In a brief writing career that extended from 1949 to 1957, Walter M. Miller, Jr., produced the justly praised novel A Canticle for Leibowitz and forty-one shorter pieces of science fiction. All of them, including the original serialized version of the novel, appeared in such popular publications as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Miller’s work shows the usual characteristics of genre writing: action plots, ready characterizations, and a bright but brittle acquaintance with technology and ideas. Miller’s commitment to Roman Catholicism, however, immediately set his work apart. With a skillful play on the willing suspension of disbelief, he used the science-fiction story as a what-if instrument to make religious doctrine real by asserting it as the fictional given and then testing it with intellectual challenges.

A Canticle for Leibowitz addresses, directly or indirectly, various theological concerns. If there is another species possessing free will, is it then subject to the same pattern of divine history, with a fall from grace and a hope for redemption? Would a degenerate race lose its soul? At what point in human evolution is found homo inspiratus, the creation of the soul? Logically, must this not occur at one precise moment? How could it be developmental? Given the perceived scale of astronomical time, how long will it take the Second Coming to occur? Will it be a...

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