When Walter Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz, it was 1960 and the fear of nuclear annihilation lingered ominously on the horizon of most of the civilized world.
Now, half a century later, some of his ideas certainly feel dated but the premise still remains the same. It is easy to forget that the human race still possesses many thousand nuclear weapons – more than enough to completely destroy human society several times over.
I don’t really know how to describe A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is a strange book, looking at the post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear war brings on a “Simplification” where all scientists and politicians were killed. As a result, a new Dark Age has settled on North America. Over a couple thousands years, mankind manages to not only rediscover atomic weapons but also build starships.
As the final earth colonists depart from “New Rome”, the mutant offspring of those still affected by the original nuclear war emerge to take control of the world. Like I said, it’s a strange book.
If there is a way to have a favorite part of such an unusual work, mine is the middle part called “Fiat Lux.” It is the journey of an incredibly intelligent man who rediscovers Einstein and much of what laid the groundwork for nuclear power. We see this man as an academic rediscovering science, but also recognizing that with technology comes the potential for abuse.
The theme of the book could not be clearer – human beings destroy one another. You don’t have to read much of the book to realize that is the theme. And in the shadow of the Cold War, who could deny Miller for having this sentiment. In the post-Cold War world, I think we have realized that the most dangerous people on earth aren’t the nation states but the individuals. People as a whole are generally peaceful, but there is enough of a minority in our race who destroy capriciously that we must safeguard from it.
I’m still processing Miller’s ideas (I just finished the book about 20 minutes ago) and I will keep rethinking it for awhile.