Faith and Fiction Round Table: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Title: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Author: Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Publisher: Eos
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
First line: Brother Frances Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.

Goodreads blurb: Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth-century literature– a chilling and still-provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future.

In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by the cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to re-celebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes. Seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze. It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.

I found A Canticle for Leibowitz to be a very difficult read. I love dystopian fiction, so had been looking forward to this particular Faith and Fiction discussion. The book provided some good topics for conversation, but many FNFRT participants found the symbolism wasn’t readily understandable, and the format of the book – three novellas set hundreds of years apart – made it difficult to relate emotionally to the characters.

One of the most interesting discussion topics came from the third section of the book, and that is the subject of mercy killing or assisted suicide for the suffering. In that section of the book, many people are suffering from radiation sickness and are doomed to die horrible, painful deaths. The government has set up huge suicide machines, places where people who are suffering can go to end their lives and avoid the worst symptoms of the sickness.

As the main characters of each section are monks, this brings about a theological conundrum. The leader of the brothers is determined to prevent these suicides from happening, trusting in God’s faithfulness to strengthen the suffering people as they die. Coming from a Roman Catholic background, he believes that a person who takes their own life dies unshriven and outside of God’s grace.

I am not a Roman Catholic, although I was raised in that faith until the age of twelve. I remember being taught that suicide was almost the “unforgivable sin” – there’s no way you could go to confession after killing yourself, so you could not be forgiven. I am no longer Catholic, and so no longer believe that I have to be absolved by a priest for my sins, but that I can go to God myself and ask for forgiveness. I’m not saying this to in any way criticize the Catholic faith, just to be honest about what I personally believe.

While I find suicide to be a very selfish decision in most cases, I also know that many people who choose that path are emotionally, mentally, or psychologically broken and may not even be able to make a rational decision. Perhaps the person cannot cope with the physical pain they are enduring. I do not believe that a person who is a Christian, who has trusted Christ for their salvation and honored Him as their Lord, loses their salvation or everlasting life in Heaven because of one decision made in the depths of despair or pain.

That said, I would like to believe that I would never choose assisted suicide or mercy killing, no matter what I was suffering. But I empathized so strongly with the mother in the third section of the book, who was suffering alongside her child, and chose to end her child’s suffering. Any mother knows that it is much easier to be sick yourself than to watch your child be sick or suffer in horrible pain. I hope I will never be tested in that way.

While this was definitely not my favorite book we have read for Faith and Fiction this year, there was one particular passage that stuck out to me:

“You heard him say it? ‘Pain’s the only evil I know about.’ You heard that?”

The monk nodded solemnly.

“And that society is the only thing which determines whether an act is wrong or not? That too?”


“Dearest God, how did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has limited imaginations down there. ‘The serpent deceived me and I did eat.’…”

Faith and Fiction Round Table Partcipants:
~ Heather at Book Addiction
~ Julie at Book Hooked Blog
~ Sheila at Book Journey
~ Jennifer at Crazy for Books
~ Ronnica at Ignorant Historian
~ Nicole at Linus’s Blanket
~ Amy at My Friend Amy (our gracious hostess)
~ Thomas at My Random Thoughts
~ Liz at Roving Reads
~ Sherry at Semicolon
~ Florinda at The 3 R’s Blog
~ Tina at Tina’s Book Reviews
~ Brooks at Victorious Cafe
~ Hannah at Word Lily

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8 Responses to Faith and Fiction Round Table: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

  1. Pingback: Faith and Fiction Round Table Discussion: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. | Word Lily

  2. Tina says:

    While I didnt finish this one, I did read the last story and the issue of mercy killing did stand out to me as well, although I didnt ponder on it to long. For me the story was just to symbolic.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Tina – yes, the symbolism was just too obscure to make it an enjoyable read.

  3. Florinda
    Twitter: florinda_3rs

    I think I saw this as more “post-apocalyptic” than dystopian, but regardless, it raised some complex questions. I think the conflict you describe in the last section of the book was presented in the most black-and-white manner, but may be the hardest to answer.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Florinda – You’re right – it is post-apocalyptic – I tend to lump all futuristic sci-fi into the dystopian genre. 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Salon – June 12, 2011 (the “celebrating good news” edition) | BOOKS AND MOVIES

  5. Ryan
    Twitter: Wordsmithonia

    This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Thank you for the review.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Ryan – I hope you have a better experience with it than I did!