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A Case of Conscience
by James Blish

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 18, 2010

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My take on this book is likely to be a bit different than you might be expecting, certainly different than other reviews I have read, and probably different than if the review was written when I first read it nearly forty years ago. I will attempt to delve a bit deeper into what I think Blish was attempting to say, especially considering I disagree with several of his points, at least as far as I have been able to interpret them.

First off, it must be mentioned that A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1959, only the fifth book to be so honored. Actually, it could be said to have won two Hugos, since the original novella of the same title, essentially the first half of the completed novel (printed in IF magazine in 1953), won a Retro-Hugo in 2004. While I do consider the book to be well worth reading (and re-reading), it does suffer from the fact that the two halves were written several years apart, and they also have a distinctly different feel about them. The first half lacks necessary character development, the conclusion doesn't deal sufficiently with the character I feel is the most important to the story. Its strengths, however, outweigh these shortcomings. It was one of the very first genre works to incorporate religious thought in its narrative, and it didn't shirk from asking some big questions. The answers it comes up with are debatable to be sure, but just to ask them in the first place was beyond what most writers were doing at the time, and I think it still holds up after all these years.

The story begins in the year 2049 on the planet Lithia, fifty light years distant from Earth. It is here that humanity has met its first alien race, and four scientists have been assigned the task of determining Earth's eventual decision concerning the planet. Can we develop a meaningful and mutally beneficial association with the lizard-like beings, or would it be best to steer clear of their planet because of perceived dangers or conflicts they might present for us? The four humans are the physicist Cleaver, chemist Michelis, geologist Agronski and biologist Ruiz-Sanchez, who also happens to be a Jesuit priest. The Society of Jesus branch of the Catholic clergy has always been the most liberal order, dealing with a lot of scientific inquiries many others might consider outside the realm of religious thought. They have even developed proposals on the possibility of alien life and the way humanity should approach such creatures if they are ever encountered. Ruiz-Sanchez is the most open to developing a rapport with the Lithians, and has become quite proficient in their language. The other three, most especially Cleaver, only view the planet and its inhabitants for any possible benefit to humanity, either in the form of natural resources or from the Lithians' unique technologies.

It is hard to recall, because it had been a long time since I had read this book, but I am sure my opinion of it is different now than previously. At that time (probably early 1970s), I was going through a period of questioning my religious "beliefs." That word is in quotes mainly because I have come to the conclusion that I never have had any concrete belief or faith in the things I was taught at home and in church. I am still a seeker, and probably will be as long as I draw breath. During my recent re-read I was wondering what religious beliefs Blish held, but subsequent research has been unable to determine in what church he may have been raised or what religious or philosophical works he studied. He may have been Catholic (possibly lapsed), or perhaps, like me, he simply had a broad view of spiritual matters regardless of where they originated. Based on other books of his that I have read, I find it hard to believe that Ruiz-Sanchez is essentially expressing the author's view, but I may be wrong.

The Jesuits have determined that if there is intelligent alien life then there must be three possible types; sentient beings without souls (no more than the lower Earth animals), sentient beings with fallen souls (equal to men and equally burdened with Original Sin), or sentient, soul-endowed beings who have not fallen, essentially angels who reside in a perfect, paradisal world. At first, Ruiz-Sanchez believes the Lithians may be of the third variety, for their society is free of war and strife, they live a logical and moral existence, and have no concept of individual ownership of property, but it worries him that they also have no concept of God or an afterlife. Something he later learns about their biology leads him to suspect they may be a fourth, previously unsuspected, alien type. I hesitate to mention what that is so as not to spoil it for anyone who has yet to read the book, but suffice it to say that the priest is also afraid that he has committed heresy by determining that the aliens and their world are actually the creations of Satan rather than God, a concept for which the Church will likely excommunicate him. He declares that the planet should be closed to further human contact, but Cleaver wants it to become a new nuclear arsenal due to its abundant lithium resources. Both Agronski and Michelis are uncertain, but suggest they continue discussion of the matter during their return to Earth and before they are asked to present their findings and declare their recommendations. Just before their departure, Chtexa, a Lithian he has befriended, presents the priest with a vial containing the embryo of his offspring, which he desires to mature on Earth and learn human culture. This is the last thing that Ruiz-Sanchez would have wished, but to refuse the request he would have to reveal his opinion of the alien species.

