On the surface, this is a story about religion in a post-apocalyptic society, but scratch things a bit and it’s less about religion and more the preservation of knowledge in a primitive society that has vague recollections of the good old days. In primitive times, religion takes a firmer grip. In the remains of north America, that grip comes from the crumbled remnants of the Catholic Church, well preserved in terms of doctrine and ritual.
The religious trappings and rituals go on too long many times, but considering the starting point, it’s reasonable, given the primitive conditions and the survival of the Catholic church (and apparently a handful of Jews somewhere, but no other religion?), that the monastery hoarding and preserving of manuscripts would be a primary source of stored knowledge. What religion that stems from is almost secondary.
Except it isn’t. The arrogance of Catholicism is also present. Not only is there an early undertone of “believe or burn in hell”, whatever remnants of the Catholic church existed after the “flame deluge” (nuclear war of some kind) elected a new pope in America and picked a new place for a new Rome, which then moved several times, and proceeded to interfere with and control secular affairs as much as possible. That interference, and slowly waning influence, is portrayed nicely in through the course of the narrative.
We actually get three stories here, separated by centuries, all concerning members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz. First, the rediscovery of some bits of knowledge, and the tribulations of the young monk who made the discovery, in the heart of a new set of dark ages. Next, a time to mirror the late Renaissance with the church still powerful but not absolute and bright secular minds rediscovering lost knowledge on their own, or with occasional help from monastery-store knowledge, paired with the rise of a new political power that would eventually span the continent. Finally, in the waning days of the church and the Order, a time more advance than we achieved, with interplanetary and interstellar colonies, but with Earth on the verge of a fresh nuclear war. In the closing days of that civilization, the remnants of the Catholic church enact a plan to send a collection of adherents off world so that the faith will survive and spread among the colonies.
If I seem like I’m being harsh with the presentation of the Catholic church in the story, I probably am, but that’s part of what I take from it. Miller chose this representation when writing the book, and he did it with one of two ideas in mind, I think. Either this is the way he saw the church – critical to the survival of knowledge, and our species – or he wanted to drive home the Church’s sense of self-importance and its continued interference in worldly affairs. Maybe it’s both.
But it’s also a story about people. You can’t help but feel the injustice Brother Francis makes for his discovery and his steadfast refusal to be anything other than honest and true to himself and his faith.
Father Paulo struggles with his health and effectively understanding the evolving politics of the world around the ever less-isolated monastery, especially when it knocks on his door.
Dom Zerchi has to deal with an understanding that the world is truly coming to an end, once again through the stubborn greed of the human race, and pushing forward with the Church’s plan to establish a presence for itself among the off-world colonies. And then he has to suffer through that world’s ending.
It’s a story about decent people, trying to do the right thing in the world as they see it, and yes, their faith frequently has the deciding factor in what is or is not moral to them. Just because I don’t subscribe to the idea of an externally imposed objective reality, especially one that matches with the Catholic Church and it’s (somehow still unchanged for the next 2000 years) doctrine, doesn’t mean I can’t like the characters.
Are there messages here? Is history truly cyclical? Are we, as a species, really too stupid to learn from our past mistakes? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves, and most of the rest of the planet, in a fire of aggression?
Maybe those are meant to be the messages and maybe they’re meant to be warnings. Maybe they’re just meant to make us think.
Overall rating: 4 stars. Nuclear war and its potential aftermath were a common theme in science fiction during the cold war years, right up until the Soviet Union began to crumble. But this is an early one, and the nuclear war in question is merely a set piece, a part of the background. It’s the characters who drive the story and make it one worth reading.by