A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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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 universal event, occurring everywhere at once, or in only one place at a time? (Miller’s answer appears to be the latter.) If all are not on the same schedule, then what of those races that exist before the Fall? As humanity continues to evolve, what happens to its relationship to God? What happens if disaster breaks the apostolic succession of God’s divinely ordained church?

Although his concerns may seem musty and medieval, Miller turns them into a compelling drama. He joins the argument that began in the Renaissance between science and religion, paradoxically using the naturalistic tone of “hard” science fiction to suggest that matters ordinarily resting on faith are literally true. A central artistic strategy of the novel, for example, is to make real the sense of historical development implicit in Christianity. As does Judaism, Christianity asserts a time line that includes creation, the Fall of Man, God’s identification with a national people, the coming of a messiah, his death and resurrection, and ultimately the Second Coming, in which the meaning of history vanishes. From a Christian perspective, all steps but the last have been completed. From the perspective of modern astronomy, this may seem to be vainglorious mythmaking on an insignificant planet. Miller’s precise purpose is to square these perspectives in the framework of the scientifically understood cosmos. If and when the space-traveling delegates of New Rome ever return to Earth, Bishop Zerchi declares, “you might meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of flame.”

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