most original and interesting reading i've ever been exposed to. Russel shows all these priests as real people who are concerned with real human issues: sexuality, economics, power, authority...

    as a "recovering catholic" myself, i found this "real" portrayal of the "inner lives" of priests to be most fascinating, and heartening...if i had read an account of the clergy like this in high-school, i might still be an active catholic.

    but probably not.

    -dutchee -dutchee
  • It's been a while since I read CFL. That said, here's what strikes me still:

    The abbot who describes the line of abbots in terms of various metals: "I'm mercury...I spatter, but I come back together." For some reason, this coupled with his stomach distress seems especially evocative.

    In addition to the excellent characterization and physical description, I am struck by the fact that CFL is so articulate a story on its own, that while we might say "it reminds me of medieval monks preserving texts after Rome fell" or "it describes an alternative post-apocalyptic future", it doesn't feel like it was _influenced_ by those, though of course it no doubt was. Miller put together a story that, if it wasn't so effortless, I would say "includes elements of" medieval history, various threads of sf, and some Christian mythology (I mean Wandering Jew stuff, I'm not saying Christianity as a whole is mythology here), and probably other things too. But it doesn't feel like these things were patched together, or even artfully weaved; talking about CFL, it feels like those similarities are observations of _mine_, not influences on Miller.

    The story seems complete in its environment, independent. I have been told that if two flavors are balanced so carefully that to your tongue, they taste like a whole new flavor, that is called a "fantasia". (Coke has been described as a fantasia flavor. Can you pick out what flavors are in it?) I'm trying to say that CFL, or at least its environment, is a fantasia.

    A previous comment mentioned that it was interesting that the monks copied (and illuminated) texts they didn't understand. A side comment: this is not particularly different from a good bit of the illumination and rewriting that went on in the Middle Ages and elsewhere. Of course, there were highly educated monks, but there were also poor fellas painstakingly copying down texts in language they were not fluent in, on subjects that were simply cryptic.

    More than enough from me.
  • Agreed, great series, although I think the writing became weaker as the series moved along. The first book (Hyperion) is significantly stronger than subsequent novels.

    Another good series, where I think the writing does get better (or at least stays the same) is the Reality Dysfunction series by Peter F. Hamilton, which in my opinion is some of the best SF ever written.
  • I first read Canticle in junior high in the 70s. I think it's no exaggeration to say that it's a very deep book. I know it influenced me profoundly. I had no idea, however, that there was a sequel until I saw the /. review -- muchos gracias for the tip.

    Re Catholicism: Also check out the James Blish series After Such Knowledge, which includes the classic A Case of Conscience (that novel won a Hugo award, IIRC) in which such questions as "Do aliens have souls?" and "If so, can aliens receive grace?" are considered at length.

    (BTW, I'm not a Catholic, but I was sent to an Episcopal-run school for the first few years, so I got a healthy[?] dose of much of the same theological/moral/ethical stuff as the Catholic kids did.)

    Zontar The Mindless,

  • Yes!! Now it clicks. That was one of the best B5 episodes; I thoroughly enjoyed it. The monastary scenes resonated, but I didn't think about it much, putting it down to post-apocalypse SF in general, and to a particular Rudyard Kipling story in particular, not to _Canticle_. But the connection is clear now.

    I read _Canticle_ a *long* time ago. It made such an impression that although I've forgotten almost all details, I'd still put it on a "Top SF" list, based on how awed I remember being.

    About the Kipling story: not a joke. He wrote some great SF-like stuff. David Drake put together the anthology _Heads To The Storm_, a tribute by SF authors who acknowledge Kipling as a major influence; the book includes a Kipling short about a medieval monk who invents a microscope. The characters wrestle with whether the world is ready for the revelations the invention will provide. Good stuff.
  • Most of the writers you mentioned would probably consider themselves fortunate to write a book this good. Assuming we are talking about the same janre, and the you criteria you have listed:

    Strugatzki have more than 15 books that are much much better. Unfortunately the only thing available in English is a movie made after one chapter of their books - Stalker. Have a look in your local video store (pls note this is just one chapter ;-). Extrapolate to get an idea...

