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.

A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I’m not sure how I stumbled on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a Hugo Award-winning novel from 1961 that depicts a post-apocalyptic earth going through inevitable cycles of progress and regression. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t a reader suggestion, and I very rarely read science fiction, but somehow I added this to my queue about six months ago. I’d say it was worth reading for the obvious influence it had on later works, but found it an arduous read and a damn depressing one at that.

In Canticle, humanity has nearly wiped itself out through nuclear war, but survivors are rebuilding civilization or simply banding together in tribes habitable areas. The Catholic Church figures heavily in Miller’s book (he was Roman Catholic as well), and serves as a preserver not just of morality and faith but of knowledge after the remaining masses rise up against the intelligentsia, especially scientists, in retaliation for the unleashing of the destructive power of the atom, a passage that unfortunately presaged the real-life genocide of intellectuals in Cambodia under Pol Pot. As humanity moves forward again in fits and starts, the role of the Church changes in society in an exploration of the relationship between small-c church and institutions such as state and science.

The novel is actually a collation of three novellas, each depicting a different time period beginning about six hundred years after the nuclear holocaust, but all centered on a Catholic abbey in the Rocky Mountains dedicated to Saint Leibowitz, a former electric engineer who joined the clergy after the war and gave his life to preserve pre-war scientific knowledge. In the first section, a meek monk-in-training accidentally discovers a fallout shelter that may hold the remains of Saint Leibowitz’ wife, as well as other artifacts from his time deemed by the Church to hold great historical importance. In the second section, an agnostic scholar and researcher visits the abbey as one of the monks is preparing to demonstrate the first (post-war) electric lamp. In the third part, the abbey prepares to send several of its monks to a human colony on Alpha Centauri bearing both ecclesiastical “Memorabilia” and secular knowledge to escape an impending second nuclear war, bringing about a debate between the abbot and a nonreligious doctor over euthanasia for victims of the first attack. Through all three books a Jewish wanderer appears, perhaps the same person despite the span of centuries, waiting for the Messiah while assisting (sometimes in peculiar ways) one or more of the monks.

The three epochs demonstrated in the book mirror three major periods in modern human history – the pre-Enlightenment period where the church’s primacy in civilization and in the advancement of knowledge was largely unchallenged; the Enlightenment itself, where science took away domains of learning previously belonging to the church; and the twentieth century, with nuclear weapons, the repetition of past calamities, and, in what I presume was Miller’s view, a loss of morality tied to the gradual withdrawal of religion from the center of everyday life.

As a social document or a theological one, I imagine the book holds great value; Wikipedia – which we know is never wrong – mentions “a significant body of literary criticism, including numerous literature journal articles, books and college courses” around Canticle. That doesn’t make it a compelling read even if it might be an important one, and the lack of compelling or sympathetic characters left the text feeling more like a history than a great novel. I would imagine from the descriptions of both the local setting of the abbey and the state of humanity and its governance that the book had a heavy influence in literature and literary offshoots after its publication; On the Beach followed two years later, and the world described in part one of Canticle reminded me more than once of the post-apocalyptic setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Although I never got into role-playing games, I remember trying one from the 1980s called Gamma World that had to be drawn in part from Miller’s work or its literary progeny, and I’d imagine Wasteland and Fallout (which I’ve never played) drew either straight from Canticle or from it by way of Gamma World.

Influence or importance might get me to read a book, and Miller’s formal prose wasn’t as unbearable as that of Henry James or Theodore Dreiser. But I couldn’t give this much of a recommendation to anyone who reads strictly for pleasure.

Next up: J.P. Donleavy’s comic novel The Ginger Man.

Home and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

My latest top 50 ranking for this year’s Rule 4 Draft is up. I’ll also be back on College Baseball Live this Thursday night at 7 pm EDT and on the postgame show as well.

The old man nodded. “Maybe I’m finding out I’m not such a good man as I thought I was. Now that I don’t have the strength – patience takes a lot out of you. Hope, too.”
Jack said, “I think hope is the worst thing in the world. I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all. Except–” he shrugged and laughed “–what you can’t be rid of.”

She’s only written three books, but Marilynne Robinson has to be in any discussion of the best living American novelists, and there is no living writer whose prose I’d rather read. Saying a writer writes “from the heart” can be like saying a player “sees the ball well,” but Robinson produces some of the most moving, heartfelt scenes and passages I’ve ever seen and does so without the excess of sentiment or cloying language that could turn a book with a similar setup into mass-market chick lit.

