Guest review by Tony Stewart. This essay first appeared at his blog, Breadtag Sagas.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish is #59 on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

I’ve been a keen science fiction reader most of my life, though less so in recent years as there seems to be less SciFi about. A box of my old books turned up out of a time warp and I’ve decided to re-read them.

The genre has been in decline for some time, perhaps because we’ve entered an age of ignorance about science. An age it seems where peer reviewed science can be debated as if there could be another side. (One can always drag up an extreme scientist or pseudo-scientist, not part of the mainstream, to help.) Creationism or anti-evolution and climate science are good examples.

To counter creationism: Charles Darwin was a genius but he didn’t invent evolution. Darwin was wrong about several things because he didn’t have the knowledge at the time. The modern synthesis theory of evolution was formulated in the 1930s. It has never been challenged but has been built on by the revolution in molecular biology and computer technology. Most people are probably not abreast of recent developments. Take it from me anyone who doubts evolution now is on a hiding to nothing.


Spoiler warning

James Blish A Case of Conscience 1958 is an interesting example of the premise of faith versus science, but the contest never really happens in the book. I give a spoiler warning tongue-in-cheek, but if you really want to read the book maybe read it first before proceeding.

A Case of Conscience was the first book I re-read and I was underwhelmed. I did remember the Catholicism but the idea is not enough to save the book.

A Case of Conscience was originally written as a novella in 1953, then James Blish wrote the second part and it was published as a novel in 1958. It won a Hugo Award in 1959 and the original novella a belated Retrospective Hugo in 2004. In the 1958 Foreward James Blish describes how he had modified contemporary Catholic faith for the purposes of fiction in the future. He says he generally found support from within the Catholic Church for his book but acknowledges that he himself is agnostic.

case_of_conscience_if


The Story

Book 1

A Jesuit priest, who is also a world-class biologist, is part of the four-man team sent to explore the world of Lithia. The Lithians live in what seems to be a utopia, there’s no crime or war, they have a highly developed moral sense and yet they have no religion. One of the team wants to exploit the planet for its mineral wealth, but the priest feels they must place it in quarantine: the absence of God means it is the work of the devil. (Best SciFi Books)

Book 2

When they return to Earth the priest carries a fertilized egg as a special gift from a Lithian. The egg matures quickly and the juvenile Lithian Ambassador quickly apprehends most human information and knowledge. This is similar to L’Ingenue by Voltaire in 1767 and Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein in 1961 (‘The hippy bible’). Egtverchi (the hatched egg) is lonely and revolted by humanity his despair impels him to criticize society and to encourage riots amongst the mass of humans in the shelter cities. The UN Government decides to arrest him but he smuggles himself aboard a ship home, arriving just in time for Armageddon.

Meanwhile, ‘the priest’s own faith is tested as his commitment to Catholicism comes under question. But when, at the end, Lithia is destroyed, it is ambiguous whether this is the result of carelessness in the mineral extraction or because of the priest’s exorcism.’ (Best SciFi Books)


Analysis

The book is typical of Classic SciFi in its appalling characterisation and inability to portray women. Robert Heinlein follows a similar trend at times but also can do better when he wants to. Podkayne of Mars 1963 one of my favourite Heinlein books is written in the voice of a feisty teenager Podkayne, with an appalling (to her) younger brother.

csocon1958The planet of Lithia and the alien race are poorly described. Cleaver’s refusal to communicate across the planet to the other two scientists is not credible. That they don’t do anything, until it is time to leave, also stretches belief. When the four planetary commissioners get together to decide the fate of the planet, they behave like schoolboys. Cleaver, besides, feels free to do a side deal with the UN Government unbeknownst to the others.

Cleaver the bad physicist, who wants to turn Lithia into a nuclear arsenal is too cardboard even for caricature. Cleaver apparently ends by blowing Lithia up through incautious hurry and a poorly conceived experimental process. A romance and marriage between Michelis (one of the four scientists) and Liu, who look after the development of Egtverchi, is risible. The behaviour of Liu as a woman is not credible.

