Friday, March 11, 2011

Let There Be Light: A Review of Part II of A Canticle for Leibowitz

It ended with buzzards. It always seems to end with buzzards.
“Fiat Lux,” the second book of Walter M. Miller’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, was just as satisfying as the the first book. The title, which translates as “let there be light,” refers on a literal level to electricity, which one of the monks, Brother Kornhoer, invents using some of the holy Leibowitz documents that have been uncovered since the end of book one. It refers on a metaphorical level to the advancement of science, which is being advocated by Thon Taddeo, an intellectual who comes to visit the monastery in order to study these documents.
The story of part two takes place many centuries after part one and about 1200 years after the Fire Deluge. The world has built itself up again to an almost medieval level, with castles and monasteries and peasants and kings. Anyone who has studied medieval Europe will recognize many of the same themes running through Miller’s text, specifically the struggle between the secular and the religious, the power of the king vs. the power of the church. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz are not adverse to science and progress the way their medieval predecessors were. In fact, many of the men in the order are men of science as well as of the cloth. The real struggle here is over the future–are we to continue down the same path that led to the world’s destruction or are we to steer ourselves down a different path?
Dom Paulo, the new Abbot, is the main character this time. He is funny, intelligent, and is much more sympathetic than the previous Abbot we encountered in the first part. Thon Taddeo, his antagonist, is vain and egotistical and very unlikable when he is first introduced. As the book progresses, however, he becomes a very different character and I couldn’t help but like him in the end. I think that is one of Miller’s greatest talents–character growth in a short period of time using targeted instances instead of dragging the plot out. Both of the main characters share the same encounters for the most part; their growth comes out of how they react to these incidents. There is no long journey, no drawn out exposition. Miller’s prose is very “wham, bam, thank you man” and, in a novel that spans more than a millennium, this is very important.
The passage of time so far in this novel has been very interesting. Each book is a snapshot of time. It looks at specific characters in a specific location in a specific time and then it moves on. It’s almost like the book was framed as a series of flashbacks in a movie. The film rewinds, it stops on a specific moment, it stays there for a bit in order to show us what’s important, and then it speeds up, heading for the next moment in time. These moments last months (“Fiat Lux”) or years (“Fiat Homo”) but they are moments nonetheless.
Fiat Lux features much more dialogue than the previous book. The characterization happens mostly through speech, a departure from the first book, which used description much more than dialogue. I see this as a strength. Part two looks very different from part one in terms of format. The characters interact with each other more often; relationships between characters are expressed on a much deeper level. The dialogue is funny and human. It is realistic. Miller seems to be an absolute genius at finding exactly the right way to convey his story.
Despite their differences, parts one and two end in much the same way. People die and are left to be eaten by buzzards. It is, as always, a cruel world in which these characters live, harsh and unforgiving. I had said during my last review that I wasn’t sure whether I liked this or not, but the parallel structure of part one and part two has made up my mind. I can’t see any other way that these tales could end. Having read the introduction, I’m aware of what’s coming in part three and I see now that Miller is not only foreshadowing the end of the novel, but he is also commenting on the reality of life–we die and our bodies are left to decay. No matter how successful we may have been in life, that is how we all end up. It is how all societies end up.
So far this novel has been nothing short of an absolute joy. Benjamin, the Old Jew, might just make it onto my list of favorite minor characters in literature. His small but significant role in this novel is one of the reasons why I think I like it so much. Miller places so much life and humor and stark reality into one character and allows the rest of the world he has created to pass around him. He is timeless and immutable, just like the lessons of Miller’s novel.
As always, leave me comments. What are you reading? If you’ve read this book, do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? How’s life in general?


  1. Yeah, a bit of blatant symbolism on Miller's part. I find it interesting that he ends the third book with a shark instead of a buzzard. Buzzards, for him, a perpetually fed by the dead because they are constantly scavaging. Sharks, on the other hand, are predators and without prey they die. I think it was his way of tolling the final death knell for Earth.