A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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The first post-apocalyptic book I read was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.. Though originally published in 1960, I read it ten years later when I started college. Set in a Catholic monastery in the southwestern United States, Leibowitz spans millennia and documents mankind’s efforts to rebuild civilization after twentieth century civilization is destroyed by a global nuclear war, the”Flame Deluge.” In a backlash against the war, the “Simplification” occurs in which intellectuals were killed by rampaging mobs of “Simpletons.” Books—a la Fahrenheit 451—are destroyed. Literacy all but dies out. Monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States, attempt to preserve scientific knowledge until human development is again ready for it.

As a child of the Cold War who grew up with images on TV of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and napalmed bodies in Vietnam, Leibowitz inspired a particular dread, only somewhat offset by its wry humor. To this day, it tickles me to death that, centuries after Saint Leibowitz’ death, the abbey preserved the collected writings, the “Memorabilia,” that survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, including the Holy Grocery List that starts with the humble word “bagels.” A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1961, has never been out of print and has at least twenty-five editions. Appealing to sci-fi fans as well as the mainstream readers, it has attained the status of “literature.”


Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth-century literature — a chilling and still-provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future.

In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes. Seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze. It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.

With the Cold War long over and the possibility for an atomic incident dimmed, it seemed the fascination with post-apocalyptic civilization waned somewhat. In the last few years, though, perhaps because Global Warming has put a new face on the idea of an apocalypse, interest in our possible futures has increased. Certainly young adults have devoured The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Ender’s Game. Lois Lowry’s The Giver is taught in schools. Under the heading Best Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic YA Fiction, Goodreads lists 217 books. I’ve recently read two additions to this sub-genre of science fiction, Sean Jackson’s Haw and Moira Young’s Dustlands series.

Haw by Sean Jackson

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In Haw, the future is grim and bleak. The government has become a corrupt facade of democracy, on the verge of collapse, willing to sacrifice the many to maintain the few. Society has evolved into extremes of “haves”—the wealthy who insulate themselves in high rise buildings and hire private guards to protect them—and the “have nots”—citizens who make up the bulk of society, scrabbling for their daily necessities, drinking heavily because alcohol is safer than the water. Lucas, a bio-engineer and father, is on the lower end of the “haves.” He has a job, a home (an abandoned villa), and salary enough to eat fairly well. After the death of his wife, he raises Orel alone. When decreasing purity of water and increasing violence force them to leave this pitiless environment, they journey to a rural village near a nuclear reactor and face a new challenges. The prose is thoughtful, well-written and contains some unique imagery. Haw is told from an omniscient point of view so the reader sees bits of everyone’s thoughts, which is one of Haw’s strengths as well as its weakness. A review on the back cover says “Haw features an LGBT theme.” For most people, the literary theme is the main topic of a novel whether stated directly or indirectly. In Haw, LGBT issues were mentioned in passing here and there and certainly never reached the point of becoming a major thematic presence. This is where the omniscient point of view becomes a drawback. Had the reader identified more with Orel, the gay son, the fact that he was gay may have made a difference in the book. The LGBT issues may not have become an actual “theme” but might have become a thread or motif. For instance, the reader doesn’t know if Orel has come out to his father, Lucas; if Lucas knows or suspects his son’s homosexuality and, if so, how he feels about it. The reader doesn’t even know how Orel feels about his own sexuality. Jackson missed an opportunity here and could have done better justice to the character, Orel, his psyche, and his lover, Nico.


In a barbaric future, enough hope remains for some to sacrifice everything. The gripping story of a father’s struggle to save his son from a corrupt society in a pitiless, bleak, futuristic America. Mired in a corrupt, dangerous city that is on the verge of collapse, a father and son flee to a rural village, hoping to find refuge from their violent lives. What they find is not the haunted hippie environs of local legend, but a gritty farm community that thrives despite the threat of criminal invasions and the ominous presence of a nearby nuclear reactor.

A bioengineer, Lucas lends his expertise to the efforts of sustainability, while his son—a rising young photojournalist—falls in love with one of the sons of a folksy family whose charm lies in its ability to keep the community together, through music and love—until disaster shakes their fragile world.

The Dust Lands Series by Moira Young

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In contrast to the more formal omniscient voice of Haw is Moira Young’s Dust Lands series (Blood Red Road, Rebel Heart, and Raging Star). Young, writing in very close third person voice, captures the unique voice of her protagonist, Saba. The reader intensely experiences Saba’s perceptions and feelings. She’s straight forward, doesn’t hold back about her faults and her strengths. The language in the book shows how much society has changed. For instance, people still the seconds between a lightning flash and hearing the thunder, “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” The function of the words has stayed the same, but the spelling and/or meaning of them changed to “one Missus Ippi, two Missus Ippi, etc.” indicating that formal titles (Mr. and Mrs.) have survived, but the concept of Mississippi as a river and state has long been lost. Saba, the protagonist, has grown up in Silverlake, a dried up dust-bowl of a wasteland, scavenging the remnants of the “Wrecker” civilization. The deaths of her parents destroyed her once-happy family. When four horsemen capture her twin, Lugh, Saba embarks on a quest to rescue him while caring for her little sister as well. She’s caught up in a band of renegade female warriors, The Free Hawks, and learns that she is a skillful fighter and a touch opponent. Her loyalty to her twin and her lover, Jack, lead to a world redefining climax. Both Haw and Dust Lands are well worth reading, tremendously more interesting and intense than Hunger Games and Divergent. Those who missed A Canticle for Leibowitz should certainly check it out and read a true classic in post-apocalyptic literature.


Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That’s fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother Lugh is around. But when four cloaked horsemen capture Lugh, Saba’s world is shattered, and she embarks on a quest to get him back.

Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the outside world, Saba discovers she is a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba’s unrelenting search for Lugh stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization.

Blood Red Road has a searing pace, a poetic writing style, and an epic love story—making Moira Young is one of the most exciting new voices in teen fiction.