A Canticle for Liebowitz, of diminished popularity since the Cold War, is a moralist novel in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Written during the age of nuclear anxiety, Canticle explores a post-diluvian wasteland of illiterate barbarians and cloistered monks. Today, when the fear of nuclear war seems to have abated in the public consciousness, readers of today can still appreciate the insightful socio-moral commentary provided by Miller in his undisputed masterwork.
Divided into three books, each published separately in science fiction magazines and later compiled into the whole, Canticle details the new dark age of man, the rise of a pseudo-Renaissance civilization, and a second Information Age. Through these, the theme of personal responsibility flows under the eddies of time that Miller so lovingly draws out for us. Vultures, violent death and the desert are constant symbols throughout, reflecting on Miller's harsh moral absolutism. His point, it seems, is that man will destroy himself by a compounded shrugging-off of his personal duty to save his race. His prognosis for mankind is dim, however; a last generation of Liebowitzan monks leaves the planet behind, shaking the dust off their sandals as nuclear oblivion overtakes the world.
The pessimism of Canticle may be compared to the novel Jem, in which colonists from earth settle a dwarf-star planet in three factions--which proceed to obliterate each other in due time, nearly causing the extinction of the species.
It is also worth mentioning that the literary merits of the work are equal to its message in depth and usefulness to the student of literature; the characters are drawn with depth, color and tenderness, and the settings are uniformly vivid. Though book two is weaker than those surrounding it, all three have their merits and a few flaws. Some readers may take offense at the pervasive Catholicism of the text; however, the religious aspect does not obscure the message Miller intended.
A Canticle for Liebowitz makes excellent public-reading, for university book-ins and other community demonstration.
It is notable that the sequel, Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman is a novel of very different caliber, without the focus of the first book; that is, it is much longer than the original and yet seems to be far more diffuse in character and message. I personally found it very difficult to read, though I was amused by the timid insertion of a homoerotic relationship between two of the monks.