    Iain M.Banks has at least 5: Against A Dark Background, Feersum Enjinn, Inversions, Use of Weapons, The Player of Games, etc.

    I am intentionally skipping old classics like Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita", Ray Bradbury (lots of stuff), Clifford D. Simak (lots of stuff), etc, etc, etc... But you know - opinions about food, booze and books are a matter of personal taste...

  • A Canticle really is quite period in it's handling of the world, which is of course natural. However, it stacks up very well to other books written in the same period...

    Nineteen Eighty-Four: Both books deal with the not-too-distant future that has evolved in a logical manner but the results of which are incomprehensible (and even a bit frightening) to all of us. In 1984, a society that is stripped away of humanity I.E.:the Anti-Sex league, the 2 Minutes Hate, the dumbing down of the populace to keep the elite in command is pitted by one man in search of something to make life worth living. In A Canticle, we have one (cloistered) man who is searching for much the same: fulfillment of a purpose to his otherwise dreary existance, and marvels at what was and now is not, or what could have been.

    When Worlds Collide: Both books deal with how civilization fails to cope once the basic premises are removed. WWC discusses the nihilism that occurs when just about everyone on Earth knows it will be destroyed and that few will be able to make the transfer. In A Canticle, the post-apocolypse is much the same as WWC after the first collision... Darwin unleashed.

    To me, there is something refreshing, even desireable in BTS (Before the Series) Sci-Fi, where authors were uninfluenced by Dune, Star Wars, Star Trek, Amber, Hitchhiker's Guide et al. (Though I like those series)
    Here, Sci-Fi is more about the exploration of humanity in a futuristic setting and the psychology of it, as opposed to the morals or the gee-whiz factor.

    Not that those aren't explored in other pieces from this period. Just not in these. :-)
  • I think you've missed the point. I'm not Catholic, but I do believe that religion should be a way of life. Otherwise what good is it. What's profound about Canticle is that this way of life is what survives the nuclear war just as this way of life is what survived the Dark Ages before. Maybe he is out of touch with modern religious practice, but I don't believe modern religious practice will survive the future either.

    I do quite agree with you that Christianity as part of the mainstream is no longer Christianity, that is in addition another refreshing aspect of the Christianity as depicted in the Canticle. You need to separate what Christianity teaches from what the way the world misuses it. This has often been described as the Theology of the Cross versus the Theology of Glory.

    There are some very subtle points here that have eventual profound implications when it comes to survival.

  • About 5-6 years ago there was a Scientific American cover story on the permanence of data, from Egyptian payrii and Gutenburg Bibles to CD-ROMS (I've checked their site, but their archives don't go back that far -- sorry!). The thrust of the article was that magnetically stored data decays (albeit very slowly) and the hardware and software required to access much of it is unavailable. Sure, we could always build new Commodore 64 tape drive and CPM machines to access the files, but what if the specs on how to build *those* becomes unretrievable in a few centuries? The article commented on the good luck had by Gutenburg in selecting the materials to make the materials for his books. By chance, no strong acids or alkalis were used in the paper and ink, and as a result there are still a few well preserved 500-year-old books around. Had he magically has access to industrial papers and inks from the first half of this century, his books would not have lasted 100 years! Don't be so sure that digital information is all that retrievable.
  • by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Friday December 03, 1999 @06:47AM (#1483970)
    I recently downloaded an MP3 version of the NPR radio play of Canticle. By staggering coincidence, I'd also discovered a long-lost DOS disk containing the first version of Sid Meier's Civilization.

    I put two and two together, and listened to one in the background while playing the other in all its 320x200x256 glory.

    At first, I thought it was just a coincidence that I seemed to develop literacy and basic technology at about the same rate as the radio play, but I was truly freaked out as time went by and my technology was always within a generation of that in the play.