The second half of the book takes place on Earth, revolving around the gestation and maturation of Egtverchi, the Lithian sent back with the scientists. Ruiz-Sanchez doesn't play a large part in this section, but should have in my opinion. The priest's audience with the Pope is also dealt with too quickly, as it seems the Church decides it best to ignore his heresy. The "Shelter" culture on Earth is something that could have been a complete novel on its own. Don't forget this was written during the Cold War years, and it depicts a country so frightened of nuclear war that it devotes the majority of its resources in creating underground cities for its people in order to avoid the devastation which is predicted. Such a catastrophe never occurred, but the shelter economy would collapse if the people were forced to return to the surface. Egtverchi matures rapidly, absorbing human knowlege at an astounding rate, quite possibly knowing more about Earth than any human alive. He senses the frustrations of the masses, cramped in their small cubicle homes and bored with the monotony of their lives. He becomes a media sensation and is even given his own show, one that becomes a favorite of many and influential enough to tap into those societal frustrations.

I also hesitate to recount the events at the conclusion of the novel, but perhaps I must. Several comments made by Egtverchi in his broadcasts cause riots to break out, and the alien is sought by the authorities but goes into hiding and cannot be found. By this time, the space commission has decided to adopt Cleaver's suggestion of mining the lithium on the alien planet and stock-piling nuclear weapons there. Cleaver makes a return trip to Lithia with equipment and personnel to accomplish this task, unaware that Egtverchi is a stowaway on the ship. Ruiz-Sanchez has decided that since the Church is ignoring the issue it is up to him to exorcize Satan from Lithia, and he gets the opportunity from a Lunar base that has a communication device capable of receiving and transmitting signals faster than the speed of light. As much as he hates the thought of destroying a complete world, along with his friend Chtexa, he is sure in his heart that he is doing the right thing. When communication is established with Lithia, he recites the exorcism liturgy, and he witnesses the destruction of the planet. Some of the people with him at the time declare that the destruction is actually the result of a miscalculation on the part of Cleaver in setting up his equipment, but the priest has faith in what actually occurred. It is up to the reader to decide which truth they will believe.

As I said earlier, I am not sure which, if any, of the characters are expressing the author's own views. There is a section in the first part wherein the priest attempts to explain to his colleagues why he thinks Lithia is a Satanic creation:

"Look at the premises...One: Reason is always a sufficient guide. Two: The self-evident is always the real. Three: Good works are an end in themselves. Four: Faith is irrelevant to right action. Five: Right action can exist without love. Six: Peace need not pass all understanding. Seven: Ethics can exist without evil alternatives. Eight: Morals can exist without conscience. Nine: Goodness can exist without God. Ten…but do I really need to go on? We have heard all of these propositions before, and we know What proposes them."

Personally, with the exceptions of five and eight, I can subscribe to all of those propositions, but I understand why a man of God cannot. I think it really boils down to what you think man's purpose is (or if you think he has one at all), what you think of his origin and his destiny. While I have no problem with the concept of a Creator, it is a bit more difficult for me to conceive of a deity that has a personal interest in me or in Earth. Out of the entire cosmos, why would we be so special as to warrant such personal attention? Why would we be any more important than a possible alien race on a planet light years away? Why is it inconceivable that an alien race can come to peace with itself through logic and reason alone? My thoughts are closer to those of Olaf Stapledon, who felt that man's intellect was incapable of encompassing the complete nature of the cosmos and its creator. Certainly that creator is not the anthropomorphic Heavenly Father that so many others embrace.

And for a minute, please consider the title of this book. Surely I am not the only one to puzzle over the semantics of that last word. Just by placing the prefix "con" in front of another word, are we saying that to have a conscience is to be "against science"? That notion frightens me. As I mentioned in my profile article on Blish, this novel is part of what he called the After Such Knowledge trilogy. In another of those books a character states, "...the possession and use of secular knowledge—or even the desire for it—is in itself evil..." This is an idea I cannot accept. The religious community has long fought against what they term "secular humanism." I consider myself to be a "spiritual humanist." I'm not laying claim to coining that term, although I've not read it anywhere else, but it sums up my opinions fairly well. Even if we are the creations of a personal God, wouldn't we be negligent of our potential if we don't pursue as much knowledge of our world as possible? To try and understand God's creation is not the same as becoming God ourselves, which is the usual counter-argument.

But all of this is perhaps beside the point. I'm just expressing opinions, not beliefs, and my intent is not to belittle what others believe. What matters here is if the book is worth recommending, and that it is. Just because I disagree with some of the ideas expressed doesn't mean I don't appreciate the mental stimulation that a book of this nature engenders. I suspect the individual reader will take from this book different things, depending on their own world view and spiritual thoughts.


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James Blish

First half 1953 (IF Magazine
Full novel 1958


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