I think I’m safe in saying that this is the first crossover-appeal/
mainstream hit to win a Hugo Award (not counting the retros, of course). Looking ahead, it’s worth noting that several of the winners in the ‘60s are more widely known books with better literary reputations. I’m not sure if this is a matter of the American reading public giving science fiction a closer look, or the World Science Fiction Convention looking for wider approval of the genre. I suspect it’s a little of both. I don’t pretend to know much about the culture of WorldCon and the Hugo selectors, at least not yet, but I do see an interesting parallel in the hit sf Hugo winners of the ‘60s and the victories of Gaiman, Rowling, etc. in this decade. Well, more on that as we go.
Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is really three stories taking place after a massive nuclear war in the twentieth century, each moving the timeline forward about 600 years. In the first, we get a society that has completely rejected science and rationality - there are groups who call themselves Simpletons and live in Simple Towns and burn every book they can get a hold of. Only the monks of an isolated abbey in the American southwest try to preserve old knowledge by smuggling and hiding books from before the apocalypse (“bookleggers”). In this first story, a young initiate in the order discovers the bomb shelter of his order's founder, Leibowitz, and helps to get the man canonized. The second story returns to the abbey, where one of the monks has reinvented the lightbulb and a savant from a nearby kingdom is helping to spark a renaissance of scientific knowledge. In the third and final story (set in the 38th century AD), humanity has made major scientific advances and is beginning a program of interstellar colonization, but is again on the brink of nuclear armageddon. There’s also a possibly immortal figure wandering in the background throughout these stories who may even be Leibowitz himself...
The novel’s basic message is that history repeats itself, and as inevitably as humanity will rise from the ashes, they are also bound to cast themselves into ashes again. In other words, people never learn. The prevailing mood is tragicomic – a lot of the novel is played for laughs (especially the first section with the hapless Brother Francis), but as humanity progresses intellectually, things get darker. The last 50 pages are pretty brutal. The religious conflicts in the novel (especially a discussion of euthanasia and radiation poisoning) are a great deal more nuanced, grounded, and relevant than anything in A Case of Conscience. That said, Miller’s depiction of the Catholic Church as a refuge from the darkness of the world, unless meant to be somewhat ironic, seems a bit overly simplistic. Sure, some monks saved important classical texts, but others destroyed them (and Islamic scholars played a much bigger role in preservation of ancient knowledge).
The novel is very well-written with wry but engaging prose; however, the book does move rather slowly. We really get three character-focused vignettes without a great deal of context (only hints at intervening history and the wider world). It can get a bit repetitive and claustrophobic spending so much time in the cloistered setting of the abbey. Also, I’ve read some thrilling descriptions of alternative renaissances (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent The Years of Rice and Salt), but the middle Renaissance chapter here was especially dull to me.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a thought-provoking and at times beautiful novel, but it’s not exactly a page turner. It’s also dark….really dark. There’s a fair amount of gallows humor, but the novel almost collapses into total despair by the end.