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Ballantine - 1958 - illo by Richard Powers.

Ballantine – 1958 – illo by Richard Powers.

A Case of Conscience focuses on a UN expedition to the planet Lithia, where the opinions of the expedition’s four scientists will determine the fate of the planet and its inhabitants. For the physicist, chemist, and geologist, the questions posed by the planet are purely rational: should it be exploited for its natural resources (namely its lithium, key component to nuclear weapons) or should its peaceful natives be quarantined? For Father Ruiz, biologist and Jesuit priest, the question of Lithia is of a theological nature. Lithians are a peaceful race, with an innate sense of morality based on emotionless, rational logic. But they do not have the knowledge or concept of God or an afterlife, and seem to live without any idea of faith or spirituality. Are the Lithians somehow living in Eden, having yet to fall into sin? Or were they a sinister trap laid by Satan to trick mankind?

Of course, Ruiz ends up determining that the latter idea is correct, and that they are a cunning ploy by Satan to cause humans to doubt God; maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic, but I must say part of his rationalization perplexes me—it feels like Blish set up a loaded theological argument and picked one he’d rather examine, rather than one of the others, as several of the theological decisions that are made don’t make a ton of sense to me (such as the Pope later admonishing Ruiz for heresy by telling him that he should have committed another heresy, exorcism). Blish himself was not religious, and I’m not sure if he considered this a legitimate debate or reasonable conclusion. Personally, I like to analyze it it as an example of humans projecting their socio-religious values onto an alien culture, bringing our baggage and limited understanding with us to the stars, whether it was something Blish considered when he wrote the novel.

If - Sept 1953 - Ken Fagg.

If – Sept 1953 – Ken Fagg.

The second half of the book switches gears, becoming disjointed in the process. Ruiz was gifted a young Lithian embryo as he left the planet, and it develops in a cold, sterile lab environment without Lithia’s natural challenges or hazards. The result is Egtverchi, a cunning and charismatic if oddly sadistic Lithian; upon reaching adulthood he begins to attract followers from a civilian society that’s been going mad as a result of living in subterranean defense bunkers long after the fear of nuclear attack has gone. While Egtverchi stirs up the stir-crazy populace, inciting them to riot from inflammatory television broadcasts, Ruiz makes his pilgrimage to Rome and must face charges of heresy, while the UN decides that the idea using Lithia to make bombs might not have been such a terrible idea after all. This half lacks the first half’s focus, jumping across interesting but incomplete ideas, with some unbelievable developments in the process.

conscience_footerA Case of Conscience is a fascinating but uneven work, a bit dated and clunky, and while its philosophical-theological debates are complex, they don’t make for a stimulating read. The first half—originally a 1953 short story—is a pretty good combination of first contact and theological conundrum, while a bit clunky, and it’s not a bad choice to win a Retro Hugo. The second half—new content written for the book version of the tale—is kind of a jumbled tangled web that starts to fall apart all too soon. If you are fascinated with science-fictional examinations of religion and aren’t bothered by wooden characterization and stiff, expository dialogue, this should go on your to-read list. Fans of ’50s SF and those trying to read every Hugo winner should also be interested, but be warned: books that resonated in the genre back in the day don’t always remain as impactful or insightful 60 years later.

A Case of Conscience is important for being the first “serious” SF novel to try and examine philosophical/religious issues, though I think it left me with more questions than answers.
Book Details
Title: A Case of Conscience
Author: James Blish
First Published: 1958
What I Read: Open Road Media ebook, 2017
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via Netgalley and Open Road
MSRP: $19.00 tpb / $7.99 ebook
ISBN: 0345438353 / B01N63YQEX