A Case of Conscience A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Publisher: Del Rey
Year: 1958/2000
Pages: 256

Science fiction has a tendency to ignore religion; this may have stemmed from its early Enlightenment-style emphasis on rationality, or it may have been sheer laziness, since predicting how some of our oldest cultural institutions would fare years into the (often dystopian) future is difficult at best.

There are notable exceptions to this, and the situation has gotten better as the years wind on and the genre refines itself. Writers aren’t always nice to religion, but they’ve generally stopped ignoring it as a force for (or resistance to) change. But even in scifi’s early days, there were some writers who not only included organized religion in their stories, but actually centered the plots on it. Most frequently cited is Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. But just a scant year before Miller published his first and last novel1, another titan of the early science fiction scene, James Blish, published A Case of Conscience, whose protagonist(?) is a Jesuit priest.

Like most of the best (or longest-lived) science fiction, A Case of Conscience‘s focus is largely sociological; there are no laser battles, though there are plenty of large, reptilian aliens. On the planet of Lithia, Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is priest/biologist, one of four human scientists sent to the world to determine if it should be opened to general human availability. This is partially an academic exercise of determining if the environment is malicious or benign to homo sapiens, but also to understand the culture of the native Lithians and predict whether being a spaceport will wind up more like Sweden or more like Afghanistan for loud Westerners.

Blish’s decision to make Sanchez a Jesuit is no coincidence; the Jesuits are [in]famous for being the most scientific and rationalistic of Catholics, so Sanchez seems in many ways more like a scientist than a Padre, but it soon becomes apparent that what could be a nuanced, meaningful interplay of religious conservatism and futuristic scientism is destined to be turned into two flailing caricatures, and I think the Catholics get the worse end of the deal.

The Lithians, though they resemble pulp-era science fiction villains in appearance, are a squeaky-clean species: intelligent to a fault, they are utterly rational, inherently moral without any sort of religion or notion of faith at all; a peaceful, self-sacrificing race whose unique skill at interdisciplinary fields would make them valuable partners to Earthlings, whose economy and minds have been warped by years of a “shelter economy”, driven underground for entire generations by the threat of nuclear holocaust. Schizophrenia is on the rise, and a strange system of have/have-not closely resembling that of the Soviet Union seems to pervade. But this is all thin political blustering; at issue is the apparent “perfection” of the Lithians, which ultimately brings Ruiz-Sanchez to a horrifying conclusion: the planet of Lithia was created by The Devil in order to convince Man to stop believing in God.

Regardless of one’s spiritual convictions, this is a rather hard to accept, even in science fiction. It may stem from Blish’s agnostic misunderstanding of Catholic dogma; perhaps it represents the sort of thing that really would concern a Catholic back in 1958—this was, after all, before Vatican II, when Catholicism was, if it’s even possible, draped even more mysticism and incense-and-dagger horseshit than it is now. In any case, Blish made sure to mitigate the ridiculousness of Ruiz’s sudden revelation with an even more exaggerated Henry-Kissinger-as-comic-book-villain exposition from Paul Carver, another member of the four-man expedition, who hates Lithia and Lithians and wants to turn the entire planet into a thermonuclear weapons factory. This point is about halfway through the book, even before Ruiz-Sanchez shares his blithering revelation, and Blish could not make Carver sound like more of a megalomaniacal Bond villain if he tried. Once again, I’m not sure if Blish simply happened to traffick in caricatures, or if he purposely wrote Carver as a slavering Cold War missile-monger in order to offset what must have seemed, even in context, like a “Dinosaur bones were put here by God to test our faith” kind of fairy tale from the Jesuit.

The second half of the book deals largely with a young Lithian, Egtverchi, who is given to Sanchez in egg form as a gift/ambassador. Lithians have no real sense of familial structure, evolving into intelligence mostly on their own, but Egtverchi manages to grow up, let’s say “wrong”, and becomes a rabble-rouser on Earth, instigating violence and social upheaval. The image, I suppose, is supposed to be one of leftist rationalism bunker-busting Cold War-style mindsets, though Egtverchi himself is something of a cipher and the events that follow are somewhat tangential, including a party scene at a sex-crazed political socialite’s mansion that accomplishes nothing in its significant length except serving as Egtverchi’s debutante ball, where he “comes out” to the human world as an obnoxious teenager.

I won’t spoil the ending, although it won’t come as a surprise in a story about Cold War politicking. Though one can sense Blish was attempting an ambiguity, he only succeeding in making Ruiz-Sanchez look like a hysterical moonbat, eclipsed only by his (Norwegian!) pope and by extension the entirety of the Catholic church. Though one may guess that I’m no great friend of the institution, I give it, generally, a little more respect than flailing caricatures. Even more disappointing is that Blish’s initial setup seemed so promising; the conflict between Ruiz-Sanchez’s rationalist flavor of faith and crass utilitarian Realpolitik might have been meaningful, but the final execution was poor then, and ages even more poorly.

  1. I’m excepting Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Women because it was finished by another writer and was also terrible, which is perhaps what caused Miller to kill himself.[]
§6893 · February 8, 2011 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

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