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A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Essay by Ted Gioia

When literary critic Wyatt Mason recently ridiculed A Canticle for
Leibowitz
in the “Sentences” blog he runs for Harper’s, he was
amazed at the heated backlash from readers. As a seasoned
book blogger, Mason must be used to
critics getting criticized, but the
intensity of response from fans of
Walter M. Miller, Jr. “took the soup,”
in his words. “Readers voted early and
often,” Mason explained. “I got handed
my hat.”

A highbrow critic poking fun at a science
fiction book is nothing new. But the
story behind this story is even more
unsettling. Mason dismissed
A Canticle
for Leibowitz
on the basis of the first
sentence alone! It wasn’t even clear
whether he had read the whole book.
(It later turned out that he hadn’t.) And
this supposedly skilled reader of texts even managed to mis-
interpret these few words. He misses entirely the tongue-in-cheek
humor of the opening sentence, attacking novelist Miller (whom he
doesn’t even mention by name in his blog post—after all, who
cares about some hack genre writer?) for the phrase “girded
loins” which is clearly offered by the author with a wry smile.

I wonder if Mason would launch a preemptive assault on a book
by Thomas Hardy or Saul Bellow on the basis of a single sentence
in a novel he hasn’t read.  Okay, I know that Mason calls his blog
“Sentences” . . . but really!  Such dismissals reveal less about the
quality of sci-fi books or Miller’s novel—which is quite well written,
by the way—then about the snobbishness and biases that still
pervade the supposedly egalitarian and open-minded world of
literary criticism. “I’m all for sci-fi,” Mason clarifies. Oh, but of
course. “Or, at least, have never turned up my nose thereto,” he
adds. Except, that is, when he turns up his nose at it.

Mason promises to read the rest of
A Canticle for Leibowitz. But I
have some doubts that he will enjoy the book even after the
chastening response he received from its devoted fans, who have
kept this book in print for almost a half-century.  Miller offers a
less than flattering portrait in his novel of Thon Taddeo, who is
not exactly a literary blogger, but is close enough for discomfort.
Taddeo is an intellectual who likes to make high-blown
pronouncements on the basis of very few facts (does that sound
familiar?). In fact, this whole novel is a plea for folks
not to engage
in preemptive attacks—a general category which must include,
somewhere in its taxonomy, the judgment of a book by its opening
sentence.

Taddeo is one of those who “fumble awhile with error to separate
it from truth,” yet too often “seize the error hungrily because it has
a pleasanter taste.” This type of epistemological musing is all too
typical of Miller’s book, which takes ideas very seriously. Indeed,
A
Canticle for Leibowitz
takes them seriously in a way that few
contemporary novels do. The long drawn-out discussions of
concepts that once served as the centerpieces of big books (
The
Brothers Karamazov
, The Magic Mountain, or perhaps most
pronouncedly
The Man Without Qualities) went out of fashion
around the time Moses Herzog started writing crazy letters to dead
people. Instead of encountering something like the Grand
Inquisitor, we are more often treated to bad sex scenes
nowadays. But as Dostoevsky reminds us, we all get what we
deserve: angels enjoy a glimpse of God’s throne, while insects
are given sensual lust.  Miller, for his part, clearly aspires to the
former, and is proud to be part of this once vibrant tradition of
novelists who incorporate serious Socratic dialogues into their
fiction.

The concluding section of this tripartite novel is dominated by a
debate between an abbot and a doctor on the morality of mercy
killing. When is it valid to terminate a life in order to limit the risk of
future suffering? Is pain the greatest evil (as the doctor insists), or
is the desperation with which the sufferer responds to pain (as the
abbot counters) the real tragedy here? You might be tempted to
dismiss this thematic element of
A Canticle for Leibowitz as a dry,
theoretical matter—until you learn that author Miller was a Roman
Catholic who later committed suicide. His life, and its termination,
embraced both sides of the debate . . . and as much more than
an intellectual query.

Miller’s novel focuses on the members of a monastery who are
pledged to preserving knowledge and culture in the aftermath of a
nuclear holocaust. They are inspired by a murky tradition of a
scientist named Leibowitz (later Saint Leibowitz). Leibowitz
himself—or at least his alter ego—seems to linger on in the flesh,
a post-nuclear realization of the myth of the Wandering Jew.
(Miller lived for a while in the 1950s with sci-fi writer Judith Merril,
and her Judaism interacts with his Catholicism in the pages of this
novel.)  The monks emulate Leibowitz and his quest to save some
remnant of learning during the new Dark Ages, when all books
and ideas are suspect. Miller's novel is divided into three separate
stories, self-contained novellas set in the same locale but at
different time periods, but each revolving around the same over-
arching themes.

On a simple level, the book takes the real historical experience of
the Middle Ages— when a faith-driven church often became the
chief custodian of secular culture and tradition—and projects it
into the future. But the real substance of
A Canticle for Leibowitz
is less the bare story, but rather Miller’s sensitivity to the nuances
and paradoxes that accompany his tale at every turn.

His life was part of the paradox. Miller was a radio operator and
tail gunner during World War II. He participated in 55 combat
sorties, including the 1944 mission that destroyed the oldest
monastery in the Western world, the Benedictine abbey at Monte
Casino, founded in 529. Was Miller a war hero? Or was he a
villain who toppled a cherished monument of European culture?
Or perhaps a bit of both? Clearly Miller’s work on this book was
his way of wrestling with these very issues.

Twenty years after Miller wrote his book, Michel Foucault
sensitized academics to the murky relation of knowledge and
power, and the ways the latter often hides behind the screen of
the former. Yet few novels explore this matter with as much
sensitivity and irony as Miller brings to play in
A Canticle for
Leibowitz
. Here are big questions for musing. What responsibility
does faith have towards the intellect, and vice versa? Are the two,
as Thomists would suggest, ultimately compatible and
complementary, or do they inevitably enter into a battle for
supremacy? Above all, why preserve the learning that led a
previous civilization to destroy itself? Or, to put it on a more
personal level, what should our attitude be toward knowledge that
might destroy even a single individual?

No, these are not typical subjects for a sci-fi novel. Or even for
literary fiction these days. But Walter M. Miller is not your typical
writer. You can find that out for yourself. But you
will need to read
beyond the opening sentence.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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