I’m not a big Science Fiction reader, but the three stories that make up A Canticle for Leibowitz have a lot to offer even a mainstream reader.
The three stories revolve around the monks of the Leibowitz Order in the desert of Texarkana. The first story opens in the 26th century, 600 years after a nuclear war and the resulting Flame Deluge, and the last one closes in 3781, at the start of another nuclear war. We learn that after the Flame Deluge, the survivors rose up against the very technology and knowledge that led to the war, destroying books and killing scientists during the Simplification. Some scraps of knowledge, gathered by a government scientist named I.E. Leibowitz and preserved by the Catholic church, are nearly indecipherable to the monks as the first book opens. In each story, the character of an old wanderer/hermit/homeless man appears and seems to know much more than the monks about what’s really happening.
I found the first story, with Brother Francis’s discovery of new Memorabilia and his order’s reaction, to be the most interesting. The characters felt the most developed and relatable, especially Francis, from whose eyes most over the story is told. Their weak understanding of society before the nuclear war and the science that led up to it results in them wrapping this history into their Biblical history, resulting in a narrative that is at once familiar and foreign.
The second narrative introduces the beginning of the reawakening of knowledge in the world through the scholar Thon Taddeo, who comes to the monastery to study the preserved Memorabilia. Honestly, I got lost in the political machinations during this story; there were a lot of characters who never appear but whose actions and motivations drive the plot. By now, the monks have become more familiar with and generally more comfortable with the knowledge they’re preserving, and one has even developed a man-powered electric light bulb.
By the third story, the world’s political superpowers have again started a nuclear war, complete with negotiations and cease fires and denials of responsibility. The monks scramble to send their Memorabilia and a small group of monks and nuns to space to continue the order. Meanwhile, the head of the order clashes with an NGO that is offering relief services, including euthanasia, to victims of the bombing and radiation fallout. To me, this conflict was the most interesting, as the abbot struggles to understand how cycles of destruction and prolonged suffering fits into his faith.
The wandering hermit, called Benjamin in the second story, initiates the action in the first story and has a long, cryptic conversation with the abbot in the second. In the third, though, he appears only briefly and doesn’t participate in the narrative. As the world goes up in flames, again, we’re left wondering who this character was and what his role in the history was. He’s old when he appears in 26th century, and his appearance remains mostly unchanged for the rest of the 1,200 years we see him. In the second story, he states that he’s not Leibowitz, although the wooden statue of Leibowitz (carved in the first book, but reappearing throughout) clearly resembles Benjamin. So who is he? (Update: since writing this, I followed some Internet clues and found the Myth of the Wandering Jew. Now I realize that my confusion here may be due to ignorance!)
Although the stories are by no means perfect, this is a good gateway book for mainstreams readers to get exposure to Science Fiction.
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