In 1961, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award, which is one of Science Fiction's most prestigious awards. It has subsequently been honored on many best of science fiction lists, and I believe it deserves every honor. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a unique, entertaining, and frankly a brilliant book. It's not only one of the best science fiction books I have ever read, it's one of the best books I have ever read.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is in some ways a fictionalized version of the Durant's excellent little book The Lessons of History. The way in which the cyclical nature of history is explored in Canticle is masterful. Broken up into three main sections, the book spans hundreds of years. The characters change, just as civilizations and populations do, but the themes do not. Humanity, burdened with its perpetual weaknesses and battling its persistent demons, has to face the horror of its own nature cycle after cycle after cycle. Can the eventual and cataclysmic conclusion ever be changed or avoided? A Canticle for Leibowitz asks questions like these and presents our uniquely human moral and ethical dilemmas with such skill it is as didactic as fiction can be without being overwrought, overbearing, or heavy-handed.
One of the most admirable things about A Canticle for Leibowitz is that the book takes a well-worn, exhausted idea and setting, i.e. a post-apocalyptic world, and does more with it, fictionally, artistically, and thematically, than the myriad of other books which share a genre and setting with it. Canticle proves that even though there is no truly unique story, a single well written and well thought out story can still overshadow in every way the mountains of fictional rubbish which is published each year. I can't help but think of our current craze for young adult fiction, which has found a niche in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, and hope that one day a book like Canticle will be read, digested, adapted, and embraced as much as some of the more popular, albeit less thought-provoking, fiction. Furthermore, I insist this desire isn't some arrogant elitist attitude toward the unwashed plebeian masses. I want people to read A Canticle for Leibowitz for the same reason I would want them to read To Kill a Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities. There are important and fundamental ideas and debates presented in Canticle, just like some of humanity's more well-known literary achievements, and they should be read, understood, debated, and explored.
Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is an excellent book, even a classic. It's well worth reading, exploring, and discussing. If you're a lover of science fiction, it's an indispensable addition to your collection. If you love books and the important ideas they can showcase, you should read this book and maybe humanity can learn a thing or two.
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