I first read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller when I was twelve years old; it was one of the books that has made the greatest impression on me and unlike anything else called science fiction. In fact it is really alternative history set in the future. It was re-issued in paperback when I was in my fifties and I bought a new copy to see if it was as great as I recalled. It was. An excerpt from a 2014 New Yorker re-assessment:
A Science-Fiction Classic Still Smolders
The book’s first novella, “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be Man”), is set at a monastery in the Utah desert some six hundred years after a nuclear holocaust known as the Flame Deluge. The war caused a backlash against learning and knowledge, called the Simplification, which wiped out almost all traces of civilization. Most of the people on earth are illiterate. Many are deformed by radiation. The monks who reside in the monastery are devoted to honoring the memory of Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist at Los Alamos who was martyred for his efforts to safeguard scientific knowledge in the aftermath of the conflict. They collect and transcribe the “Leibowitz Memorabilia,” including shopping lists, technical documents, and circuit diagrams that they cannot even begin to understand. The protagonist of “Fiat Homo” is a bumbling but well-intentioned novice named Francis who, during a Lenten fast in the desert, accidentally discovers the fallout shelter Leibowitz used. This discovery results in Leibowitz’s elevation to sainthood. Francis makes the treacherous journey to New Rome to witness the canonization and is killed by mutant tribesmen on his way back to the abbey.
The second novella, “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be Light”), takes place hundreds of years later, in the thirty-second century. Like most middle parts of trilogies, it is the least compelling —”the long belly of a dachshund, slung … between two pairs of sturdy legs,” as Peter Matthiessen characterized the second volume of his Watson trilogy. After more than a millennium, mankind is on the cusp of emerging from the dark ages brought about by the Flame Deluge. Hostility is brewing among the city-states (Denver, Texarkana, Monterey [and the Kingdom of Laredo]) that have risen out of the former American nation. A prominent scientist named Thon Taddeo, a latter-day Newton or Einstein, visits the monastery to investigate its holdings. He is astonished to find that one of the monks has created a working electric light, which is powered by a sort of treadmill. Taddeo believes the Leibowitz Memorabilia will lead him to breakthroughs in his work, but the abbot refuses to let Taddeo take items from the library back to Texarkana. Meanwhile, the abbey narrowly avoids being used as a military base for an attack on Denver.
The final part, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy Will Be Done”), describes the beginning of another nuclear war, this time between the world’s two dominant powers, the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition. It is the year 3781 and civilization has not only recovered but has developed beyond the level it was at in the mid-twentieth century. Nation-states once again have nuclear arsenals. Space travel between earth and distant colonies has become common. There is even a communication device in the abbey that is a combination of Google Translate and Google Voice. As the war begins, the abbot Dom Zerchi, instructs a group of monks to flee the earth for a colony near Alpha Centauri. They take the Leibowitz Memorabilia with them. After they depart, the abbey, which has stood for nearly two thousand years, is demolished by an atomic bomb. The abbot is crushed in the ruins. The final passages of the book are an eerie imagining of the Earth without mankind:
A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash. The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season…