A Case of Conscience.

James Blish’s novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1959, the fifth time the award had been given out, kicking off a run of books that are still considered classics today: Starship Troopers, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High Castle, and Way Station won the next five Hugos, and Dune won two years after that streak. It was a golden age of science fiction, particularly of sci-fi novels that tackled major philosophical themes; Blish’s novel, his only winner, remains one of the few novels to win the award that uses a science fiction plot to examine questions of religion and morality. It’s a curious work, a novella that was then doubled in length to turn it into a novel, and has some of the stitched-together quality you’d expect, but also gives the reader a fairly compelling central story that centers on a Jesuit priest’s crisis of conscience while also working in issues around colonialism, exploitation, and violent political movements.

Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is the story’s protagonist and moral center, one of a group of four humans on the planet Lithia, assigned the task of determining whether it is safe to open the planet for human contact. The rest of the crew comprises three scientists of varying views on religion and morality, including the rationalist/atheist Cleaver, a physicist who discovers that the planet is a potential source of raw material for the production of nuclear weapons. The Lithians, reptilian creatures who walk on two legs, live in a utopian society where their culture and language lack words for conflict, dissent, or crime … but they are also a completely secular society, without any concept of religion or God. Father Ruiz-Sanchez begins to suspect that the planet itself was created by Satan, as it is a near-perfect attack on core principles of Catholic theology, and argues that the planet should be “quarantined” from all contact with earth. The team is unable to agree on a recommendation, and Ruiz-Sanchez acknowledges that Cleaver is likely to get his wish in the end. The Lithians, unaware of any of this conversation, give Ruiz-Sanchez a parting gift as they leave: an embryo (in an egg) of a Lithian, in a special container designed to allow the fetus to survive the journey back to Earth. (Lithians do not raise their young as humans do, which is explained at length in the text.)

In part two, the Lithian embryo becomes the grown Egtverchi, a ten-foot tall saurian biped who experiences a whole new level of culture shock as he’s exposed to human civilization. Possessed of a tremendous capacity to learn, he quickly absorbs most human knowledge, and I think it’s fair to say he’s not terribly impressed by it. He becomes a pop phenomenon, getting his own reality TV show, and encouraging his viewers to act on their discontent with their jobs, their government, and so on. His following is large enough to lead to mayhem in the streets, all while work to convert Lithia into a giant lithium deuteride factory continues fifty light-years away. Father Ruiz-Sanchez, meanwhile, is charged with heresy, faces an audience with the Pope, and comes back at the UN’s request to deal with the situation Egtverchi has created.

The novel is brief, just over 200 pages, but packs a lot of ideas into its two sections. The first part, originally published on its own, is a sort of thought experiment: Blish appears to have been very familiar with Catholic teachings and created a civilization in the Lithians that would refute that doctrine, such as that a peaceful world would not be possible without God. Blish gives Ruiz-Sanchez this challenge, and forces him to confront it and try to convince at least one of his skeptical colleagues to agree to his plan to close off the planet from human contact. Without the second half, however, it’s fairly flat, devoid of any tension, and the potential risks from Ruiz-Sanchez’s scenario are far from evident. A Case of Conscience needs Egtverchi to bring the priest’s concerns to life, and he does so in stark, shocking ways, stirring up an angry populist mob in a storyline that seems to presage everything from Fight Club to the 2016 U.S. election.

Blish also opens the door to discussions about imperialism and exploitation of colonies with the setup of his novel, as humans have developed the technology to get to Lithia and have made numerous scientific discoveries that the Lithians, while an advanced society, have not. Lithia itself has very little iron, limiting their progress in some key aspects of physics or chemistry, adding to the sense that humans are the ‘superior’ race, which, in Cleaver’s mind, means there’s no problem with showing up on someone else’s planet and plundering it of resources, even if the cost is environmental destruction or other massive disruptions of the native species. The theme isn’t entirely fleshed out here because the second half of the novel takes place almost entirely on Earth, but the questions lay open in the text, and given that Blish wrote it in the 1950s while western countries still held nearly all of Africa and swaths of southern Asia as colonies, I imagine that was at least a model for him in devising the structure of his universe.

I won’t spoil the resolution of A Case for Conscience other than to say that I enjoyed its ambiguity; I think it’s a perfect way to get around the religious question involved in the conclusion without dismissing it entirely. Blish’s portrayal of Ruiz-Sanchez is thoughtful and respectful in a way that most science fiction authors’ words aren’t; many sci-fi novels ignore religion entirely or portray it as an artifact of the past, something sloughed off over time or destroyed by the progress of science. Such twists tend to miss the importance of religion to human culture (for better and worse) and how religion gives many people an answer to the meaning of life. Blish, whom the introduction to the version I read labels as an agnostic, deserves credit for creating a man of the cloth who is credible, well-drawn, and appropriately flawed.

Next up: David Brin’s The Uplift War, another Hugo winner.

Comments

  1. Keith, have you read Mary Doria Russell’s THE SPARROW? It mines some of the same ideas but in a very different manner. On “The List” in my mind it holds a place both in my top ten reading experiences the top ten books I’ve ever read.

  2. Larry I. in L.A.

    Todd (and Keith): I came to the comments section to offer the exact same recommendation. Todd, you beat me to it! That’s OK, though, if more people are enticed to read The Sparrow.

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