A Novel Ian Likes: A Case Of Conscience by James Blish

An exploration team on the planet Lithia has discovered a world full of valuable resources but which is also inhabited by a race of intelligent creatures who have a rich, vibrant culture but no concept of God or of Sin. It doesn’t bother three members of the team overly much but the fourth, a Jesuit priest, believes that this paradise is a trap set by Satan himself…

Religion often gets short shrift in SF: many authors choose to ignore it completely or make a brief mention of the “quaint” beliefs of their ancestors. Some treat the religious concerns of the future as being almost exactly the same as the religious concerns of the time the book was written as interpreted by the author. However, there is a thriving and fascinating subgenre of religious SF that includes classics like Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz and Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow. James Blish’s Hugo Award-winning novel A Case Of Conscience covers the idea of alien life in a way that isn’t often considered.

I first read this when I was 10. It was a birthday present from my grandmother. She often bought me “grown-up” novels for my birthday or for Christmas. The previous year she had gotten me a copy of High Justice, an anthology of linked short stories by Jerry Pournelle. Both books, incidentally, have spaceships on the cover which she, probably thinking I was becoming too old for Star Wars figures (having bought me a tonne of them herself in previous years), thought would be right up my alley (I don’t think she was aware that Blish was, possibly, most famous for writing Star Trek novelisations). Unfortunately, both of these books were an example of judging a book by its cover: the Pournelle had just one or two stories set in space – the rest concerned the efforts of the symbolically-named Aeneas McKenzie at setting up some sort of libertarian utopia in space because he was disgusted at the rise of the welfare state in his native US. But the Chris Moore cover was pretty cool. The Blish, which we’d better get back to, also had a spaceship on the cover – this time by Chris Foss. This spaceship didn’t feature much in the story either, except as a means of travelling between Earth and Lithia. It didn’t matter, though: I always appreciated that my Grandmother cared enough to look for books that she thought I might have enjoyed. And proper “grown-up” books at that. While in later years she would just give me cash, which was easier for her to do given the state of her health, I came to cherish the books – and other gifts – that she did get me.

Anyway, A Case Of Conscience is a story of two very distinct halves, prosaically setting out an idea and then exploring the ways in which it might unfold. The first part, a short story originally published in 1953, tells of the team on their last few days on Lithia and the dilemma they find themselves in. It ends with them returning to Earth with an infant Lithian. The second part tells of what happens when they get home and how the Lithian grows up, gets his own TV show, and incites the population to riot and rebel.

But it is also a novel with some problems, so let’s get them out of the way first. First up, it suffers from being unrealistic in its application of science: it posits a Faster-Than-Light drive by 2050. It also does the annoying thing of picking a couple of trends and ideas from the time in which it was written and assuming that they will still have some currency in the future without considering that they might become outdated within a decade of the novel being published. But I can live with those issues: I have read very few SF novels that have aged well in regard to their predictions. What is less easy to forgive, even in a novel from the 1950s, is that there are only a couple of female characters with distinct personalities in this book. What makes it worse, though, is that they unfortunately show us the two sides of the eternal sinner/saint dichotomy that women were expected to fit into in the days of not-so-yore. Finally, the second half feels tonally different to the first half: not just the content or the settings or the extra characters but in its writing. But this is a problem that many novels have when they have been expanded from an original novella: David Brin’s The Postman suffers from exactly the same fault and that’s an absolute belter of a novel.

Interestingly, though, it’s also a novel written by someone suggesting that a Peruvian Jesuit who reads Joyce for fun is a viable protagonist. And a novel that expresses its ideas partly through the lens of other literary forms is something that I’m especially fond of, so this book is ahead of the game before it even gets very far out of the gate (if that’s a valid metaphor). It’s also got an ending that is magnificent in its audacity and scope.

Something else that Blish has put some thought into is the idea of a society that has lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation for about a century being driven slightly mad. His future world that lives largely in shelters seeking some form of distraction from destruction by destroying themselves in other, probably much more fun, ways is shrewdly observed and familiar to any of us who might have grown up during the Cold War. Egtverchi, the Lithian who falls to Earth, is also portrayed in ways that we might find chillingly familiar: a demagogue with a huge following on the “video channels” who

                  “… takes a deep interest in moral problems, but (is) utterly contemptuous of all traditional moral frames of reference…”

                  and whose audience consists of

                  “… all those people who feel cut off, emotionally and intellectually, from our society and its dominant cultural traditions.”

You get a sliver of déjà vu reading about a jaded society that’s nearly run out of experiences to have discovering that they can, in fact, still feel outrage and rebellion, and finding fumbling, rage-filled ways of expressing that. It’s a vivid portrayal of a society driven insane by their need to consume and feel, being forced to confront their own uselessness and inability to move forward, wanting instead to reject their society and just watch, as someone else so eloquently put it, the world burn.

You can find out more about James Blish at http://jamesblish.com/

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