For people interested in SciFi literature, this is one of those “Must Read”s
While it is not the very first post-apocalyptic SciFi novel, it is certainly the seminal one that touches on almost every theme examined in the subgenre since. Beginning 600 years after the “Flame Deluge,” it focuses on a monastic religious order dedicated to the preservation of knowledge as mankind endures another Dark Ages (in which knowledge is blamed for nuclear war and even literacy itself is stomped out) and then through their crawl back into the light.
The novel was actually originally written as three short stories for science fiction magazines and then tied to together with this religious order. As such, it is series of three vignettes which lets it sidestep one of SciFi’s most common problems: Theme over character. The characters in each story are perhaps not as colorful as others may write, but are distinct and three dimensional, even humorous at points. The stories are paced a bit unevenly, but are compelling all the same. It can be a bit dry at points, but it’s never as dry as Asimov.
The relationship of religion and knowledge, and indeed religion and society, is handled in probably the most evenhanded way I have encountered in a SciFi novel. The fact that the Roman Catholic Albertian Order of Leibowitz was founded by a former Jew might be taken as irony, until one thinks of role all the Abrahamic religions played in preserving knowledge though the Dark and Middle Ages at one point or another. And yet the novel also touches on the inhibiting superstition religion can breed and the poisonous role religion can take when it enters politics.
What also impressed me the most are the anthropological theories and observations in the novel, some of which only had only begun to be discussed in the field at the time.
The other major theme is cyclical nature of history as mankind drags itself up from near-annihilation and starts to make the same mistakes all over again. It might be considered depressing, if not for the role of faith takes. Not faith in god, but faith that it is possible for mankind to make a better world. Maybe we stumble back into old patterns, but each time we get up and move a little farther before falling again. And a little farther, and a little farther.