Friday, May 23, 2008

Walter M. Miller "A Canticle for Leibowitz"

Walter M. Miller Jr.s' magnum opus, constantly in print since its publication in 1960, this work is considered by many to be the most beautifully artistic work of science-fiction ever written. In three parts, Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, Fiat Voluntas Tua, it traces the future history of man from a post-thermonuclear dark age, through the re-invention of electricity, and back to the brink of self destruction. Written as an explicitly Roman Catholic and pre-Vatican II novel, the Hugo Award-winning story revolves about a monastery named for the titular character, Saint Leibowitz, who never appears live. A basic knowledge of Latin and a willingness to look up a term every other chapter (or to reference the wonderful cheat-sheet of Latin phrases fromn Canticle at Wikipedia) and an ability to suspend any anti-Catholic bias will benefit the reader.

The work is one of worship for heroic effort, of principles upheld, and values passionately pursued. Miller's sense of history and discerning psychological skill lead to vistas and characterizations of Herbertian depth. With the wry dark wit of a Cold War culture that produced Strangelove and Planet of the Apes, irony wrestles with ecstasy. Leibowitz is a Jew, canonized by the Church for accidental reasons. With its span of centuries, another strand woven throughout this epic is the apocryphal Christian mythological persona, the Wandering Jew, condemned to walk the Earth 'til Christ return.

Miller's language is unsurpassingly poetic, his words evoking imagery of Randian clarity. I have read this book three times through. Miller was known primarily as a writer of short stories, often, as in Dark Benediction, of great skill and originality. He led a troubled later life, and never finished another novel. The posthumous, disillusioned and anti-climactic Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished by a ghost writer. But this masterpiece has all the pathos and beauty of a great mediaeval cathedral, crucifix included.

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