A Canticle for Walter Miller

15 Oct

Sometimes it’s best not to know what a book is about until you open it. I’ve spoiled plenty of stories for myself by reading up on them too much. (And then there’s my most recent Youtube crime, which is accidentally finding out which Harry Potter characters die before reading through the series because those videos keep showing up in the sidebar.)

I had heard the title A Canticle for Leibowitz before. Then I saw a blurb for it, saying it was written against nuclear warfare. Okay, I thought. I wonder why the word “canticle” is in the title? That sounds like a churchy type of thing. This is science fiction.


The Monte Cassino monastery after the bombing (German Federal Archive).

I guess I had assumed that C. S. Lewis was the only important science fiction writer to pay much attention to Christianity. I now stand corrected. Walter M. Miller Jr. was a World War II veteran who had seen the horrors of war first hand. A gunner in the Army Air Corps, he took part in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy. Intelligence from the ground had led his commanders to believe that German troops were camped in the monastery–the monastery from which the Benedictine Order sprang. So the Air Corps bombed the monastery. Only rubble was left. 230 Italian civilians were killed. But no Germans died that day. They had not been staying there, and only after they decided the rubble would make excellent cover did they take refuge at the monastery. Miller never forgot the bombing. He probably had post-traumatic stress disorder, but in those days no such disorder existed on the books. After the war ended, Miller converted to Catholicism and developed strong anti-war inclinations.

Miller was primarily a short story writer. But in 1960 he published A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel he completed during his lifetime. The backstory to the novel goes like this. The human race is stupid and sets off enough nuclear bombs to destroy life as we know it. People blame scientists and other well-educated individuals for the problem. They destroy books. They stop learning to read. Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a scientist who had been involved in nuclear research, repented for his role in the disaster and converted to Catholicism. But he saw how quickly the culture was being dismantled, and he started a religious order devoted to preserving the few books that were not burned. Until Leibowitz himself is burned by an angry mob. The novel chronicles the struggles of the Leibowitzian Order–first to survive amid the ruins of civilization, and then as civilization becomes advanced enough to destroy itself.

While opposition to nuclear war is the background, the novel offers many other questions. What is the value of preserving knowledge you do not understand? Can science limit itself, even when the safety of millions may be at stake? How should Christians respond when no one respects their point of view?

The novel includes some profound passages on suicide and euthanasia, which make Miller’s own death more tragic. Clearly, he believed–at least at the time he wrote the novel–that suicide is a sin. But in January 1996 he shot himself in the head. His wife had recently died. He was depressed. He had never really recovered from seeing the Monte Cassino bombed into the ground. And so Miller, whose passages on suicide are some of the most profound fictional meditations on the subject that I have read, died by his own hand.

I wonder, though, whether Miller could have written what he did had he not understood why someone might commit suicide. He understood. He fought. He failed. As we all do, at different times and in different ways.

A Canticle for Leibowitz ends on a grim note. Nuclear war has destroyed the earth for a second time. Yet Miller suggests that there is still hope. Out of ugliness, God brings redemption. And no bomb, however powerful, can change that.

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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Science Fiction


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