    The climax came when, in the story, the bombs had begun to fall and the debate on euthanasia begun -- because about 20 minutes earlier, my last AI opponent and I had each developed nuclear weapons and started using them on each other. It was bad enough when I started building the nukes at the same time as the world of Canticle, but the timing of the war and the resultant mess... "spooky" doesn't even begin to describe the feeling.

    The game ended within about half an hour of the radio play - 40,000 of us headed for Alpha Centauri, yet another one of those staggering coincidences.

    Kudos to Miller for the novel, to NPR for the radio play, and to Sid Meier for Civ. Yeah, I know that what I experienced was just a coincidence -- but after 8-12 hours in a darkened room playing Civ and listening to Canticle, I'll never feel that the timing of my game and the events in the radio play were just a coincidence. Too spooky for words, but awe-inspiring. Which is, of course, what good SF - whether it comes in the form of a novel, a radio play, or a strategy game - is all about.

  • One definition of a classic is a book that rewards re-reading over a span of years. I've read CFL at least three times over 20 years and will read it again. What's refreshing to me is that it's still entertaining--not because of special effects or hype (Leibowitz action figures?) but because it's just Good Writing(tm).
  • This is definately one of the great examples of Science Fiction, in that it remains firmly grounded in strong characters and thoughtful developments.

    There is probably several layers of meaning in there, but to preserve my enjoyment of the book I just enjoyed it at the surface. []
  • I read A Canticle for Leibowitz my senior year in High School on the recommendation of my English teacher... And I have to say it was one of the best recommendations I've ever had. :-) I was so moved at the time that I decided to put up a web site of book reviews, and it was the first book in it. I long since gave up on that idea, but it was the thought that counted.

    ACFL fascinated me with its dark but realistic look at the Human state... Miller successfully points out in stark detail the major goods and evils of several Human tendencies and creations... From the Church to government to simple individuals, he touches on societal flaws and features.

    As an example, we have the contrast of the corrupt church and the virtuous individual monk... I found myself rooting for the church on one page, so as to fulfill the dreams of a character, but condemning it on the next for the dreams of the church executives.

    I would (and have!) recommend this book to anyone who likes to read, and think about what they've read. For me, this book falls into the category of _1984_, _Fareheit 451_, _The Time Machine_, et al in terms of societal significance. Whether you agree with what Miller is "saying" or not, it makes you think and provides for an entertaining read.

    (I will warn those who are inclined toward happy readings that it is a little depressing!)
  • Charta non erubescit, my dear friend, nonplusque Slashdot. But I'm not. Gnothi seauton, dear Toad, because I do know who the Wandering Jew is and that is precisly why I admired this' books coherence and the authors literacy. Oida ouden eidos - however my pitiful english spelling, grammar and so on could have given you a hint that I come from the older continent, and therefore need not to be told about what belongs to basic literary education, if you forbid my harsh and inflammatory remark. It's good that you came up with the name, though, it is always worth - indocti discant, ament meminissae pariti - but I felt that you take me for impos animi.

    Tibi et igni,

    Januarius Tertius

    P.S. Nie ucz pan ojca dzieci robic

    P.S.2 I'm sorry, but I don't know Hebrew. Does that mean I'm a whippersneaker, quodque significat?

  • JMS is cool like that.. Any guy who names one of his most important (and popular, in a twisted sort of way ;) characters after a SF writer is definitely a fan..

    And, of course, a No-Prize to whoever knows the name and role of the character..
    Your Working Boy,
  • About 5-6 years ago there was a Scientific American cover story on the permanence of data....I've checked their site, but their archives don't go back that far -- sorry!

    The irony is delicious...

    Your Working Boy,
  • where can I get that MP3? Email me at
  • Where I was born, in Eastern Europe, this (methinks) eight centuries old story is well known. There are countless references to that in literature, starting from Apollinaire (yeah, he was polish) and ending with Lewis Wallace.

    There have been many sf stories referring to le juif errant, Hasver (or Ahasver or Ahasverus: the name is, AFAIR, much younger then the story itself, and I think there were other names and other legends about). There were also many sf stories - e.g. Arkadij and Boris Strugacki or Stanisl/aw Lem.



