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A Case of Conscience

by James Blish


This was the 5th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1959 at the 17th Worldcon, Detention, in Detroit, MI.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in May 2019.



My sweep through the winners of the Best Novel Hugo reaches 1959 and A Case of Conscience by James Blish, a book that I owned in paperback but clearly hadn't read because its final few pages had been torn out, prompting me to search for them online instead.

I have read quite a lot of Blish though and not just his Star Trek books, adaptations from draught scripts, so different to the aired episodes, and a standalone original novel. I have particularly fond memories of his Cities in Flight books, which I found in the school library as a teenager, though I didn't have sufficient background in American history (which wasn't taught in British schools) to grasp that it was a sf commentary on the migration out of the Dust Bowl in the thirties.

This is something very different indeed, a religious science fiction novel, not what a majority of readers expected at the time and which still stands out from the science fiction crowd today. It tasks a team of four scientists with evaluating an alien planet fifty light-years from Earth to figure out whether it should be opened up to the universe at large. One of them comes to a startling realisation about it which sets in motion a rather strange set of events.

These scientists are very different, not merely in discipline but also in background and character, to ensure a variety of interpretations when time comes for their recommendations. Our protagonist, for instance, is there as a biologist but he's also a Jesuit and that becomes even more important. Our impressions of the planet Lithia and, by extension, our backseat decision-making, is filtered almost entirely through his experiences.

Initially, these experiences are good. He's Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, from Peru, and he consistently makes an effort to understand the Lithians, even though his colleague, Cleaver, the physicist, really can't be bothered. It becomes clear, for instance, after Cleaver is poisoned by a plant, that he hasn't been communicating with their colleagues Michelis and Agronski, the chemist and geologist of the team, at all. Ruiz-Sanchez finds this out when he visits the Message Tree to do so himself. Only his passing knowledge of the Lithian language and his friendship with a Lithian makes communication possible.

It also leads to this Lithian, Chtexa, inviting him into his house, which elevates Ruiz-Sanchez knowledge of the locals a great deal. What he finds, however, shakes him. The Lithians have no crime, no war and no religion. There are no deviations from a core morality even though individuality is prized. They're scientists who think logically and share knowledge freely. You and I might see this as a paradise but Father Ramon sees it as a trap. He comes to believe that Lithia was created by Satan as a test for mankind.

While we might scoff at such an idea, as the good Father's colleagues do in no time flat, he backs it up with science. The planet doesn't make sense in scientific terms, having apparently sprung into place fully formed and not changing over the millennia. The Lithians don't make sense either, given that their language, customs and history also appear fully formed in the minds of their young, who grow up without need of parents and only return home later, and that worries him even though he enjoys their company and admires them.

I should add that all this discovery, and the subsequent debate to decide what form the team's report will take, unfolds during the first section of the book, which is fascinating. Blish creates a fantastic world, which we might enjoy just as a creation, but adds an extra level that makes us think. The second section, in which Chtexa gives Ruiz-Sanchez a parting gift of an egg, which contains what will grow into his son, is less consistent but it does progress the novel along to the point where perhaps inevitable things happen. Even there, we're left with an ambiguity as to how and why.

Blish had some balls when he wrote this. Not only did he write a religious science fiction novel, albeit as an agnostic without any preaching in mind, he extrapolated the theology of the Jesuits forward to this future 2050 in ways that made sense to him at the time but don't today. In fact, Blish got a few things wrong with his prognostication. Michelis the chemist laughs at the fact that Lithia is flush with lithium, because rocket ships don't fly anymore and nobody needs the stuff. Our cellphone generation can laugh at him in turn.

What's more, the very fact that Ruiz-Sanchez comes up with his theory about Lithia is fascinating. We might see it as a particularly religious approach that his superiors might applaud him for taking, but he's actually seen as a heretic, the mere suggestion that Satan has the power to create a planet and the lifeforms on it enough to shift him into Manichaeism, a heresy that has him summoned to Rome to face judgement from the Pope himself, who suggests a different interpretation.

I grew up in the Church of England, so I'm familiar with some of the ideas in play here. However, being a Roman Catholic and not a particular student of religious history, much of this was new to me. Phrased as it is as science fiction, I read this from a societal standpoint and enjoyed it greatly. As someone who's lived in the US for a decade and a half, watching the battle between church and state, I found the questioning of an agnostic American author in the fifties of whether religion should be part of a scientific judgement a fascinating one, especially when it becomes apparent that only the Jesuit would have noticed certain things.

Nothing here is simple, even though it seems that way, and I enjoyed that immensely. Science fiction should always make us think and this does that wonderfully. The fact that the second section, which focuses on Earth in 2050 and how Egtverchi, once he grows from his egg into the usual bipedal reptile with great intelligence and innate knowledge, can shake that up, pales in comparison to the first is mostly a problem of comparison. It's still good stuff, merely not as good as the section which preceded it.

Blish went on to further explore religion in science fiction, not through sequels but through a thematic trilogy he named After Such Knowledge. A Case of Conscience was followed by a 1964 novel, Doctor Mirabilis, and a fantasy duology comprised of Black Easter and The Day After Judgement, which took him into the seventies. I haven't read any of these and may well do that now. I appreciate originality, especially in science fiction, and I have to say that A Case of Conscience is unlike anything else I've read. That's a good thing.


The Big Time | Starship Troopers

Next month: I'm back on familiar territory with another Robert A. Heinlein novel, Starship Troopers.

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Last update: 17th November, 2019