Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a novel about a post-apocalyptic future, in which mankind has destroyed its own civilization, and in a frenzy of self-righteousness destroyed all receptacles of knowledge. Out of this inferno, a Jewish technician with the U.S. Army became a Jewish priest working with the Catholic church and the monastic order he set up to save books and other repositories of information. It was written by Walter M. Miller, Jr. back in 1959 and won a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961.

There are a wealth of characters here, the primary ones of which are well thought and and fully fleshed. Though my favorite would have to be the Jewish Hermit. There's a lot of questions on just who he really is. Lazarus? The Wandering Jew from early Christianmythos? A simple mad man? He's arcane and cryptic and works perfectly as a symbol for mankind's continual search for something more.

The plot is a mixture of the things that you find in the post-apocalyptic future genre of books. Though, due to how early this one was written, it could conceivably have been a pioneer for those plot points. The book itself is broken into three sections: Fiat Homo (let there be man), Fiat Lux (let there be light) and Fiat Voluntas Tua (thy will be done). These sections each detail an important step in the advancement of the plot, and each is actually structured like a mini story in their own right. Which I guess is a holdover from the fact that Fiat Homo was initially published in a magazine by itself.

The physical setting is an abbey in the American Southwest. Yet their is a secondary aspect of the setting and that is the fact that it is a post-apocalyptic earth. This changes everything - granting the creatures that populated the landscape an almost surreal existence.

Miller's style is somewhat old fashioned, the wording and just feel of the novel seemed, dated somehow. Since he himself was a Catholic, he used Catholic catechisms and sprinkled the text liberally with Latin phrases without explaining them. A lot of the content I was able to figure out from context, but coming from a non-Catholic point-of-view, I had trouble on some of them. But that was minor in the overall enjoyment of the book.

There were a lot of themes here in this book. The first of which was mankind's tendency to destroy itself and then rebuild itself up again. A theme of the cyclical nature of humanity and human nature. And depending on how you read it a positive or negative view of religion and its influence on man. Overall thought, the book itself contains huge blobs of ambiguity in the various themes spread throughout its pages. Which is a good thing, because good literature, and especially good speculative fiction, will make the reader ask questions about his world view rather than force the author's answers to those questions upon the reader. It's an art that seems lost on a lot of the authors writing stories out there today.

As a special note, I have to share my favorite quote from this novel: My execrable vanity is like that of the fabled cat who studied ornithology, m'Lord. I'm not certain why, but I just got a laugh out of it.

Overall the story was an interesting and enjoyable read. I give it a solid 3 out of 4.

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