  • The third (or fourth? the last part, anyway) is where it all comes together. Every time I think of that book I hear the doctors and priests arguing about euthanasia, and see those priests walking down the street with the signs reading "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." The final ending is grim as hell but beautiful nonetheless.
  • I never heard of any radio adaptation! Cool! Is it available on CD or tape anywhere? Or even its script?
  • Miller didn't write a lot of SF - few people have read any of his stories, other than CFL, but that book bought him his well-deserved place in the pantheon of anglophone SF.

    I graded some student papers on CFL some years ago, and there was a surprising array of conclusions about the book's message. Some saw it as straight SF about the consequences of nuclear war, a few seeing strong anti-nuclear messages in it. Others saw it as an anti-clerical novel, like the work of Victor Hugo. Some saw the reaffirmation of Clarke's maxim that any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, especially in the second part.

    One thought the book was about the unnaturalness of modern society, suggesting that without constant efforts, man would naturally return to a feudal lifestyle. He made his point well, carefully avoiding the suggestion that Miller was a closet Luddite.

    Another saw the preservation of knowledge as a key theme. He thought Miller was saying that preservation of knowledge is a holy calling, a cause requiring a kind of missionary devotion.

    Many students found CFL a counsel of despair, suggesting that nuclear war is inevitable and that it would destroy our civilisation. Most caught on to the theme of despair in the last section, suggesting that man could never learn from history.

    A few thought the last section had a theme of hope, that man could ultimately escape his own destructiveness, either by starting over elsewhere or by submission to God.

    This is a complex novel, rich in subtle meaning and interpretation and full of diverse themes, told through a relatively small cast of characters. One of the most powerful things I brought out of it was new perspective on medaeval European history. Seeing how the people in CFL reinterpreted my civilisation made me think about how feudal Europe reinterpreted the Roman Empire.

    A Canticle for Leibowitz is a powerful book, more than worth reading and timeless in a way that very little SF is. Stay away from the so-called sequel though, it will only diminish the first book.
  • I ordered the sequel (hardback) as soon as it was available and I was VERY DISAPPOINTED.

    I thought the sequel was just terrible. Don't waste your time or money on this piece of trash.

    The sequel never captured the magic that made the original so special.

    (replace "derf" with "fred" to email me)
  • I read CFL for the first time a few months ago and I have to say that I wasn't that impressed with it. I found the changes between the three different eras to be quite jarring and difficult to get into. There are other outstanding books which took magazine novellas about different eras and combined them into a full novel without being confusing or ("The Listeners" by James Gunn is an outstanding example of this).

    The book itself is very tedious to read and anybody that finished it should be proud of themselves. This is not to say that its badly written, just that every sixty pages or you had to learn a new "world" (while trying to tie back to the previous one). I can believe that people would start this book and give up about halfway through it.

    As well, I found that the book didn't sit well with me for a variety of reasons.

    Even though I am catholic, I didn't know a lot of prerequisite information regarding the beatification process and had to go to my wife (who is a religeon teacher) and ask exactly what was happening. To be fair, as you read through each novelette, you do get all the information that you require to understand what is happening - it just takes a while to figure out what the characters are discussing.

    I also didn't like the theme of the book that human civilization is doomed to destroy itself in nuclear fire once it reaches a certain point. I found this view to be simplistic in its portrayal as an inevitible outcome of imperialistic asperations of which all humans have.

    Not that this should be a prerequisite, but this book does not offer any hope (actually it crushes any hope for the world to become reborn) and that seems to be its biggest problem for me because it is about a civilization rebuilding itself.

    I can see where people would like this book and think it is one of the greatest ever written. I think my complaint (and powerlord's) is that the book just isn't for us. If I was really to look at what I didn't like about this book was that the reviewers constantly crow about it and never add the warning: "NOT FOR EVERYBODY!"


