A Canticle for Leibowitz was one of the last science fiction books about nuclear war published while surviving such a conflict was relatively plausible. ICBMs weren’t really a thing yet, so most of the bombs would have to be delivered by submarines, intermediate-range missiles, and airplanes. The death toll probably would have been a lot lower than it would have been later.
Miller speculates on what might come afterwards, and presents an all-too-plausible hypothesis. Once the dust settles and people start assembling a post-war society, the survivors decide to blame the engineers and scientists for the war, rather than the public’s elected officials. Technical types are killed en masse, to the point that “Simpleton” is the new comrade and mere literacy is a carefully-guarded secret.
A few professionals escape detection, often seeking refuge with the Catholic Church. The church apparatus survives and is now headquartered in North America, though it’s not clear from the text whether this is a relocation from Rome or a new establishment. The Church can’t protected everyone, but they take in many of the persecuted intellectuals and shield them from public wrath. This particular plot point seems implausible today, but strikes me as reasonable if World War III had happened in the early 1960s.
One of these professionals is Isaac Leibowitz, a Jewish electrical engineer who developed weapons systems for the military. He converts to Catholicism after the war, and with permission from New Rome, founds an Albertian Order in the southwest to hide and preserve ancient knowledge until such time as humanity wants it once again. Before the work is complete, however, he is captured and killed in the great Simplification. To the members of the abbey, Leibowitz a saint. Outside of it, no one knows his name.
The story begins in the 2500s, as Brother Francis of Utah performs his Lenten hermitage as an inductee to the Order. He is visited by a Wanderer, who frightens Francis, but who marks a rock that would make a good keystone for the stone structure which Francis is building to protect himself from wolves. After the wanderer leaves, Francis removes the stone, and causes an unexpected cave-in. That pile of rubble covered the opening to a fallout shelter. In the antechamber, Francis finds a human skeleton, and a toolbox that belonged to the Blessed Leibowitz himself. Francis’s amazement is doubled when the toolbox contains an actual blueprint, the first found in readable condition for centuries.
Unsurprisingly, this does not ease along Francis’s induction. Eventually, though, he is inducted, and the evidence satisfies New Rome that Leibowitz should be canonized. Investigators conclude that the skeleton belonged to Leibowitz’s wife. Proving that she died before he took the monastic vows was the last hurdle before his Sainthood.
As a monk of Saint Leibowitz, Francis becomes a scribe. His skill develops, and he soon begins to copy the writings he found in the cave, culminating in the blueprint. No one understands it, but it must be dutifully preserved regardless. Once the copy is made, Francis does research in the archives, and decides to produce a more dramatic, illuminated copy.
The Illuminated Blueprint is a success, and the Abbot decides to sent both the copy and original to New Rome. Francis is sent, travelling alone, and is robbed by mutants along the way. The mutants take the illuminated copy and hold it for a ransom that Francis could never pay. Discouraged, he continues with the original to New Rome.
Meeting the Pope, however, reassures him. The Pope points out that the mutants left the original holy relic, so the illuminated copy provided a great service. As Francis prepares to return to the abbey, the Pope further gifts Francis the gold necessary to pay the ransom. However, Francis is skilled as he approaches the robber’s lair. The Wanderer is watching, though, and denies the mutant murderer a meal. Eventually, the Wanderer returns Francis’s corpse to the abbey.
The second part of the book takes place six hundred years later, as humanity approaches a renaissance. The plot of this section is much less dramatic and memorable, focused on the scientist Thon Taddeo’s visit to the abbey from Texarkana. The monks barely beat Taddeo to the reinvention of the electric lightbulb, initiating a long dialogue on the conflict between science and religion.
War is brewing between the southern city-states. Taddeo gathers as much information as he can, and soon must depart. The abbey prepares to defend itself and take in refugees from the nearby town, on the condition that able-bodied men fight alongside the monks. We’re not told if the abbey even needs to defend itself in the coming wars. The section ends with a cynical Poet, tolerated by the long-suffering monks, dying in the sun after trying to save some harmless refugees from blood-thirsty cavalrymen.
