A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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Summary and Analysis: Part 3 (Fiat Voluntas Tua), Chapter 24

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New Characters
Defense Minister: the minister of defense for the government

Dom Jethrah Zerchi: the head of the abbey of the order of Saint Leibowitz

Brother Patrick: a monk and aide to Dom Jethrah Zerchi

Mrs. Grales: a two-headed woman who sells tomatoes to the abbey

Brother Joshua: a former astronaut and monk at the abbey

The readers learn that in 3781, spaceships exist again. However, mankind has the same problems it always has. After a short medley of scattered sentences discussing time and life and death, the last Canticle of Leibowitz is presented. The Canticle’s text is “Lucifer is fallen. Lucifer is fallen. Lucifer is fallen.” The readers learn that the “Lucifer is fallen” phrase is a secret code apparently indicating to government leaders that a nuclear bomb has exploded. Following the Canticle is the transcript of a press conference held by a Defense Minister from an undisclosed country. The Minister dismisses a reporter’s questions about radiation counts in the Northwest that are ten times their normal level. He also denies that his government has set off a nuclear weapon in Asia. In response to a question about the possibility that the Asian Coalition is assembling hydrogen weapons in deep space, the Minister issues another denial.

The readers learn that Dom Jethrah Zerchi is the new abbot of the abbey and that he is a restless, active man. His patience is being tested by the APLAC, a computer that translates languages. However, APLAC frequently fails to translate texts accurately, and Zerchi is sitting on the floor of his study frustrated by his attempts to fix APLAC. He calls for Brother Patrick, his secretary, to come in, and he tells Patrick to get rid of the computer. But he soon decides to keep it just long enough to send a “radiogram” to Rome. He will dictate to APLAC in his Southwest language, and it will translate the dictation into Alleghenian, the language of Cardinal Hoffstraff, the radiogram’s recipient. Zerchi and Patrick fiddle with some dials before the exasperated Zerchi tells Patrick to leave. Zerchi briefly prays to Saint Leibowitz, who is now the patron saint of electricians, for help before turning on APLAC.

He begins dictating the message, which asks Cardinal Hoffstraff for advice regarding the Church’s Quo pereginatur plan. Zerchi says the abbey is ready to put the plan into place and would need roughly six weeks of notice in order to implement it. Zerchi presses a button to have APLAC do the translation, and the text it produces closely matches what he has dictated, but with a few errors, and with the text upside down. Zerchi is angered by the errors, and he asks Brother Joshua, a former engineer and spaceman who has entered the secretary’s office, for help with repairs. Joshua says it wouldn’t do any good because all private radio transmitters have been ordered to go off the air due to a defense alert. Zerchi tells Joshua to call Spokane.

Outside the abbey, it is mid-afternoon, and the city of Sanly Bowitts, as it is now called, is filled with dust carried by the wind. The old abbey still exists, but it is separated from the abbey’s new buildings by a six-lane highway. Some children playing across from a side road going from the abbey into the city notice an old beggar dressed in burlap standing by the road. The children call him “Lazar,” short for Lazarus, and throw a few rocks at his feet.

Meanwhile, Joshua is on the old abbey’s roof, sampling the air, apparently for radiation. He sees that the gauge on...

(This entire section contains 1137 words.)

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an air compressor registers Max Norm and washes himself in a sink in the laboratory on the top floor of the abbey. Sister Helene sees the naked Joshua and runs out of the abbey down to the sister’s chapel, which is adjacent to the abbey. Joshua proceeds to test some dust for radiation, notes that the radiation levels have gone up, and turns on the viewphone. He calls Zerchi, who appears on the viewphone’s screen and criticizes him for bathing naked. Joshua has followed the order to call Spokane, and reports that Spokane has also found higher radiation levels, and suspects that “fallout from a low altitude burst in the megaton range” has caused the higher radiation levels. Zerchi and Joshua speculate whether this blast was a weapons test or a warning for Asia. Joshua wonders if the blast escaped satellite detection because people have learned how to send a missile past the satellites without being detected.

Zerchi despairs over the state of the world, as indicated by the nuclear blast and general political tensions, and asks Joshua to come back to his office once he leaves the laboratory. He says the radiogram was sent by regular wire, and he wants Joshua to be around when the answer from Rome arrives. Joshua and Zerchi sign off, and Joshua looks out the window to the highway and sees the silhouette of Mrs. Grales. She is one of the disfigured people produced by the long-ago nuclear war. She has two heads, one of them on her left shoulder. Joshua, who prefers the new part of the abbey with its technology and laboratories, reluctantly heads over to the old abbey to meet Zerchi and takes the pedestrian underpass under the highway to avoid Mrs. Grales, who sells tomatoes.

Although the novel is not explicit about which country the Defense Minister represents, it is likely that he represents a country similar to the United States in size and power. It also appears that the Asian Coalition is roughly similar to the U.S.S.R. Therefore it is hard not to conclude that the conflict between the Defense Minister’s country and the Asian Coalition is inspired by the Cold War, which was well underway by the time the novel was written.

Nuclear weapons have been re-invented and are clearly once again at the center of world politics. Clearly, computers have also been re-invented, although they work no better or faster than they did at the time the novel was written. Indeed, the general technological level of civilization in 3781 seems remarkably familiar, with computers, radios, cars, and phones. It is not absolutely clear if America exists as a single country, but the need to use the APLAC shows that it now has multiple regional languages.

At this point, the Quo pereginatur plan remains undefined, but given the ominous talk of nuclear weapons, it is highly possible it responds to the threat posed by those weapons. Meanwhile, the second head of Mrs. Grales may be explained by the mutations that mankind continues to suffer as a result of the nuclear war, but such an unusual deformity may hold greater significance as well.


Summary and Analysis: Part 2 (Fiat Lux), Chapters 21-23


Summary and Analysis: Part 3 (Fiat Voluntas Tua), Chapters 25-26