  • I can only agree with you that a review of Olaf Stapledon is overdue. He horizons are wider than
    anybody else's before or since. I'm reading his
    "Star Maker" right now, which spans most of the
    history of the universe. If you read SF for the
    'sensawunder', then Stapledon's your man!

  • It's interesting that there are similar writers
    of the period who produced a medium sized
    body of work, but are remembered for that
    "one great book", eg Daniel Keyes with "Flowers
    for Algernon" and George R Stewart with "Earth Abides". I wonder if it was to do with the
    paucity of publishing opportunities for full
    length SF novels at the time - some potentially
    good writers never got the chance to really extend
    themselves in the novelistic form.


  • Alfred Bester, the PsiCop. Eponymous for the writer. Read His Books.

    Note that the PsiCorps trilogy recently published is pretty good. The first two books are, respectively, a history lesson on the Corps and a bio of Bester's early years. The third book is a very nice novel covering the last years of Bester's flight from justice. Tne first two are skippable, unless you're a B5 nut, but the third is going to be overlooked by a lot of people because its a licensed novel. And that's a shame.

  • One of my favorites that I read first many years ago. It is great to see it "re-discovered"
  • Bravo, not just Latin but also Greek in a Slashdot comment... far too rare. I'm guessing at Polish for the third language, but I'm probably wrong.


  • For those that don't know, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a work in progress at the time of Miller's death. It was completed by another author. So the many years separating Miller's writing, coupled with it's completion by another writer will certainly give the 'sequel' a different feel.
  • Bingo :-) This was a very nice idiom which sound much better in polish then its english translation - it means, "do not teach the father how the babies are made".

    Well, I was showing off with the greek, I don't speak Greek, knowing only some phrases from ancient Greek and some obscenities from modern Greek... and my Latin is more then miserable, although I can always throw at you some quotes :-)



    P.S. Huc est mens deducta tua, mea Lesbia, culpa atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo...

  • Any chance you would post that MP3 of the play or e-mail it to me? My work address is Would love to hear it (I just read CFL two weeks ago on a whim, and loved it - and I've played CIV, oh, about 20-30 times!) TIA
  • pasadena, you missed the point. Anonymous coward wrote that post with tongue planted firmly in cheek...
  • I'd say re-read the ending... It contained huge chunks of symbolism vital to understanding the importance of the entire book as a whole -- Especially Rachel. It will probably click a little better the second time around.

    Sorry, I don't want to go into more detail so I don't spoil some of it for those who haven't read it.
  • >I am intentionally skipping old classics like

    My friend, this novel IS an "old classic", and
    is considered by many SF writers to be one of
    the best SF novels written thus far.

    Thomas S. Howard
  • Unfortunately, we can't save everything. As much as my mortality frightens me, I also know that trying to "preserve my data" for the aeons is a wasted effort at assuaging my failing ego. "Someday, all this too shall pass"

    That's why I don't want a tombstone, I won't care if someone visits it when I'm dead. I'm looking to make my mark while I'm alive and kicking... if I'm forgotten ten years after I die, then so be it.
  • Thanks! red face, red face, red face
  • But Canticle has two six century gaps. If it did coincide with your Civ game, it was only by some crazy chance. More likely, you noticed a few similarities and started looking for more.
  • Where I was born, in Eastern Europe, this (methinks) eight centuries old story is well known. There are countless references to that in literature, starting from Apollinaire (yeah, he was polish) and ending with Lewis Wallace.

    The Wandering Jew makes an excellent appearance in Jan Potocki's Manuscript found in Saragossa - an incredible book which probably deserves a Slashdot review.

  • I read it on the advice of a friend about two years ago. I really hated it. Granted, the writing is excellent, and the characters are very believable and deep. But the plot was too depressing, and never really 'peaked' at any particular point. Seeing so many cases over and over where the various religious orders kept warping the knowlege over time was too close to home. The only plot elements that really tied the chronologically seperate vignettes together were of a mystical religious nature, and those failed to draw me into the story. So it felt like reading several short stories that didn't flow together well. It also lacked a climax. The level of interest and excitement remained the same throughout. There was no buildup. I was left at the end feeling rather frustrated and unsatisfied.

