It follows the fortunes of a monastery devoted to preserving knowledge in the lattermath of a nuclear holocaust. It is divided into three periods, each several centuries apart. In the first, a fasting novice called Francis is guided by a mysterious desert wanderer to discover a fallout shelter which may contain relics of the life of the Blessed Liebowitz, an engineer before the holocaust to whom the novice's monastic order is dedicated. The knowledge in the world is similar to the scholaticism of our mediaeval period (although God's Philosophers might disputer this). In the second segment, which explores the moment when science's renaissance clashes with some in the church and when nation states begin to re-emerge, a brilliant scientist comes to the monastery and deplores the fact that the ancient texts are not more available. The abbot chats with the wanderer. The third segment is set as the world trembles upon the brink of a second nuclear war: will the princes be so foolish or so evil as to repeat Armageddon, especially as they cannot escape seeing the mutant inheritance of the first 'Flame Deluge'?
This was so much better written than the Dick book. Firstly, the author spent very little time explaining the basis for his imagined world: the necessary details emerged for the normal interactions of characters with the plot. Secondly, the plot was about the interactions of the characters and they interacted as humans always have and always will interact despite the strangeness of the setting. Thirdly, the characters were well drawn. The three abbots were all recognisable and recognisably different. Others range from a delightfully wimpish Brother Francis whom circumstances forged into well-tempered steel, a viciously iconoclastic Poet, and a Doctor who has to find a way to excuse euthanasia. There is a great deal of humour. The reader is allowed to puzzle through some of the mysteries at the start even though their solutions may occur centuries afterwards.
There is also a great deal of discussion of really profound issues:
"Wise fool!" mimicked the hermit. "But you always did specialise in paradox and mystery, didn't you, [abbot] Paulo? If a thing can't be in contradiction to itself, then it doesn't even interest you, does it? You have to find Threeness in Unity, life in death, wisdom in folly."This was a light, enjoyable, fun read which restored my faith in science fiction. The best sci fi is real human interactions in an alien world.
September 2013; 356 pages.