I Knew Learning Latin Would Pay Off Someday

A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

NOTE: Some spoilers follow.

Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz” is indeed a marvelous work of modern science fiction. It wraps up the natural fear of nuclear weapons (which Miller no doubt experienced as he watched the bombs fall on Japan) and combines it with the innovative “what if” of a long and storied history.

“Canticle” does an excellent job of providing a deeply religious perspective on a dark and troubled future, with the full awareness of human nature and a Catholic understanding of original sin. The book ends with an intriguing twist on that doctrine, but – while it may be outside the normal realm of theological presumption – it is presented from a humble and simple eye, which presumes nothing of its own accord. Miller’s work here is delightful.

Enjoyable, too, are the echoes of the Mass and the cleverness of Miller’s classical education, which plays out in this work. There were a number of jokes and layers which I could not have understood without my knowledge of the Latin language or the Catholic Mass. Miller’s weave of these issues borders on the brilliant.

Now, downsides: first, Miller is a writer of short stories. This is evident in that each of the three parts of “Canticle” could be read and, more or less, understood apart from the others. There are elements that tie them together, but seeing those strings is more like gravy than substance. Of course, in a story that spans over a thousand years, this is to be expected to some degree. Even so, I would have appreciated more intricacies of plot between the sections.

I felt, too, that there were a few questions left unanswered. The nature and identity of the nomad, or Benjamin, or Lazarus, is unclear. Miller never resolves that question, at least not satisfactorily. There is some implication about the identity of the man, which plays (quite cleverly, if non-traditionally) on the lack of details about the (second) death of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, in the Bible. But I would have liked more resolution there.

But all of that said, the book is excellent. The imagery and depth of the story is striking, and I am glad all the more for having read this delightful work of science fiction.

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