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A novel by Water M. Miller
(2004, Science Fiction Book Club)
[original copyright 1959]

After a nuclear holocaust, a small group of monks attempts to preserve technological information for the newly-emerging, simplified world.


-- First reading (hardcover)
October 7th to 18th, 2007


Of the three discrete sections of this book, the first was enjoyable, the second was even better, but the third felt like it took too long getting where it wanted to go.

The main character in the first part is Brother Francis. He ends up being the longest-serving novitiate in Leibowitz abbey, all because he finds the tomb of Leibowitz' wife. That was in a fallout shelter under a pile of rubble left from the nuclear war that ended human society centuries ago. The world does not want knowledge, because they saw what knowledge could bring them -destruction. But the monks of Leibowitz abbey store knowledge, by memorizing and smuggling books, and preserving various memorabilia for the future. Francis is there to weave the history of humanity since that fateful day, and to show how the world has devolved into The Simplification. He meets a strange pilgrim, whom some people claim is the head of their order, the man who was a weapons designer and who decided that knowledge should be preserved. The pilgrim would have to be centuries old! And because Francis continues to believe the pilgrim existed and was not a figment of his imagination, he is passed over becoming a monk for years. But because of the shelter Francis found, Leibowitz is canonized and becomes a Saint. The context is a very old-school and rigid Catholicism, which would have been current around the time this book was written. Traveling to Rome for the ceremony, Francis is waylaid by fallout victims, thieves who are hideously mutated and who are typically very violent. They steal his gold-flecked reproduction of the only Leibowitz blueprint they have, mistaking it for an original. On the way back, Francis is shot through the head with an arrow.

The second part of the book brings about the unification of the North American continent under one Empire, from its various post-apocalyptic nations. This time, about a thousand years after the nuclear war, a scholar visits the abbey to search for knowledge. He actually doesn't believe that an advanced civilization existed before their own, because nothing remains. When he finds out about the tiny abbey, a lone island of knowledge in a sea of self-imposed ignorance, he is very skeptical, and then amazed, as he discovers how much truth there is to be found there. They even invented a light bulb, though very primitive! Thon Taddeo represents progress at any cost, even to the point that he accepts war as a means to generate better technology. The pilgrim also lives in this time, as a strange Jewish man awaiting his savior. He thinks Taddeo might be the one, but then decides not. Here, he plays on everybody's expectations, calling himself the heir of Leibowitz, and varying his age by millennia. This was my favorite section, as it showed how the world was changing, finally beginning to accept knowledge as an integral part, and how the preservers of knowledge became both generous with what they kept, and jealous at having to give up that knowledge, that the meaning of their existence was coming to an end.

In the end, of course, the abbey continued to exist, even into the far future. A society greater than ours grew up in its wake, to the point where people had colonized other planets, and nations had reacquired nuclear bombs. So although the society is advanced, the threat of nuclear annihilation is on humanity for the second time. I got a kick out of how "advanced" these people were, with roboticized transports, but no internet nor anything more advanced than a telegraph. Of course, even Star Trek's "cell phone" communicators were still years away when the book was written. The only main character in this section is the Abbot of the abbey. This section is heavily Catholicized, which is interesting, but gets tedious. It is also depressing, because after the initial attack people flood to the abbey to be euthanized. This is personified by a young woman and her child, both having received lethal doses of radiation, so the Abbot tries to talk them out of euthanization. The book leads us along the path of hope that humanity had learned from its past mistake and won't let the world be destroyed again. But it is not to be. The world is annihilated once again. This time, however, a group of monks have preserved the memorabilia (on microfiche!) on a rocket ship and launched themselves to one of the colony worlds, in the hopes of creating a non-secular technological society that would put God first, and technology second. Maybe that's the only way to ensure that morality rules (though God has been invoked for so many injustices that we can only hope).

I liked the way this book was written. It uses a rich array of words to create wonderful sentences. In the first section especially, there is a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor from the narrator's point of view, and Francis' own thoughts. I quite enjoyed that part of it. The book began to get more hopeful in the second part, but became depressing close to the end. The mindset of the time, I suppose, was that humanity would not ever learn from its mistakes, and would destroy the world over and over as often as possible. It's a good thing that cooler heads prevailed in the real world.


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