Ruiz-Sanchez, the Jesuit priest, is a mixture of contrasts, but his act of conscience is not credible because it isn’t well enough described. Ruiz-Sanchez’s Jesuitical analysis of literature — another case of conscience — which he is puzzling over in terms of the complex human interdependencies and moral relationships in a book he has been studying for months, for which he finally defines an ethical solution on Lithia is interesting. The book turns out to be Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. I haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake and so with the majority of humanity don’t know if what Blish is saying makes sense or is merely an intellectual conceit.

Egtverchi the alien is quite interesting as he grows up, but his persona is not well explained. His motivations are handled merely as a plot device.

The genius Lucien Le Comte des Bois-d’Averoigne who seems to have invented all of Earth’s current useful technology, including the space drive, is also interesting, but perhaps only because he remains off-stage.

The Pope, a massive Norwegian, who acknowledges Ruiz-Sanchez’s Manichean heresy, encourages him to explore exorcism as a private endeavour. The Pope has promise as a character but his part is only a walk-on.

The best idea in the book is that of the shelter cities growing out of the nuclear confrontation on Earth. The shelter race is like an arms race — reminiscent of Dr Strangelove where the ultimate advantage over the Russians comes down to the mineshaft gap. The Corridor Riots of 1993 are also mentioned. I liked that the Italians were too fond of aboveground and their shelter city under Rome wasn’t nearly as deep or extensive as everywhere else in the world.

Humanity as government, elite and masses is not shown in a good light in the book, nor is Catholicism. Today, how kindly would we accept a Jesuit priest who wanted to annihilate an alien planet because it is a tool of the devil?

The end of the book is disappointing and doesn’t really bring everything together. Lithia and its population and the mad physicist Cleaver disappear in a nuclear conflagration, or is it an exorcism?


Conclusion

Look I’ve managed to convince myself through the process of analysis that A Case of Conscience isn’t completely hopeless. It deserves its place in the 1950s SciFi pantheon, but not the place it was given in the lists I found (as #18, 30 or 38) of the best SciFi books ever written. The fourth list does not place it in the top 200.

1950s SciFi books do not have to be as awkward and clumsy as A Case of Conscience is. Some are brilliant stories and novel showcases for ideas. I recently read Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank, which is one of the first apocalyptic novels of the nuclear age. It is set in a small town in mid-Florida and is almost as chilling now, as it must have seemed then. And, we no longer believe that nuclear Armageddon hangs over us on a daily basis.

I’ll leave the last word to Manny at Goodreads who summarises the equivocalness of James Blish (his review is longer and worth reading):

I discovered James Blish when I was about 10 (I believe the first one I read was The Star Dwellers), and I have returned to him many times throughout my life. I don’t think I know any author who is quite as frustrating an example of Kilgore Trout syndrome. Wonderful ideas, but in most cases terrible execution: for every novel or short story that succeeds, at least three are left butchered and bleeding by the side of the road….

So it should be no surprise that A Case of Conscience is more of the same. We have discovered a planet peopled by an apparently gentle and civilized race, the Lithians, who are gradually revealed as being literally a creation of the Devil, intended to delude and ensnare humanity. The protagonist, a Jesuit priest, too late recognizes the Lithian ambassador to Earth for what he is, and is powerless to oppose him; this scenario, it occurs to me now, is rather like that in Black Easter. And then, after what everyone here agrees is a fantastic buildup, the whole book falls apart, leaving the reader frustrated over yet another disappointment. It’s genuinely tragic.

Tony StewartDr. Tony Stewart is a scientist (biology) and analyst by training. He has also run a strategic market research company, been an R&D consultant and a late starting artist. More recently he has been a volunteer involved in efforts to stop a dam and with and with the general issue of the poor treatment of displaced people in India. He was also a board member and ex-chair of PhotoAccess a community access facility for photography and multimedia. He is also an avid fan of classic science fiction.
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