A Case of Conscience: A Catholic priest faces aliens with morality but no religion

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Great A-side, dreadful B-side. A Case of Conscience is James Blish’s 1959 Hugo-winning SF novel, expanded from the1953 novella. Part One (the original novella) is set on planet Lithia, introducing a race of reptilians with a perfect, strife-free society and innate sense of morality. However, to the consternation of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, they have no religion of any kind. Their morality is inherent, and they have no need of a religious framework to direct their actions.

As a Catholic, Ruiz-Sanchez cannot make heads or tails of this. Without religion, do the Lithians have souls? If so, are they fallen into sin like humans, or still in a state of grace like Adam and Eve? He struggles with this conundrum, as well as the purpose of the expedition to Lithia, which is to determine whether the planet should be exploited for its lithium or quarantined since the Lithians are clearly created by Satan to undermine the need for faith to form the basis for an ideal society. It’s very unclear whether Blish thinks this is a legitimate debate or not, and while it’s good for the author to let the reader decide (I’d like to see Heinlein hold back on judgment, for example), this Part ends inconclusively with Ruiz-Sanchez receiving an egg from his Lithian friend Chtexa to bring back to Earth.

Part 2

Part 2 must be the most incoherent and poorly written second act ever written in SF. It’s about Egtverchi, the Lithian born from that egg, as he grows up in human society. He quickly learns about the world, and starts to question why humans are living in underground shelters brought about by earlier nuclear conflict. In the process, he causes a massive rebellion among the stir-crazy people of Earth, who are suffering from the psychosis of living underground.

At the same time Ruiz-Sanchez is brought before the Pope fore heresy, since his suggestion that Satan created Lithia to undermine God is a form of Manichaeism, a religion that posits a struggle between equally-matched good and evil. The Pope points out that Ruiz-Sanchez may have been deceived by the Lithians (and by extension Satan) and that he should have performed an exorcism of the planet! That wouldn’t have been my conclusion, but…

Then the story does another sudden about-turn and we discover that a scientist from the initial expedition has gone back to Lithia and is trying a dangerous experiment that may destroy the planet. As Ruiz-Sanchez performs his exorcism, Lithia explodes. Was it his exorcism that did it, unraveling Satan’s illusion, or merely the mad experiments of the scientists who destroyed an innocent and perfectly moral society? The story provides no answers, and furthermore no basis to form an opinion.

Part 2 was so badly-constructed and garbled that I wonder what happened to James Blish when he wrote it. It’s just a complete mess and actually got me fairly irritated. I really cannot understand how this book won the Hugo Award that year.

A Case of Conscience is truly dated in every sense, and it would almost certainly never be written or gain any following today. The wooden characters and dialogue wouldn’t withstand scrutiny, and a philosophy-centric story almost certainly would seem irrelevant in our information-drenched, hyper-realist world.

While I consider A Case of Conscience a failure as a piece of SF literature, it certainly deserves credit for its unlikely storyline and refusal to wrap things up neatly at the end. However, the deplorable quality of the latter half really makes it hard to take seriously. It’s clear that back in the 1950s authors often wrote good short stories and were then pushed by publishers to expand them into less satisfying longer works. Of course the pendulum has swung too far the other way now, since any genre work that wants to be taken seriously has to be at least 800 pages long. But it is unfortunate that some early classics feel poorly constructed, and that reflects the tenuous state of the genre back in the Golden Age of Astounding and Galaxy before full-length SF really hit its stride.

Publisher: The citizens of the planet Lithia are some of the most ethical sentient beings Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has ever encountered. True, they have no literature, no fine arts, and don’t understand the concept of recreation, but neither do they understand the concepts of greed, envy, lust, or any of the sins and vices that plague humankind. Their world seems darned near perfect. And that is just what disturbs the good Father. First published in 1959, James Blish’s Hugo Award-winning A Case of Conscience is science fiction at its very best: a fast-paced, intelligent story that offers plenty of action while at the same time explores complex questions of values and ethics. In this case, Blish has taken on the age-old battle of good vs. evil. Lithia poses a theological question that lies at the heart of this book: is God necessary for a moral society? The Lithians are nothing if not moral. Not only do they lack the seven deadly sins, they also lack original sin. And without any sort of religious framework, they have created the Christian ideal world, one that humans would be eager to study and emulate. But is it too perfect? Is it in fact, as Father Ruiz-Sanchez suspects, the work of The Adversary? And what role does Egtverchi, the young Lithian raised on Earth, play? Is he an innocent victim of circumstance, or will he bring about the Dies Irae, the day of the wrath of God, upon the earth? The fate of two worlds hinges on the answers to these questions, and will lead to an ancient earth heresy that shakes the Jesuit priest’s beliefs to their very core.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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4 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    WOW! I’m surprised to read your reaction to this one, Stuart. This is a book that I’ve long wanted to read, after seeing such good things written about it in that David Pringle “100 Best Science Fiction Novels” volume. Not that I’ve enjoyed all of Pringle’s choices so far; case in point, Damien Broderick’s “The Dreaming Dragons.” Guess I’ll put this Blish book a lot farther down on my “to be read” list. Many thanks for the warning!

  2. Hi Sandy, of course other readers might not react the same way as I did, but boy did this book come off badly for me. I’ve found quite often than really great novellas of the Golden Age, like “Baby is Three” (extended to More than Human) and “The Fireman” (extended to Fahrenheit 451), were extended into less successful full-length novels.
    And I agree that not all of David Pringle’s 100 Best SF Novels are really the best (for example, he chose Journey Beyond Tomorrow by Robert Sheckley, Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad, Crash by JG Ballard, Barry N. Malzberg’s Galaxies, etc). I think he was going for the widest range of styles and subject matter to be found in SF, not just the best written or most enjoyable books. So there are bound to be some real duds mixed in.

  3. It sounds like he had too much going on in Part Two. The innocent outsider, the draconian institution, nuclear holocaust, mass destruction… yikes!

    I think there is room for philosophy-based stories, though. To my mind, THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS falls into that category to some extent — of course, it’s about many things, not just the purpose of the missionary process.

  4. Marion, I agree that philosophy and religion certainly have a place in SF. In Blish’s case, he just made a hash of Part Two with dreadful plotting. I will be posting a review of A Canticle for Leibowitz at some point, but my beef with that book is with its core conceit, since the writing is excellent.

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