Walter Miller
Philadelphia: First Lippincott Paperback Edition, 1969
Library of Congress Catalogue Card number 60-5735
320 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2016

This is a fascinating, gripping and cleverly written science fiction novel which covers three periods of Earth’s imaginary future. As the novel opens a young monk, Francis, living in the U.S.’s western desert, stumbles upon a hidden cave and inside he finds some papers that had belonged to Isaac Leibowitz for six centuries before – “back” in the 20th century.

We learn that back toward the end of the 20th century life on Earth as we know it had been almost entirely destroyed in a nuclear war waged by humans on one another. Very few humans have survived that terrible war, and those that are now alive are living lives that are reminiscent of very early times in human history. They have very few of the human inventions that existed on Earth even in the period of 2,000 years BC. There seem to have been very few books that survived that destructive nuclear war in the 20th century and thus most of the knowledge of those times died with the people of that period.

The novice, Francis has entered the Dominican order that is in what was once the American west, and word of his discovery of these “papers” of Leibowitz reaches “New Rome,” head of the Roman Catholic Church which has survived the earlier war, but is living much like people did even before the coming of Jesus Christ in what we today would know as year ONE!

Francis’ discovery is very important since extremely little seems to have survived that earlier war. Thus when “New Rome” heard of the discovery it sent a scholar to the monastery to investigate the documents. The abbot of Francis’ order was not pleased about this since even being “known” by New Rome is not a great thing. This abbot would much prefer to have continued living in peace and quiet, hidden away in the dessert of what had been the American west.

However, sometime 20-30 years later after New Rome studied the issue they send the Dominican “scholar” to look into these finds to see if possibly Leibowitz might be a saint. Because of this visit and the face of the discovery Francis is made a full monk of The Albertian Order of Leibowtiz. He now works with skeptical Brother Horner as a copyist.

With his work Francis asks if he could study and work on the blueprint that he had found in Leibowitz’s place of death. He is given the reluctant permission of the abbot, and before too long Monsignor Malfreddo Agverra comes from New Rome. Leibowitz is now blessed (Beatus) Leibowitz and is being considered for canonization. The monsignor believes Francis’ story and that the woman in the cave was Leibowitz’s wife.

Next the devil’s advocate arrives and tries to falsify the story, but he is actually convinced and soon Leibowitz is to be elevated to sainthood. The abbot decides to send Francis ALONE to New Rome for the canonization and to send with him the original Leibowitz blueprint plus Francis’ illuminated copy.

Francis makes it to New Rome but his version of the document was stolen. He kept the original and gave it to the pope. Thus Leibowitz was named a saint.

Many years later the political leader of the then primitive world, Marcus Apollo, has heard of this document and wants to see it. However, when the abbot refuses to send the original documents to New Rome, Thor Taddeo, a famous scholar, is sent to the monastery to see this Leobowitzian document.

The abbot has been warned: Taddeo is a brilliant scholar, but not trustworthy. He is secular and political, thus fairly suspect to the monks.

The documents of Leibowitz have been secured by the monks and since it is dark in the area where the document is held, one of the brothers of the monastery has been working on creating electrical lighting, something that the world has not known in the past centuries since 2000. He succeeds and this is the situation in which the astonished scholar finds himself, reading the Leobowitzian document by ELECTRIC LIGHT! A Dark Age was passing.

The abbot of this small community in the western American desert was fascinating:

“There was objective meaning in the world; to be sure: the non-moral
logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense with the culture. For Man was a cultural-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God.”

The librarian (who much prefers the dark of the world he’s live in, and the monk-inventor are at great odds, suggesting a split in consciousness of the Old and New universes.

Taddeo is there to examine “The Memorabilia” (of Leibowitz), especially looking for possible “useful” information that this new dark age might use from that ancient destroyed universe of the 2000th century..

But the Brother Librarian has a very different view:

“To Brother Librarian, whose task in life was the preservations of books, the principle reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually. Usage was secondary and to be avoided if it threatened longevity.”

The Abbot has some honest respect for Taddeo’s frustration with the view of the protection of the Leibowitz’s paper for their own sake, rather than milking them for whatever can be learned. But, he also sees some of Taddeo’s frustration is rooted in his own reputation!

“He’s finding out that some of his discoveries are only rediscoveries, and it leaves a bitter taste. But surely he must know that never during his lifetime can he be more than a recoverer of lost works, however brilliant, he can only do what others before him had done.”

Taddeo ends his lecture with:

“Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man. His dynasty is age-old. His right to rule is now considered legitimate. Past sages had affirmed it. They did nothing to unseat him.”

Just as Taddeo and company are leaving the monastery war comes to the continent and there is near destruction of humans once again threatening.

The third part of the novel just ahead another several centuries and humans have not only recovered all of the science and discoveries of the 20th century, but much more as well and the planet is again near to yet another destruction of the human rare. New spaceships which travel the universe are sending people off Earth, hoping they will survive on some far away planet they may find.

The Abbot of the monastery at this time is planning to send a colony of monks to an outer space destination to preserve at least the order and some humans were Earth to destroy itself. The ship does leave Earth under leadership of one of the monk and while their future is unknown, they are away that there is no possible return.

After that the end of all does seem to come to earth with the abbot struggling to fully understand God to the end.

Central to the very last part is the struggle between church and state, between the Will of God and Human Will. And even as the second destruction of Earth seems inevitable there is still the struggle between the religious and secular interests.

This is a challenging and fascinating novel, demanding much of the reader, but I found it quite worthwhile and it provide lots of moments for me where I had to put the novel aside and just reflect on the conflicts that the people of the future had to face. Ah me, I come away from the novel very happy that I’m an old fellow and most unlikely to have to experience anything like what happened to earth in the time of Leibowitz, but alas, can’t that time be very long in coming?

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu