Now this is more like it. The 1961 Hugo Winner, Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, is an interesting, well-written, and thought provoking book, which is more than I can say for some of the previous books I have read. Hopefully future award winners will be as good as this.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three novellas, each related to one another but separated by large gaps in time and containing none of the same characters (there is one character but he is far too enigmatic to be counted). What the novellas do share is their location: the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz situated somewhere in the American Southwest, most likely southern Utah or northern New Mexico. The purpose of the abbey is to preserve as much past knowledge as possible. Another similarity between each part nearly every character is a Catholic monk. I have noticed that the last two Hugo winners barely have any female characters. Leibowitz, in fact, doesn’t have a single woman until the final of the three novellas. This is not a strike against it because I would rather have no female characters than poorly written ones. I’m looking at you Ernest Hemingway, especially Catherine Berkley in A Farwell to Arms.
The first novella is Fiat Homo (Let there be Man). Set in the 26th century and a full 600 years after a nuclear holocaust, this story concerns a young novice named Francis, who while on his vigil in the desert, discovers a fallout shelter and a blue print that may have been written by his order’s founder Beau Isaac Leibowitz (he is a Beau because at this point he has not been canonized by New Rome). Francis eventually becomes a monk and works to transcribe documents from the past into new books. He also recreates Leibowitz’s blue print and takes a trip to New Rome for the canonization. This may sound a tad dull and uneventful but there are a number of interesting characters and Miller skillfully uses this time to create his post-apocalyptical world.
And what a world it is. Since this is told from the view of monks 600 years after the fact very little is known or understood about the previous world and how it ended. The nuclear war is referred to as the “Flame Deluge” and nuclear Fallout is thought of as a demon, not a man-made phenomenon. When Francis discovers the fallout shelter he is frighten that it is living quarters for the demon itself and it afraid to let it out again. Miller does an excellent job of describe the world through the eyes of its inhabitants and only showing what they know.
The second novella, Fiat Lux (Let there be Light), takes place 500 years after Fiat Homo and humanity is starting to organize itself again. In this novella, one of the monks builds an electric generator and a visiting scholar from Texarkana, one of the main city-states that have risen over the last 500 years, examines the Abbey’s archives. The dark ages are ending and mankind is moving towards greater civilization and advancement. Fiat Lux is more complex than Fiat Homo and begins to deal with the roles of church and state, secular and religious knowledge and the freedom of information. It would be difficult to explain much more without spoilers but this was my favorite novella of the three.