A Canticle for Leibowitz was written by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and first published in 1959. In 1961, it won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, and, according to Wikipedia, it has never been out of print.
However, if you’ve never heard of this book before, don’t be very surprised; I had never heard of it either until fairly recently. On the other hand, I feel like we should all be surprised that we aren’t more familiar with it, because it should easily be considered alongside other well-known classics such as Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World, and 1984. In other words, a prophetic work set in a post-apocalyptic world, with warnings a plenty for the paths we are already walking. What sets A Canticle for Leibowitz apart, and probably keeps it from being taught in your standard public high school literature class, is that the narrative follows an order of Catholic monks, whose primary task is the preservation of knowledge through another Dark Age of the world.
I came across the book on a list of “26 Books Nobody Should Die Without Reading” as recommended by Dr. Peter Kreeft (I’m currently at 16 out of the 26). Kreeft is one of the most brilliant philosophers and writers currently living, and his own books have been life-changing for me personally. So his recommendation was more than enough to intrigue me on a book that seems on the surface to be just another post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. But Kreeft has yet to disappoint me on a recommendation.
It’s not lightly that I set up Miller’s only published novel (except for it’s sequel, which was published posthumously) alongside the works of Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell. Miller was a fairly successful short story writer, so he knew his craft; and he had served as a radioman and tail gunner in World War II, so he definitely had some life experience to draw on. He had participated in the bombing and destruction of the 6th-century monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy, which had been founded by St. Benedict, and that experience certainly seemed to have haunted him and inspired his writing of Leibowitz.
As a Catholic writer myself, it was incredibly gratifying to read a contemporary novel which is filled with theological questions and which comes at them from a faithful Catholic viewpoint. Especially as most Science Fiction comes at their fictional worlds from an atheistic viewpoint, where discussions of God and His work seem to have no place, Leibowitz feels particularly bold and refreshing. The religious beliefs of the author are taken for granted, and he simply goes about writing a good story with important and poignant themes for the modern world. It’s not written as Catholic propaganda; it’s not meant to proselytize or convert anyone. But it asks the Big Questions, and seeks to answer them from a place of faith.
Having started my own work as a writer long before my conversion of faith, it took me a while to see the importance of incorporating my faith into my fiction work. I was probably half way through the development of my current novel before I realized that I needed to address the faith of my characters or else they wouldn’t be authentic to my own understanding of the world. I gradually came to realize that I couldn’t keep my own faith out of my work, because I’ve reached the point where everything in my life is viewed through the lens of faith and my belief in God, and it would be artificial for me to try and write in any other way.
However, I’ve had few guides and examples of what it means to be Catholic and also a fiction writer. I was raised on Tolkien, yes; but his faith is hardly explicit in his work, even if it is the bedrock. I’ve come late to the work of Flannery O’Connor, though I’m constantly falling even more in love with her. Even my passion for G.K. Chesterton came about later in my writing career; though his influence on my other favorite authors is so palpable, it’s as if I’ve been reading him my whole life. I know that there are others out there, but the truth is that I just haven’t read them. I was never told that I should. In college, the only Catholic writers that I read were for Medieval Lit, because those were only writers there were for such a time period. These days, even authors with a personal faith of their own seem determined to keep it out of their work so as to not dare offend anyone.
But A Canticle for Leibowitz is an important book not because it’s viewpoint is Christian, but because it’s viewpoint is human. Yes, it deals with questions of faith, and questions of the religious and secular world working together (or not), but it also deals with question about human nature, history, the importance of knowledge and who has a right to it, and so much else. On top of all that, it’s simply a well-written sci-fi book, extremely worthy of it’s Hugo Award.
This is definitely a book that I recommend, and I’ll even go along with Dr. Peter Kreeft and say it’s a book that everyone should read before they die.