We don't have to read A Canticle for Leibowitz for long before we get to the fallout shelter.
Warning: spoilers follow. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great book, and it would be a great pity if you were to read this little essay without reading the book first. I can't get Octopress's excerpt feature to work yet, so here's the warning again:
Spoilers follow. Stop reading now.
When we get there, we discover the remnants of a civilization that managed to incinerate itself despite all of its wealth, power, and knowledge. All that remains within the crumbling concrete structure are bones and a few scraps of paper.
It would not be fair to say that Canticle is primarily about the question of where we can find safety -- if anything, it is about the two-edged nature of knowledge -- but places of refuge are a theme throughout the book, and their problems mirror the problems of the human condition.
The fallout shelter itself is long, long disused. When Brother Francis finds it, he marvels at its engineering and is boggled by its terminology, thinking perhaps that a fallout is a kind of salamander. And yet, for all of its technological wonder, he finds in it the bones of its occupants. As everyone who lives after the "flame deluge" knows, knowledge is not enough to spare one from destruction.
And yet, Brother Francis belongs to an order of monks dedicated to preserving the knowledge of the past. Their abbey guards sacred, original texts – the Memorabilia – protecting it both from the ravages of time and from an angry populace that has come to resent all book-learning.
Protecting it also from kings. Much as in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the monks come to believe that scientific knowledge will inevitably be abused by those with political power. Thus they are divided, for although they begin by sheltering this knowledge from a hurt and angry world, they must eventualy do their best from allowing a greedy, gluttonous world to devour it, and consume it for its own violent purposes.
Thus, that which shelters also imprisons. That which makes the abbey a place of safety for scholars, monks, and ancient texts also makes it an ideal military outpost.
Even the spiritual safety of the Church is questioned. Yes, there is much wisdom there, and a long, long historical perspective that scientists and politicians seem to lack. But there is also bickering and infighting, spying and political intrigue, cowardice and lying.
At one point, Miller refers to a line from G. K. Chesterton. When asked "what is wrong with the world?", Chesterton replied, "I am". Whether in a monastery or a university or a parliament or a hermit's hut, we can find no true shelter, for we always bring the storm within ourselves.
The final parts of the book pit the ultimate forms of shelter against each other. On one side, a doctor contends for the merciful sleep of death, where one is surely safe from the very real suffering in this life. On the other side, a priest offers the hope of salvation. Where should one seek refuge? In Canticle, Miller raises the question, and leaves us to find our own answer.