Home, currently on sale for $10 through that amazon link, is the parallel novel to Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. (It’s worth mentioning that Robinson’s three novels have each won a major award – Housekeeping won the PEN/Faulkner award for the best debut novel of its year and Home won the Orange Prize for the best English novel written by a female author.) Gilead was a series of notes or journal entries from an older priest named Ames who, nearing his death, wishes to leave a testament for his young son. That journal also showed scenes of his complex relationship with his friend and fellow preacher Robert Boughton and Boughton’s prodigal son Jack, named for Ames, who returns to Gilead after a twenty-year absence. That return is the subject of Home, as Jack, a lifelong alcoholic who didn’t even come back for his mother’s funeral, shows up carrying two decades’ worth of secrets and memories, with arguably four decades’ worth of loneliness and sorry as well. His timing is propitious, with his father’s health declining even more rapidly than Ames’, and Jack’s sister, Glory, living at home again after a disastrous courtship that has left her resigned to spinsterhood.

Despite the presence of just three characters for most of the book, with everyone else accounting for maybe 10% of the dialogue and whatever passes for action in a Robinson novel (she has never in three books resorted to plot twists or other tricks of the trade to spice up the story), Home is Robinson’s most complex work. The developing relationship between Jack and Glory, separated by enough years that they were never close as children, is one side of a highway where the other direction contains the gradual yet accelerating deterioration of the relationship between Jack and the dying father who has confused decades of worry over his wayward son with decades of love; it’s not clear that anyone was or is capable of helping Jack, who has what would today most likely be diagnosed as depression, but Boughton, already starting to lose control of his emotions in the earliest stages of dementia, faces the crushing disappointment of seeing the failure and tragedy of Jack’s life incarnate, in his kitchen or his living room. And yet Jack, first welcomed and then rebuked by his own father, draws closer to the old man and to his sister … but never so close that he can make the place he refers to as “home” his actual home, instead revisiting the childhood feeling that he wished he lived there in spirit rather than simply in body.

That dualism symbolizes one of Robinson’s central themes, the gulf between our spiritual selves (or souls) and our corporeal existence. Robinson writes honestly of religion, or more specifically of religiosity, as her many religious characters are neither caricatured nor placed on pedestals; religion is simply intrinsic to their lives, and Home is suffused with conflicts between religious tenets and human behavior, as well as the doubts that have plagued Jack for his entire life, further isolating him (although it was far from the main reason) from a family of believers.

And part of Robinson’s gift is that she can write about religion without creating an overtly religious novel. Home is very much about life on earth, about the weight of memories, about choices gone awry in the distant past with ramifications in the present day. Glory’s broken engagement has left her back at home, unemployed, and without romantic prospects; one of the most heart-rending scenes comes near the book’s end as she remembers her own daydreams about her own future family, about children that will probably never exist, a warmth and happiness that she feels is now permanently denied to her. (I don’t believe the characters’ ages are mentioned, but Glory is probably in her early 30s, and I suppose in a small Midwestern town in the 1950s this would make her marriage prospects fairly slim.) Jack, meanwhile, slowly exposes layers of his sorrow to Glory, but not to his father, a permanent barrier to the old man understanding his son; the woman who helped Jack get back on his feet and remain at least partially sober for the past ten years is now denied to him, a severance that seems to have driven him back to Gilead and, in his mind, has cut him off from salvation in this life or any other. Unfolding these relationships in a way that gets at the heart of family dynamics, of loneliness, of regret, and of the ultimate comfort of home without ever relying on unrealistic plot twists to force characters into false corners is more evidence of Robinson’s mastery of language and of character. She went 25 years between her first and second novels but just three years between Gilead and Home; I can only hope the gap before her next novel is as short as the last.

Flannery O’Conner’s first short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, is even more theologically-minded than Robinson’s work, combining stories about the meaning of faith, salvation, and what it might mean to be “good.” The stories are largely twisted, even macabre, as in the title story where an escaped convict wipes out an entire family so O’Conner can show us the difference between saying you’re a good person (or, more specifically, a good Christian) and actually being one. O’Conner dreams up killers and con artists, thieves and rascals, putting “good” people in bad situations to see how they might react.

Aside from the notable title story, the most interesting to me was the longest story in the book, “The Displaced Person,” about a rather high-minded Southern widow named Mrs. McIntyre who takes in, under some duress, a family of Jewish refugees from Poland who fled the Nazis. Her ignorance of conditions in Europe at the time is particularly stark to us now, given the passage of time and our deeper understanding of the extent of the genocide and the horrible conditions in and outside of the camps for Jews. But her lack of charity and her unusually defined ideas on race/origin stood out for her post hoc construction of ethnic identities; even as the Jewish husband works harder, without complaint, than anyone else she’s ever had on her farm, she is appalled to find him trying to bring over relatives trapped in German death camps and potentially marry them off to black workers on the farm. The priest who organized the placement of the refugees is no help, as he’s a single-minded, simpering man who sees Mrs. McIntyre only as a shell, as a person to be saved and as a settlement place for the refugee family but not as an individual, an oversight that leads to the story’s ultimate tragedy. That climax is one of the strongest depictions I’ve seen of the banality of evil, a phrase which, not coincidentally, was coined to describe the complicity of German citizens with the Nazi’s plans for extermination of Jews and other minorities.

Anyway, the title of this collection inspired me to create my second Tumblr post.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase.