Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
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A Canticle for Leibowitz was published between 1955 and 1957 in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which along with Astounding and Galaxy was the other major science fiction magazine of the era. Issued as a book in 1960 it won the Hugo award for best novel. It was well received by  critics and became a best seller -- extending its appeal far beyond the regular science fiction readership.

Almost alone among post-war American science fiction writers, Miller was preoccupied with formal religion. (The less well known James Blish is the main exception, though Philip K. Dick and Orson Scott Card were both deeply concerned with spiritual issues of one kind of another -- and during the 1960s writers such as Heinlein and Herbert created large numbers of imaginary religions and gods). Miller flew combat missions in World War II, where he was involved in the assault on the Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino. Following the war he converted to Catholicism -- at a time when many protestant Americans still viewed the church and the pope as a somewhat sinister foreign presence.  Although he published a number of excellent and dark short stories during the 1950s, this was the only novel he ever completed. He was plagued by depression and killed himself a few years ago -- a sad irony given the views expressed in the latter part of the book. A sequel of kinds was finished by another writer and issued posthumously to mixed reviews.

Discussion Questions

  1. What actual historical period was Miller inspired by? What similarities are there between this historical setting and the imaginary post-nuclear world Miller depicts? Do you find the parallels plausible?

  2. There have been many depictions of nuclear war and its aftermath, but Miller's was one of the few to meet with both critical and popular success. What are the problems involved with writing realistically but entertainingly on the topic, and how does Miller overcome them?

  3. How would you characterize Millerís attitude toward religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular? Is he celebrating it or mocking it?

  4. Through the book, different characters come and go. Who or what would you say the central character really is?

  5. How does Miller depict science and progress? How does his attitude toward these topics differs from those of the other authors whose work we have discussed?

  6. Both this book and Things to Come deal with mankindís recovery from a devastating war. Contrast the attitudes and assumptions of the two works. Why might they differ? How about Last and First Men?

  7. Thereís a lot of irony in the book, and a considerable amount of humor. Would you say that its ultimate message is one of despair? What message might Miller have wanted his readers to take away from it.

Resources

bulletThe Clute & Nicholls entries on Religion, Gods and Miller himself.
bulletSomebody by the name of Paul Brains at Washington State University has put up a pretty thorough page on the book. It includes a set of discussion questions (some a little obvious, but you may find them helpful) plus an explanation of the various Biblical references in the book and a translation of all the Latin.

Page created by Thomas Haigh. Last edited  01/12/2002.