I owned this book for over a year before finally finishing it. I started it several times and always quit about twenty pages in, then finally powered through and finished it off. I realize now those first twenty pages were only difficult because I actually had no idea what this book was about.
I knew the basic story structure, and I was aware that this book is still almost universally loved. What I didn't know was just how frightening this book could be. I began reading this by telling myself it would be a good exploration of people's feeling in the 60s about nuclear war. A time when fears about it were running rampant and the Cold War was in full swing. I went in to this expecting a lot of blistering rhetoric and dated writing.
What I wasn't expecting was for the idea of nuclear war to be just as frightening today as it was sixty years ago. This novel scared the hell out of me. The last scene will stick with you. But perhaps the most frightening aspect of this novel is the author's assertion that nuclear annihilation is not just a possibility but an absolute certainty. The world is destroyed in this novel not once but twice.
I like this novel's approach to religion in science fiction. Some people have very strict rules of what makes up sci-fi, and what qualifies as real science fiction, I try not to draw any such lines. I want my sci-fi to explore anything and everything, and if that means writing a book that takes a look at what happens when we die or Jesus' place in the world then so be it, a good story is a good story. Miller treats the religion in the novel with respect and dignity, and gives it the importance necessary to make the novel work. The priests in the novel bring up several interesting points, having the older priest question the scientist on why he would place his skills at the service of a tyrant will really get you where you live.
This novel tackles some serious subject matter while still maintaining a pretty light tone. The first hundred pages or so is actually very funny. The novel dates itself somewhat in the writing but nothing that should throw readers off, and definitely not enough to avoid the book. Some people have found it curious that the novel is such a classic but this is exactly what you should be looking for in your classic great science fiction.
I'm a little disappointed in myself for waiting so long to read this book. Having finished it I now realize it's one of those books that all fans of the genre need to have read. While the novel does what I expected and offered a great look into the hopes and fears of the Cold War era, it's much more than that. A classic, heartbreaking, post-apocalyptic tale. It's hard to define a book as uplifting when, like I said, the earth is destroyed twice but there it is. Miller describes some of the worst of humanity, but still asserts his belief that deep down we are all good people.
This is one of those Hugo Award winners that has really transcended the genre, and it makes me glad. This novel really deserves all the recognition it can get, both as a time capsule of its era and a warning for today. I can't praise it high enough.