Friday, September 30, 2011

Shepherd492 reviews: A Canticle For Leibowitz

A Canticle For Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.)

A Canticle for Leibowitz consists of three short stories set after a nuclear apocalypse in 20th century. These closely connected stories span the next one thousand eight hundred years after that apocalypse, and tell the story of the Human reconstruction. The first story, set only six hundred years after the nuclear fallout, deals with an acolyte in the Order of Leibowitz. He comes across sacred documents (a shopping list) belonging to Leibowitz himself, considered a sacred text in a time in which books are routinely burned by the ignorant masses. He then begins the process of transcribing the information on the list, for use by future generations. This portion of the novel is heavy on humor and satire, as the idea of monks slavishly copying useless texts from the pre-apocalyptic world would suggest. This section also has a substantial bit of the world building and history crucial to understanding the novel.

Part two takes place five hundred years later. Mankind has now developed firearms, and the monks at the monastery have developed a somewhat inefficient electric generator.This section deals with Thon Taddeo, a secular scholar, and his visit to the monastery. Through his studies of the archives, Taddeo is able to decipher many of the things that were "discovered" many centuries prior to the deluge. This is probably my least favorite section of the book. It isn't bad, but it is probably the least profound, and, compared to the breathtaking final section, it stacks up rather poorly.

The third part is where the book really ascends into greatness. Set in a distant future where nuclear weapons have returned to earth, and other worlds have been colonized, this portion of the book deals with a myriad of themes in a brilliant fashion. One of the major themes here is euthanasia and suicide. After a nuclear blast leaves hundreds of people dying of radiation poisoning, the government response team wishes to set up a triage center within the walls of the Order of Leibowitz's monastery. What follows is a battle of wills between the head of the order, and the chief doctor from the government. Brilliant not only for the interaction between the two, but also the quest and conflict that it inspires in the monk, this scene is probably the best in the novel. Another major theme at work here is the way human nature manifests itself in the far future. Though they realize that nuclear weapons (here known as Lucifer) were the destruction of humans in the past, they build and engage in war with them nonetheless. This theme of recurrence is noticeable in the previous chapters, but only in the final chapter, as the warheads begin to devastate the Earth for a second time, does it truly take hold.

The plots here do a great job of establishing the various themes, although the individual stories were a bit short. They do a good job of establishing a pattern of recurrence even if one isn't versed in the various historical allusions, as ignorance wins time and time again over knowledge (The aforementioned finale, book burners in the first chapters.) Though there is no true villain here, and no real adventure or overarching goal, the plot is extremely effective, and more than compelling enough to get across the important themes.

Characterization here is a tricky issue. Because the book's three sections are set hundreds of years apart from one another, there is no continuity of characters (with one semi-important exception.) The characters aren't the most complex ever created, but they do a good job of fulfilling their designated roles. Zerchi and Paolo are probably the most interesting, as they must grapple science and morality with their religious teachings. These portions of the book are handled very well, and never come across as preachy or overblown. Their moral dilemmas are justifiable and sensible, and in fact mirror those of the author during this period of his life. The other characters are often somewhat simple, but very entertaining (the Poet and Benjamin in book two, and Brother Francis from the opening book being the standouts.)

Interestingly, this book has almost no female characters. The two featured, an unnamed girl suffering from radiation poisoning and a two headed old woman, make quite an impression in the third act, but they are hardly major characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as romance is the last thing a book like this needs, but I would've liked more female characters in the first two portions of the book, even if in a limited capacity. Overall the characterization of Zerchi and Paolo is incredibly well done, and everyone else is atleast adequate.

The prose here is highly fitting for such a mature and developed book. Vocabulary and word choice are very high level, with several words that I didn't even recognize at first glance. The beautiful language accentuates the book in a way that is extremely rare in the science fiction genre, and is definitely worth pointing out. This book also features a heavy use of Latin, and the occasional passage in German and Hebrew. I'm not so fond of this aspect, mostly because it seems a bit pretentious and unnecessary to me, but people who have studied the language will probably enjoy it significantly more. Those who haven't can usually either deduce what is being said, or read a summary/recap in the next paragraph, so it is far from a deal breaker.

Another important aspect of the writing style here, is that implications and subtlety are very important. This is true especially in the often witty, high level conversations between the characters, but it also plays a significant part in the overall plot and themes at work in the story. This is a book that rewards you for paying attention and re-reading passages.

This book has some of my favorite prose in it, and the only real drawback is the constant use of Latin, other than that minor complaint, this book is worth buying just for the writing style.

A great book that shows no signs of dating after nearly fifty years, A Canticle For Leibowitz is a must read due to its strong themes, incredible language, and realistic post-apocalypse scenario.

Final Score

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