Walter M. Miller's three-part novel A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the acknowledged classics of science fiction... that doesn't get talked about nearly enough. Over in the New Yorker, there's a fascinating, must-read essay about this book, putting it in context.
Apart from other things, the New Yorker essay talks about the fact that Miller
was one of the airmen involved in a huge, bloody operation that dropped bombs on the abbey at Monte Cassino. The abbey had been there since 529 A.D. and had an irreplaceable library of hundreds of manuscripts by classical authors. It wasn't until Miller was writing the third part of his novel (published in three parts in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) that he thought about Monte Cassino:
By his own admission, the Miller did not become fully aware of the driving force behind his novel until he was working on its third part. "I was writing the first version of the scene where Zerchi lies half buried in the rubble," Miller recalled. "Then a light bulb came on over my head: 'Good God, is this the abbey at Monte Cassino? . . . What have I been writing?'"
The New Yorker essay has some interesting insights on the current boom in post-apocalyptic literature. (And I did not realize that Junot Díaz was currently writing a novel about alien invasion, climate change and viral illness.) Writer Jon Michaud puts Miller in a special category of apocalyptic novelists who lived through real apocalyptic war — a club that includes Kurt Vonnegut and Joe Haldeman. And there's some great stuff about the comedy in Miller's otherwise-bleak novel. But most of all, it's a great look at Miller himself, the man who produced one classic work and then didn't write anything else for four decades. [The New Yorker]