A Canticle for Leibowitz is Catholic science fiction, clearly written in the aftermath of Hiroshima and the shadow of the Cold War. It is mesmerizing, drawing on history and speculating on the future, focused around a small monastery in the American Southwest. It is also profoundly pessimistic about the fate of man and the inevitability of nuclear war. At the core of the world that Miller explores over thousands of years are some of the following assumptions:
1. In the wake of a nuclear war, the world will be plunged back into a new Dark Age.
And as with the previous Dark Age, Catholic monasteries will take on the role of guarding and copying knowledge that would otherwise have been lost. Miller himself took part in the bombing of the Monte Cassino monastery during the Second World War, and later converted to Catholicism. This part of his future mimics the past, where the monasteries of the Middle Ages were the keepers and disseminators of knowledge in the West. (Though as much or more of the knowledge that had been lost was kept, studied, and cultivated in the Middle East and other parts of the non-Christian world.)
It is interesting that within the world Miller creates, Catholicism is not an unrivalled power, and indeed, it goes through many different permutations and positions through the book. The papacy is at times powerful, and at times powerless. But although the position of the papacy may affect the ultimate fates of the monks at the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, the story focuses on the abbey, far from the centres of power, and is more concerned with how this contemplative order survives than with the changes the world undergoes.
(The abbey is consecrated to a man who appears to have been a nuclear scientist, who himself converted from Judaism to Catholicism, and died a martyr at the hands of an anti-intellectual mob.)
2. The knowledge that the monasteries have kept safe will inevitably be resdiscovered.
After thousands of years, secular scientists will rediscover the secrets of electricity and the dynamo (and, eventually, nuclear weapons), and will argue that they must be used at the hands of the rulers of the time, as it is in any case inevitable. They will argue that they should not be concerned if the knowledge is used for good or evil, only that it is used.
This obviously is one of the cores of Miller's beliefs, and that the use of any power without consideration of the ethical implications will be turned, eventually, to death and destruction. This is the most obviously Catholic part of his argument, not that he really claims that the Church would have the power or will to do better. The Church is remarkably powerless in the face of progress. They can only endure, not influence.
3. Man is fallible.
And this extends to the Catholic monks as well as to the secular scientists and doctors that the various priors interact with. But the benefit of the doubt falls heavier on the monks - they are always seen as trying to do the right thing, although they too can be blinded by prejudice or inflexibility. For that matter, most of the secular characters are also trying to do the right thing, although their lack of a moral compass (all non-Catholic characters lack a moral compass) means that they justify doing evil in the name of doing good, with the best intentions.
4. Nuclear weapons, once discovered, will inevitably be used.
The third act of the book takes place in a world that has recovered from the Deluge of Fire thousands of years before, and repeats the same mistakes. As before, the Church is remarkably powerless (and there are no suggestions of how it could act better or differently). They are left with the sole option of merely making sure the church continues and continues to safeguard knowledge, as the world dies for a second time.
See why I say this is a deeply pessimistic book? His view of human nature, the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, and the powerlessness of what he sees as the true faith to do anything about it are the persistent companions of these pages. Scattered throughout are figures from Catholic mythology - the Wandering Jew, for example, and at the end, a second Immaculate Conception. (Whether that leads to the conception and birth of another Christ-figure is left hanging in the air.)
I do not share Miller's faith, nor his pessimism about the state of the world or its eventual end, but there is no denying that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a powerful (if depressing) look at the world as it was and as it could be.
Crossposted at Smorgasbook