Walter H. Miller, Jr. won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961 for his nuclear tragicomedy A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the wake of such critical acclaim and recognition, the novel enjoyed commercial success unlike anything Miller had experienced before or would experience subsequently. What Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is within the cinematic world of movies about nuclear war, A Canticle for Leibowitz remains for the literary world’s focus on this unnerving subject.
One of the most obvious reasons that Miller’s approach to the threat of global nuclear annihilation stood out from the approach of his contemporaries is the fundamental stance he took toward the subject: an approach he shares with Kubrick. Both Dr. Strangelove and A Canticle for Leibowitz take an ironic view towards the possibility of nuclear war wiping out entire cities and huge chunks of the population in the blink of an eye. The ironic detachment allows Miller to simultaneously engender sympathy in his characters among readers while also underscoring the profound lunacy that permeates their condition. Without the space created by the occasional intrusion of ironic humor, the relentless pessimism would continually threat to overwhelm that sympathy.
Of significant note is where Miller’s ironic engagement of the folly of the nuclear gambit diverges utterly from the tactics of Dr. Strangelove. The film ends with the world’s end, but A Canticle for Leibowitz draws its greatest power—and most trenchant irony—from what happens after humanity manages to rebuild following the atomic nightmare. Religion—specifically the Catholic Church and its doctrine and dogma—is at the center of this rebirth and renewal and is also a guiding hand in the suggestion that humans will learn very little from their ultimate mistake and will likely repeat the exact same mistakes as before with precious little divergence in the details. There is even irony within the irony: Miller’s presentation of the role of the Catholic Church in his story is clearly benevolent, nothing like the strident anti-Papal satire one would certainly have expected from Kubrick. Despite this positive portrayal, however, ultimately religion is revealed to the perceptive reader to be a failed agent in this potential for a second Renaissance.