Again, I want to stay away from simply summarizing the book and explore the impact it had on me. Being such a popular classic, there are ample summaries and analyses available.
Canticle is three stories separated by 600 years, beginning about 600 years into our future. The world has been devastated by nuclear war and the resulting social upheaval of the Simplification, where all knowledge and technology was purposefully destroyed (including people). The Roman Catholic church though the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz attempts to preserve human knowledge by safeguarding it from destruction and loss. The novel follows the monastery through the centuries. Despite the fact that there isn’t a single continuous protagonist, the story maintains strong continuity through setting and props (the cross, the vultures, the skull, stories of the Poet, the Catholic Church). The way continuity was maintained was masterful.
Despite the grim and dystopian setting and the fact that at the end civilization simply comes full circle and destroys itself once more, the book does contain quietly humorous moments while always maintaining the seriousness of the plot.
Canticle is a strongly religious work, with plenty of Latin phrases (which unfortunately came with no translation) and references to catholic dogma. Ironically, it was the monks who were preserving science rather than suppressing it as centuries before. Also, it’s the monks who are open-minded (compared to the Simpletons and Nomads). This reversal of contemporary thinking is refreshing. Essentially the church is playing a similar role it had during the Dark Ages.
The third part of the book contained a conflict between church and secularism regarding euthanasia. The church forbids it while doctor Cors counsels it for terminal cases of radiation poisoning. It was an engaging moral battle because both sides had very compelling arguments. The Abbot stated that pain and suffering was required so that attributes like courage and altruism could exist. Similarly humanity suffers so that it can overcome and be better for it. The conclusion of the final part contains a great death scene of the Abbot as he’s crushed and trapped under the rubble of the abbey.
Despite this, in the end, it leaves you with hope. While war is once again upon the Earth and the abbey destroyed, the departure of Brothers from the Order and their Memorabilia for the safety of an offworld colony leaves us optimistic.
(Amazon) A Canticle for Leibowitz