A Case of Conscience (Del Rey Impact) [James Blish] on *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. Winner of the Hugo Award • The future of Earth will . A Hugo-winner from near the end of Blish’s most creatively fertile decade, A Case of Conscience does not, in this humble reader’s opinion, stand up to the test of. One distraught reader responded to A Case of Conscience by sending author James Blish a copy of the Vatican’s teachings on extraterrestrials.
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Reality or devilish illusion? The fifth book up in our chronological trawl through past winners of the Hugo award is that rare thing, a science fiction novel about conventional earth-based Christianity.
As pointed out in this excellent brief surveyGod rarely rears His ugly head in SF novels. Astronauts hardly ever seem to pray when they’re about to enter hyper-drive, churches rarely form a part of space station infrastructure cojscience religion is generally seen as the preserve of whacked-out alien civilisations rather than high-tech future man.
A Case of Conscience
Why it should be so is an interesting question. Particularly interesting are the thorny theological problems that would be posed by the existence of alien civilisations. Presumably, the discovery of extra-terrestrials would leave the church with a bit of explaining to do. Why for instance, didn’t the big man in the sky let on about them when He was passing on the commandments and spouting all that other stuff about sacrificing firstborns? Did Jesus die for the sins of the men with tentacles instead of arms too?
How did Adam give them all names? Certainly, as Blish suggests here, any intelligent galactic neighbours that have no concept of God would be difficult for the church to take on board. The Lithians are just such a species. These gentle foot reptilians, who don’t even have concepts of war or crime, are distinctly pre-lapsarian and when a four-man commission is sent from earth to investigate their jungle planet’s suitability for future contact, they are reminded of the garden of Eden.
Or at least, one quarter of the commission is – Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest who naturally thinks in such terms. Ruis-Sanchez is also a biologist who – unlike his more thinly drawn companions – spends his time acquainting himself with the marvellous local flora as well as Lithian language and customs.
He even makes friends with a local reptilian giant with the typically unsayable sci-fi name Chtexa. Ruiz-Sanchez’s enjoyment of the planet is marred, however, when he realises that the gestation process of the Lithians who grow to adulthood outside the womb, morphing from fish-like creatures, to land-hoppers to fully formed adults proves the theory of evolution. Naturally, he therefore concludes that the planet is the creation of Satandesigned to baffle humanity. In doing so he enters into what he believes to be a Manichaean heresy of believing that the Adversary has creative powers.
Distraught, he concludes that as the work of Old Nick, Lithia should be cut off from Earth forever. If all of that sounds slightly laborious, that’s probably because it is. It’s slow complicated stuff, and reading ease isn’t helped by Blish’s insistence on showing off his mastery scientific and theological jargon, not to mention his own ability to think up futuristic variants.
There’s a lot of “salicylate-barbiturate paste”, “protoplasmic poison thiolutin”, “unoccluded” moons, “sigmoid” tracks, and “Diets of Basra. What’s more, as literary-minded journalists like myself are so frequently and patronisingly surprised to discover, this is an SF writer who can really write.
Yes, there’s jargon and caae, plenty of the “our customs are not like yours earth people”-style dialogue verges on the ridiculous, but otherwise, the prose is vivid, clear and remains just the right side of poetic. Sanchez’s spiritual tussles and troubling “night thoughts” are moving and there’s real fun to be had in engaging with Blish’s imaginative descriptions of strange Lithian technology and weird stinging plants. The plot then thickens and the way is paved for the book’s bizarre second half when Chtexa hands Ruis-Sanchez his son, Egtverchi, packed in a flask in embryo form and the commission head back to earth where the alien child wreaks havoc.
Now, Blish makes a few smart suggestions about feral gangs of future kids causing bother while the ruling classes spend cass time attending debauched drug-fuelled parties. It remains reasonably diverting, but the deflection away from Sanchez is irritating.
His theology seems a bit mangled, but the interesting suspicion arises that Blish may have deliberately built in such misunderstandings to demonstrate the Jesuit’s intellectual confusion. Certainly this seems to be the intention by the time the poor priest has travelled to Rome and been convinced by the Pope that the planet of Lithia is in fact an illusory Satanic deception.
No matter that Ruis-Sanchez has been there, consciencf with plenty of others, and brought back samples. Not to mention the naughty Egtverchi. Although Blish thus raises an eyebrow at the absurdity of Christian thinking, Ruiz-Sanchez remains a sympathetic character: Or at least, he seems deluded. Blish is also subtle enough to leave open the slim possibility that his priest may be right and in spite of its odd satirical deviations, there’s real momentum to the conclusion.
That this conclusion is actually wholly enigmatic, even if thermonuclear, only adds to the intrigue of a fascinating book.
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
The barking mad Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, which will form an interesting return to SF once the excitement over the Best of the Booker has died down Topics Fiction Books blog. Awards and prizes Hugo awards blogposts. Order by newest oldest recommendations.
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