A Canticle for Leibowitz [Walter M. Miller, Jr]

Start Date: 11 April 2020

Finish Date: 17 April 2020

Source: Amazon India Kindle Edition

Goodreads link.


  • Let’s start with what got me to this book. Long, long ago – as a teenager, I think I read James Michener’s Space – in which there’s a fictional, extra Apollo mission, that crashes on the dark side of the moon. The last words of the dying astronaut are “Blessed Saint Leibowitz, keep them dreaming down there.” Later on in the narrative, Michener explains the joke – that it’s a reference to A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which, after a nuclear holocaust, the church grabs on to whatever records of the past it can find – and makes a scientist called Leibowitz’s shopping list a holy relic. I immediately decided to read Canticle, but never found a paperback for the next few years. Kindle catalogue to the rescue, at last, this year.
  • Next point – this book is fabulous, but Michener’s description made it seem like a comedy in which the shopping list is the main joke. It isn’t a comedy, and the shopping list is incidental. It’s a tragedy, if anything.
  • The first section is about three hundred years post-apocalypse, the second section jumps about two thousand years ahead, and the third section goes even further ahead – another thousand years? It has interstellar travel, anyhow.
  • The central concept of the book is that Leibowitz played a part in the creation of nuclear weapons, and in repentance after the apocalypse, turned catholic and set up a new order of monks who would preserve the knowledge of the past. Which reminds me intensely of Anathem, and also of the end of Seveneves, in which a mysterious thousand year lineage said to be working towards a fixed goal is revealed.
  • The wandering Jew character of Canticle is also very much like Enoch Root.
  • The thing which made me suspend disbelief is that the order managed to stick to its mission statement the entire three thousand years, while the world around them went on its chaotic, unpredictable way.
  • And on a related note, that the church remained ceaselessly good all those years. No power hungry popes, no descent into superstition or dogma, just a laser focus on theology and ethics. Dei.
  • This is the same problem that I have with Russ Roberts on EconTalk discussing religion – he sees the best of it (and I do concede that the best of it can be pretty damn good) and completely ignores the black spots. A Canticle for Leibowitz does mostly the same.
  • Any In Our Time episode which discusses Christian theology manages to do a fascinating job, though.
  • I haven’t played a Fallout game, ever, but from whatever Fallout memes have drifted my way, it seems very similar. I’ve stopped myself from reading about Canticle further, until I complete this post, but from what I’ve already read, apparently Fallout is inspired by the book.
  • Did Canticle invent the concept of post-apocalypse America splitting up into regions, or was it drawing on an existing thing? I’m thinking specifically of “Texarkana” – which, if I remember correctly, I first encountered in Railroad Tycoon II’s expansion pack. Googling doesn’t get me anything except a town called Texarkana – did I misinterpret the whole thing, and was the kingdom of just that town and outlying regions?
  • The last section of the book has nuclear holocaust all set to break out again, and even though the secular world has redeveloped science to the point where it’s outstripped what the Leibowitzans preserved, the Leibowitzans decide to send a mission into space with the archives to preserve it there; and to send the microfilm versions rather than the originals.
  • Which got me wondering two things – I hope they updated their mission to preserve fresh discoveries as well; and I initially grinned a bit at the idea that they had interstellar travel but not digital storage, but then I remembered all the gloomy discussion on the silklist about data fidelity… so microfilm was probably a good idea after all.
  • This was probably not the cheeriest thing to be reading in the middle of a pandemic.
  • Three thousand years, and racism still persisted to the point that the Americans were calling the Chinese and Japanese “lesser races.” Oy vey.
  • The imagery of Lucifer, the “light bringer” being equated to the flash of a nuclear explosion was a little too pointed to escape without discomfort.

This excerpt:

Was not the starship an act of despair? … Retrahe me, Satanus, et discede! he thought. The starship is an act of hope. Hope for Man elsewhere, peace somewhere, if not here and now, then someplace: Alpha Centauri’s planet maybe, Beta Hydri, or one of the sickly straggling colonies on that planet of What’s-its-name in Scorpius. Hope, and not futility, is sending the ship, thou foul Seductor. It is a weary and dog-tired hope, maybe, a hope that says: Shake the dust off your sandals and go preach Sodom to Gomorrha. But it is hope, or it wouldn’t say go at all. It isn’t hope for Earth, but hope for the soul and substance of Man somewhere.

Had me remembering the In Our Time episode about hope, and about how the early church was conflicted about it being a virtue at all; because hoping for a change meant that you didn’t have faith that God had made a perfect world.

This excerpt:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.

reminded me of the trope I frequently endorse, Wanting is Better than Having.

Another of my suspensions of disbelief came with:

“You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”

Not where that line is delivered, but a few pages later, with the fury at euthanasia and suicide. If you are a soul with a body, how bad is it to detach the two? Of course I don’t really know the details of how the Catholic Church sees the relation of the soul and the body when it comes to death, and thirty years of the influence of the Gita is probably having its impact on me. But this also brings me back to last summers miniseason of Flash Forward, and how it ended up getting stuck on mind-body duality, and saying very interesting things about that.

And this quote – where I can’t really provide full context without quoting a whole page or more:

Besides, most people will think he means “against the heathen” on the other side of the ocean, and “justice” for our side.

Reminded me of the bit from Thud!:

“For the enemy is not Troll, nor it is Dwarf, but it is the baleful, the malign, the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good. Those we fought today, but the willful fool is eternal and will say—’”

“This is just a trick!” Ardent shouted.

“‘—say this is a trick,’” Bashfullsson continued


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