    Probably part of the reason I didn't like it is that I'm an atheist and the mystical overtones turned me off quite a bit. Which is strange, because I really liked Orson Scott Card's "Ships of Earth", which was even more religious, in a way that was very offensive to me (All the good guys were the ones that accepted the "oversoul", all the bad guys were the ones that didn't). But the difference is that Card's religious overtones were added to a story that was pretty gripping and entertaining in itself (Humans abandoned earth because it was ruined by war, now the colonists' descendants are trying to come back again to repopulate earth after tens of thousands of years.) But in Canticle, there really didn't seem to be any major theme running through the little vignettes. They made okay short stories by themselves, but they didn't really hold together as a book very well.

  • I picked up "A Canticle for Leibowitz" after a recommendation from JMS (Babylon 5 creator)... It's almost like a retelling of the dark ages of Western civilization when the monks ... spent centuries collecting and hiding manuscripts and preserving knowledge for future generations.

    Very interesting. There is an episode of Babylon 5 entitled, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars []", which includes a segment about this exact same thing, nearly verbatim.

    If you read the page linked to for the episode, you will find JMS came up with this idea independently, and then, on an unrelated project, discovered both the dark age connection and the Canticle connection.

    Great minds think alike, I guess.
  • The subject is a great book, but not to be confused with any Gene Wolfe books. Actually, I am not completely sure of the title but it proposes interesting ideas.

    I paraphrase:

    Many years from now much of our present data may be unreadable. Not because of decay but because the encoding methods are forgotten! How much of the original NASA data from the moon landings can now be read? I bet we'd all be surprised.

    These are important questions and support the need for open standards. In a few years, how many Word file formats will we have, and how many will we be able to read?:)

  • I first ran across this book in a course
    at the University of Toronto on Religion and
    Science Fiction.. This was 30 years ago, and
    every few years I pick up the books that
    were recommended reading, and re-read them.
    This book is one that had a lasting impression
    on me, I guess from the overall idea of one
    who is willing to follow an ideal, and be involved
    in a bigger and altruistic mission, and accept
    being an outsider.

    Other books included:

    Last and First Men and Star Maker
    by Olaf Stapleton
    ( a future history, and really a hard read,
    but an attempt to look at where human
    kind will go)

    C.S. Lewis's trilogy :
    Out of the silent planet
    That Hiddeous Strength
    C.S. Lewis's books were written at the time
    that Tolkein was writing the Lord of the Rings
    as part of his attempt to write an alternate
    history. He and Tolkein were members of the
    same club, and had made a pact to try to write
    these books..
    I found these books very interesting reading
    as well, but a bit heavy on the religious
    (C.S. Lewis was a theologian)
    I also liked his Narnia series.

    Lilith by George MacDonald.
    This was written in the late 1800's and
    may well have been the first Fantasy novel
    ever written. It was a truely well written
    book that delves into the nature of evil,
    via travels into alternate worlds.

  • Canticle's ideas about science versus faith are significant and have survived the test of time -- and its ideas about information preserval are if anything more valid today than some forty years ago.

    The book is a gold mine of literary pleasures.

    Notice, for example, how the tempo of each book is deliberately chosen as time and technology progress, hand in hand -- like a train pushing gradually towards an inevitable crash: The first book is almost mind-wrenchingly slow in its characterization of an earth thrown back to the dark ages; the second part picks up speed as technological inventions are introduced, throwing us hundreds of years into a new middle-ages; and finally the third book, as mankind reaches the culmination of a new "modern civilization".

    Brother Francis may seem "deliberately dumb or obtuse", but consider that he lives in a world that precedes your mindset by more than a thousand years. You have the benefit of hindsight as well as a modern education.

  • "Fiat" is latin for "let there be"
    homo means man
    lux means light
    I forget what the third one is
    so let there be man and let there be light (enlightenment) are the themes of the first two sections
  • ...and now that I've got everyone's attention with that Subject: header...

