Walter M. Miller, Jr’s first novel (and the only one published before his death), A Canticle for Leibowitz, is broken up into three parts: “Fiat Homo,” “Fiat Lux,” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua”. Each part is a story in its own right and revolves around different characters. For this reason, I’ve decided to give a review of each part separately before giving a final review of the book as a whole.
“Fiat Homo,” or “let there be man,” is, at heart, the story of a group of monks waiting for their Beatus, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, to be canonized. The twist is that this group of monks is living in a post-apocalyptic world that has simplified itself after a nuclear holocaust, the “Flame Deluge.” This story takes place centuries afterwards in a time when no one understands the past, even though these monks are recopying texts and blueprints. Most people are illiterate by choice because they blame academics–specifically scientists but anyone who can read is fair game–for the disaster that destroyed the earth.
The main character is Brother Francis Gerard, a young man hoping to profess his vows and formally join the monastery. During his Lenten fast in the desert, he meets an old man who inadvertently (?) helps him to find a fallout shelter containing possible relics of Beatus Leibowitz. What follows is the story of his journey to becoming a monk and, in the end, helping to bring about Leibowitz’s canonization.
When I first began reading the book, I expected it to be slow and boring. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was engrossing. As a non-religious and barely spiritual person, I’m only familiar with Catholicism because of a few courses I took as an undergraduate. Even still, the book was written in such a way that even I could understand the process. There are, of course, dozens of instances in which the author used Latin without giving a translation of it, but many of these were decipherable through context. The ones that weren’t didn’t take away from the story or make it incomprehensible so I can’t really complain about it too much.
Miller’s characters are easy to relate to and are surprisingly well-crafted for such a short book. The dialogue is sparse, but smart, and often funny, as is much of the rest of the book. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Francis is exploring the shelter and he misunderstands what a fallout shelter is for:
If Fallout Shelter’s Sealed Environment contained a Fallout, the demon had obviously not opened Inner Hatch since the time of the Flame Deluge, before the Simplification. And, if it had been sealed beyond the metal door for so many centuries, there was small reason, Francis told himself, to fear that it might come bursting through the hatch before Holy Saturday. (p. 28-29)
This simple misunderstanding, that a fallout shelter is to protect from nuclear fallout, not to protect a demon called Fallout, is just one example of the genius of Miller’s prose.
One of its biggest strong points, however, is how visual this book is. Miller does a good job describing things in very few words. I was able to create this world in my head without having to place these characters in a setting that I had experienced myself. This is rare for me. Usually when I read something a bedroom is my bedroom, a kitchen is my grandmother’s kitchen, and so on. Miller’s words placed me in an utterly alien and stark world, a world so different from our own even though it takes place on this very planet. It was this, I think, more than anything else that drew me into A Canticle for Leibowitz.
As for the ending of part one, I won’t give anything away, but I will say that I wasn’t expecting it to end the way it did. I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not. Perhaps the rest of the book will make my mind up one way or the other.
There are two parts left to read and I’ll be commenting on each of them in the next few days.
Until then, let me know what you’re reading. Or, if you’ve read this book before, tell me your thoughts on part one. I’d love to hear what you have to say.