A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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Critical Context

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A Canticle for Leibowitz falls into a well-known subgenre of science fiction, the “post-disaster” story, like John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), Algis Budrys’s Some Will Not Die (1961), and many more. The use of nuclear weapons to end World War II naturally set many writers speculating on the possibilities of future war, mutation, and rebirth.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel is remarkable, however, for the strength of its commitment to Catholicism and the thoroughness with which it insists that all knowledge not guided by faith is potentially disastrous, however well-meaning its possessors. It could even be said that A Canticle for Leibowitz is an example of antiscience fiction, though if this were claimed, one would also have to say that Miller shows more understanding of and sympathy for science than most proreligious and antiscientific writers, while the fans of science fiction had no hesitation in voting him the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel in 1961.

Miller’s work contains a symbolic depth which is not easily penetrated and is informed throughout by an unusual spirit of charity. Many cruel events take place in A Canticle for Leibowitz. None, however, viewed close up, is entirely without excuse or sympathy for its perpetrators. That is the danger of sin, Abbot Zerchi reflects: Even Satan may have been totally sincere. A Canticle for Leibowitz forces its readers to reconsider the basic distinction between good and evil.

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