Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)

About six months ago I flew back to England taking with me Neal Stephenson's somewhat chunky Anathem as aeronautical reading material; and here I am once again crossing the Atlantic with another arguably classic science-fiction novel occurring within a post-apocalyptic monastic order. It's a coincidence entailing no more conscious choice on my part than what leapt out at me from the to-read pile; but an odd one, not least given that a significant theme of Miller's book is that of history repeating; and as with Anathem, whilst recognising obviously worthy qualities, I'm left somehow underwhelmed.

A Canticle for Leibowitz began as three novella length shorts in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction, so closely thematically linked as to inspire the author to a realisation of having effectively  written a single coherent novel following publication of the third. The story begins with efforts to posthumously canonise Leibowitz the scientist as a Saint by the brothers of a post-nuclear Christian order, the last outpost of reason in a new dark age of American history. Over the course of the next few hundred years - or the other two short stories if you prefer - civilisation is reborn, technology and science restored, mistakes repeated as they reinvent the weapons for which Saint Liebowitz was partially responsible first time around. In the story, Liebowitz is famously remembered as having regretted his work - doubtless a nod to both Oppenheimer and Einstein - and is thus posthumously revered, in case you were wondering.

The detail of the novel is often exemplary, notably circuit diagrams designed by Liebowitz treated as sacred relics, reproduced and illuminated by the monks without full understanding of what they represent; and some good meaty points are made - not least that, contrary to the doctrine of many a tub-thumping atheist, the church has traditionally been a patron of arts, culture, civilisation, learning, and progress. Furthermore, A Canticle for Leibowitz is beautifully written - I think I noticed Graham Greene referenced in comparison in some secluded corner of the internet, which seems fair enough; so much so that even those who don't really like science-fiction could probably be coaxed into reading it.

I guess the only problem for me was that for all that there may be to recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz, it felt very much like three novellas bolted together, and three novellas which each could have stood to be a little shorter. Whilst the detail is engrossing, it sometimes ambles along without really doing much. It's a good novel, but I'm not convinced it's a great novel, and as with Anathem,  the ambition of its ideas should surely have amounted to more.

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