Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 18, 2001

Sincere—that was the hell of it. From a distance, one’s adversaries seemed fiends, but with a closer view, one saw the sincerity and it was as great as one’s own. Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot.

“Canticle” is unquestionably the best story of mankind’s demise since revelation itself. Miller traverses a thousand years beyond the apocalypse, the “Flame Deluge”, as seen through the eyes of a small order of monks in the southwest desert of the United States.

AuthorWalter M. Miller, Jr.
Length368 pages
Book Rating10

Miller knows his characters and his world so well that we can see the desolation. And he knows human psychology so well that this post-nuclear holocaust fiction remains fresh forty years after its first printing. This isn’t a story about mutants and guns and nuclear bombs. It is a story about men and kings and god and our inability to learn from history. It is a stern warning to always take responsibility for our own government. When we hand that responsibility over to someone else, it will eventually fall into the hands of people who want the responsibility, and that is the beginning of the end.

The embodiment of the philosophy that we should be wary of is, “pain is the only evil I know”. Or, as the Bible says, “the serpent beguiled me, and I did eat”.

Sometime in the distant past, the world was destroyed in a holocaust of fire and fallout. Only a tiny remnant of humanity survived, and they survived in such suffering that they hated anything to do with the past that caused their suffering-especially the learned and the learning that got them there. Engineers, scientists, and politicians became the targets of lynchings and pogroms. Books were burned by the millions. And then, somewhere in the American southwest, one engineer took it on himself-and the Catholic church-to preserve whatever knowledge was left to preserve. He converted to Christianity, founded a monastery in the middle of nowhere, as far from the bookburners as possible. Books were hidden in huge casks beneath the desert floor, passages memorized, and monks occasionally burned when caught with the forbidden knowledge. Slowly, ever so slowly, the bookburners die. But the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz maintain their duty, forgotten by the rest of the world, sitting on a cache of knowledge that the world wanted forgotten.

This story covers three periods in the “history” of the world: the early days of the order, after they’ve passed the trials of fire, but when even the monks of the order don’t understand what their books mean anymore. A young novitiate discovers a strange cache of papers and books in a “fallout shelter”, and setting into play a series of events that results in a long journey to New Rome to see the Pope and take part in the beatification of St. Leibowitz.

Several hundred years later, the world is beginning to restore itself to civilization, and scientists working in the collegiums of an autocratic ruler are breaking open the bounds of scientific knowledge once again. The monks of the order look on-and try to assist-as humanity once more tries to pull itself out of the dark ages of ignorance. But does humanity want their gift, and is it even worth anything after a thousand years of burial?

Finally, the world has returned to and perhaps even surpassed the achievements of the pre-deluge. And they’ve rediscovered atomic weaponry. A crisis develops between Texarkana and the Asiatic League. Will the politicians of the world learn from the past, or are they doomed to repeat it?

What are the responsibilities of scientists who discover new knowledge, knowledge that can be used for vast destruction? Why does all humanity, even supposedly objective scientists, desire to strongly to absolve themselves of any responsibility that they will hand over control of even their own actions to people they would never trust otherwise? Can short-term compassion for individuals cause long-term harms to all humanity?

This is, in my opinion, the most brilliant science fiction story I’ve ever read. Miller delves into his themes with a depth that I don’t think I’ve seen in any story with similar themes, in or out of the science fiction world. Both sides in each debate are presented compassionately and intelligently, especially at the end when the real issues come to the head. Can euthenasia be a good thing, or does it condone-and thus encourage-the very actions that result in its need? The same question can be asked today, as we look at euthenasia for those in intense pain, while doctors refrain from prescribing effective pain relievers for fear of running afoul of the DEA. Will euthenasia merely institutionalize a system where the poor die and the rich live? No answers, but if the questions intrigue you, you’ll find “A Canticle for Leibowitz” a fascinating work.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Recommendation: Purchase

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