    Regrettably, I'm on a limited bandwidth connection and not in a position to upload it. That's the bad news.

    The good news is that an Anonymous Coward [] has graciously posted information which should lead you to either a site which has it, or to people in a position to upload one. There's a large contingent of OTR (Old-Time-Radio) fans out there, and they've done some great work in preserving the old recordings.

    If you're fortunate enough to be on an ISP with a good USENET binaries feed, some polite requests in the appropriate requests group might help. I understand that there is currently a proposal in the works for a spoken-word MP3 newsgroup which would presumably include radio plays as well as speeches.

    (Meanwhile, analysis of any similarity between the legions of old-time radio fans and the monks of Leibowitz is left as a meta-exercise for the reader :)

    As the AC wrote in his post - 15 parts of just under half an hour, no commercials. To me, it sounds like a tape from the radio broadcast, with audio level varying somewhat from episode to episode. I think one of the parts (at least as I downloaded it) had a small fragment of fading-out audio from a previous programme in it that caused me to decide it was someone's direct-from-radio tape.

    I did some research (probably a Dejanews search) when I downloaded it and made a couple of notes on the source: "This program, in 15 parts, was produced by Marv Nunn and Karl Schmidt for WHA and NPR according to the credits. It was probably never released for sale. The program was adapted from a story by Walter Miller Jr., by John Reeves. It originally aired from 10-04-83 to 01-10-84."

    I regret that's all I can do to help, but between the AC's advice for seeking out OTR sites and archives and the possibility of a USENET posting for those with binaries feeds or access thereto, someone with greater bandwidth than I should be able to solve the rest of the puzzle.

  • The book has other, non-science fiction angles to be looked upon. Its actually got deep religios undertones (even if your not in to that stuff, and I'm not, its quite interesting).

    Some of the symbolism is obvious, for instance all the snake symbolism in the start of the book and the Old jew (which is actually not just symbolism, it's literal: he is a character directly from the bible who was forced to roam the earth until the second coming of christ. Also, Joshua representing both Jesus (he walks on water, plus look at his name) and Moses (leads his people to the promised land) at the same time, and Rachel (the person growing out of hte old womans head) representing the immaculate conception.

    In the last few pages of the book the symbolism all collides and becomes easily apparent to anyone (even those who aren't looking for it), but one part is a tad confusing. Rachel seems to represent something else besides the immaculate conception after she takes on life and begins to move around. Is she some sort of second jesus symbolism? Or Something else?

    All in all, this story is a great story even if the whole religious aspect doesn't do anything for you (it doesn't really for me either but it does add some nice depth to the story). I recommend it to anyone interested in any type of literature at all.

  • I was introduced to this book in college (1981) by an EE student/pal down the hall. He had the most amazing poster on his wall: an electronic "schematic" diagram that was "illuminated" in the style of those monastic scriptures from the middle-ages...

    Once he explained it, I knew I had to read that book. Glad I did, too!

    I suppose it wasn't a "great" book, but it was certainly "very good" at least. I haven't read it again since then, but maybe I will now.

    Anyway, I still recommend it, whenever it comes up in conversation (which ain't too often)...

    PS: Anyone know where I can get one of those posters? ;-)
  • The Sequel was called:

    _Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman_

    It was at best poor. I noted that Terry Bisson
    was credited for some of the writing.

    Canticle is one of the finest books ever.
    The sequel a disaster. I had to force myself
    to keep turning the pages in Wild Horse Woman
    to see if any embers from the original Canticle still glowed. None survivied. I was rewarded for perseverance with but a horrid after taste
    that still darkens my memory of Canticle.

  • I hadn't heard of the sequel either - I made audible (though complete inarticulate sounds) when I read that. Can't wait to dig that up.

    A personal favorite in the religion-examining science fiction category is James Morrow []. Titles like Bible Stores for Adults, Towing Jehovah and Only Begotten Daughter only begin to hint at the delicate satire this man is capable of.

  • if I had read it in the late fifties,
    I probably would have started archiving libraries

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