Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thy Will Be Done: A Review of Part Three of A Canticle for Leibowitz

This time, it ended with sharks. Well, just one shark. And a very hungry shark at that. Because everything else was dead. Even the buzzards.

Part Three of A Canticle for Leibowitz only took me about two hours to read. I'm a fast reader to begin with, but the final book in this novel was incredibly short. In fact, the events covered in "Fiat Voluntas Tua" transpire over less than two weeks. I was left to marvel yet again at Miller's use of time. We go from years, to months, to not even weeks; each book getting progressively shorter both figuratively and literally as the end draws near. Superbly crafted in my opinion.

In this last part, the world has become even more technologically advanced than its predecessor. There are space ships now and colonies on other planets. The Albertian Order of Leibowitz still stands, led now by Abbot Zerchi, the omega to Dom Arkos' alpha. Zerchi finds himself fighting against the Green Star, this world's version of our Red Cross, which has begun to euthanize people with severe radiation sickness after a nuclear weapon has destroyed the capital of Texarkana. He is also helping some of his monks to escape the coming destruction by sending them to another planet on a starship in order to preserve the Church. In the midst of all of this, the world gets closer and closer to its own destruction...again.

The way part three was constructed is much different than parts one and two. In addition to dialogue and description, Miller uses interviews with the Defense Minister to provide exposition. It was a very interesting addition to the book as a whole and I think that it was used partly as a way to show that the world has risen to a level of technology where interviews are possible. An interview would not have made sense in either of the other two parts because there would have been no way for people to see these interviews.

There are two things I'd like to mention that really tied the whole book together for me. The first is the use of phoenix imagery. Zerchi asks if humanity is going to destroy itself again, if it is to continue the routine of burning itself down and rising from its own ashes. He gives several examples, including Babylon and Rome, before deciding that this time might possibly be the last. A chilling idea and one that holds weight with someone as interested in history as I am.

The other thing is Zerchi's idea that the people of Earth are destroying themselves because they failed to create an Eden, a paradise. They kept building themselves up, becoming more and more advanced, but found that they still had problems that could not be resolved. This reminded me of Socrates' notion of the tyrant. For anyone who has read Plato, you may recall that he described the tyrant as one who has everything he desires and still wants more. This leads him down a self-destructive path of alcohol and orgies (I'm paraphrasing, of course) but in the end he is still not happy so he tries to find even more immoral and illicit pleasures. While it is not exactly the same thing, I do think that Miller touches on something very similar. The people of Earth were not content with what they had so they got more...and more...and more. And then they destroyed themselves.

As someone who has no religion and who is rather liberal, I was put off a little by Zerchi's fight against the Green Star. A woman and her child come to the doctor with severe burns, broken bones, and radiation sickness, and he advises them to go visit the nearby Mercy Camp. Zerchi tries in vain to stop her from going, which is what his faith teaches him to do, but as someone who is not adverse to letting someone die painlessly, this part of the book really got to me. I have seen what radiation sickness can do and I can't even imagine the pain that someone suffering from it would be in. To allow a child to suffer like that, even if the alternative is seen as a sin by some, is unconscionable to me. The episode was, however, crucial to what happens to Zerchi at the end of the book, so I won't fault Miller for it.

This book was incredible. I'm trying not to give too much away because I really think that you should read it and come to your own conclusions. It was sad or horrifying in parts, but lighthearted in others. As I was reading the first chapter of part three, I realized that the humor Miller uses reminds me a bit of Terry Pratchett. It's not quite as absurd or fanciful as Pratchett, but it has that same lighthearted, sarcastic tone. It is used well and acts as a nice foil to the horror that follows it.

As a post-apocalyptic novel, it succeeds quite well. It delivers a powerful message about the dangers of nuclear weapons and of war and violence in general. It was a quick read and, for the most part, a fun read despite its heavy subject matter. While the religious aspects of the book didn't necessarily resonate with me, I liked the Abbey and its residents and I feel that this story couldn't have been told from any other point of view.

Overall, I would give this book a 4.5 out of 5. It loses that half of a point for being somewhat preachy towards the end. Other than that, this is a book that I would read again, that I would buy in a heartbeat.

If anyone has read it or if anyone is thinking of reading it, let me know what your take on the book is. I really would love to hear what you have to say.


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