The final part of the book picks up in 3781, as humanity prepares for atomic war once again. The first several pages break dramatically from the narrative style of the rest of the book, and the final part is punctuated with a few press conference transcripts from the Atlantic Confederacy’s Defense Minister. I think this is an artefact of the book’s history as a fix-up. More introduction was necessary when these final chapters stood by themselves, and that introduction was probably longer at the time.
In practice, we’re quickly shown a world with atomic spacecraft, interstellar colonies, and temperamental translation computers. Leibowitz is popular as the patron saint of electricians, and mostly forgotten for his work in booklegging.
The Atlantic Confederacy and Asian Coalition have, for undisclosed reasons, found themselves in a cold war. It builds slowly. An atomic accident—possibly a test—occurs in the Asian Coalition. The Atlantic Confederacy considers this violation of international law an act of war, and fires a warning shot over the Pacific.
Observers in the abbey watch the atmospheric radiation count rise and become worried. Realizing that the future likely holds nuclear war, they activate an old plan to “borrow” a starship from the government and carry the core teaching of the church to the extrasolar colonies.
Further bombings occur, destroying Texarkana and a number of Asian space stations. The World Court enforces a 10-day ceasefire, which both sides agree to. The Church mobilizes their survival plan, collecting the Leibowitzian monks with space experience to depart for Alpha Centauri.
At this point, Miller could have ended the book. Terra is about to erupt in nuclear flames once again, and the Church is prepared to survive. Honestly, I was feeling fairly sympathetic towards Catholicism after reading such believable, devoted characters. But Miller respects his readers too much for that. He pushes us.
During the ceasefire, millions of refugees leave the outskirts of Texarkana, suffering from radiation sickness. The Atlantic Confederacy’s government is still functional at this point (one wonders if ours would be, if Washington, D.C. (and just D.C.) were destroyed). The Green Star, their version of the Red Cross, sets up voluntary euthanasia camps to let those terminally afflicted die quickly without further suffering.
The abbot won’t stand for this. As a devout Catholic, he can’t assist in the matter, or even suffer it to continue. The majority of the population is Catholic, in the way that Americans are Christians, and the abbot tries to put the literal fear of God into them. The abbot desperately tries to stop a sick woman from taking her child to the camp, despite the fact that both are clearly terminal cases. He almost succeeds, before being stopped by the Green Star officials. Seeing the Church overwhelmed by worldly forces is enough to break the streak, or so the abbot thinks.
He doesn’t have much time to ponder the matter before war erupts again. A nuclear explosion destroys the rubble, trapping the abbot in rubble. As he lays dying, he’s visited a mutant woman he’s known for years, except something is different. Her second head, which everyone assumed was braindead, is awake, while her first head appears to be unconscious. The abbot had previously refused to baptize the second head, and desperately tries to rectify this error as his final act. Amazingly, she refuses, and instead gives communion to the abbot, implying that she is holier than him. She wanders off and the abbot slips into the final night. Meanwhile, the monks board their starships, ready to take the Church to the stars.
It’s an interesting book. Walter Miller was a Catholic convert, and clearly believed it very strongly. Still, I can’t imagine that a truly merciful God would care so much about self-destruction if a) you’re dying painfully of a hopeless disease and b) the entire world is about to be destroyed. Perform your own miracles, I guess. We’re conscious, I promise, but we aren’t omnipotent. A-bombs are a long way from the alpha and the omega.
Despite the depressive ending, it’s a book worth reading if you’re interested in moral theology or the material implications of nuclear war. The story is fast-paced and exciting, with a simmering suspense underneath it all. A Canticle for Leibowitz definitely earned its place in the canon of post-apocalyptic science fiction.