| A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr.|
Originally Published 1959 by Lippincott
Published 1997 by Bantam Books
ISBN# 0-553-37926-7 (Trade Paperback)
Reviewed May 23, 1999
In a highly original twist on a common theme, Walter Miller creates a future 600 years after a present-day nuclear holocaust, in which the remnants of the lost technologies of today are preserved by a small order of monks. These monks comprise the Order of Saint Leibowitz -- Leibowitz having been an engineer who survived the original disaster and spent the remainder of his life searching for his lost wife.
The story centers around a single monastery in what once was the American southwest, and the events following the accidental discovery of a few sacred relics of Leibowitz (specifically, a circuit board blueprint and a shopping list written in his own hand). The humble monk who makes the discovery is suddenly caught in the middle of various politics, ultimately carrying him across the desert he has known to the Vatican in New Rome.
The book is split into three sections, each set roughly 600 years apart, meaning that the story spans a period from about 2600 A.D. to 3800 A.D. This type of storytelling can often be jarring, leaving the reader wanting to know what happened in an earlier period as he is pulled into the farther future. Miller, however, does an excellent job of drawing the reader forward with him, and demonstrating wonderfully the passage of time and the reemergence of advanced civilization. His skill as a writer is seen clearly in his ability to show these changes to the reader without a lot of heavy-handed exposition.
Beyond the vivid portrait of the lives of the monks throughout the various time periods, Miller gives us a wonderful sense of history. He shows us a picture of life so clearly that we can easily imagine living with these characters, then jumps ahead to a point when those events have been reduced to a scattering of dry details and (sometimes misunderstood) historical fact.
A Canticle for Leibowitz was written over forty years ago, and was the only book Miller wrote until the recent release of a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. I am simultaneously saddened at the thought that this wonderful talent didn't write more, and heartened by the fact that he has given us what he has. The literary field has a hidden treasure in the form of this little-known book. It is the most engaging book I have read in a good long time.
Reviewer's Note (March 1, 2000): I referred to this book as "little-known" in my review.... It turns out it's quite famous; I just hadn't heard of it until I stumbled upon it at the bookstore. Oops.