A Case of Conscience by Blish, James, 1958

A Case of Conscience by Blish, James - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I love SF so much, that I actually get depressed when I fail to see what all the hype is about a certain book, especially one that is generally regarded as a classic. I am always afraid that I am missing something important. That idea bothers me. I am just that kind of person. This week's book, James Blish's A Case of Conscience is generally regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, but I only half liked it. As is happens, I loved the first book, but hated the second. The second I found so confusing that I honestly do wonder if I misinterpreted some important passage or something. I can see what the story is; its not that the plot is confusing. But I fail utterly to see how any one can say that the story he told best accomplishes the thematic resolution in the way that he wanted, and since that is what these reviews are about, I have to mark him down a bit. This book is so important to SF scholars that someday Iím sure I will read it again. For now though, three out of five stars, with a reduction for the opacity of Book II.

As mentioned above this book is divided into two sections. Book I is about a mission to the planet Lithia. A four-man survey team has been sent to decide whether or not it will be harmful to either the Lithians or Earth to begin trade. One of the team members is a Jesuit priest named Ruiz-Sanchez. He observes a culture that is completely without the concept of sin, and where the beings in it live in peace and harmony with one another and their world around them. On the surface the culture of the Lithians is beautiful and desirable, and that is what causes Ruiz Sanchez the greatest concern. He is also concerned with the Lithian's method of reproduction which is almost entirely extra-utero, and is demonstrably visible evidence for the theory of recapitulation, which holds that the fetus undergoes on a micro level the evolutionary changes that the species has undergone in the world. For example a human fetus starts out like an amoeba, and then divides into a hydra, then a fish, amphibian, reptile, then a mammal animal with a tail, then becomes gradually a recognizable human baby. To Ruiz-Sanchez, allowing Earth access to Lithia is a sin because their "gestation" is outside the mother's uterus, and plainly and clearly demonstrates evolutionary recapitulation. The theory of recapitulation in humans is that we go through the exact same changes in our mother's uterus, but until now it has never been universally recognized because its main proponent was a crack-pot, and because people could not directly watch it happen. Ruiz-Sanchez worries that now people can watch it happen, and once they see that they will feel compelled to embrace the Lithians because we go through similar changes when maturing into humans. Because their lifestyle is so attractive he is afraid people will be drawn to Lithians even more, and eventually will accept a scientific explanation for the universe, and disavow God.

For this reason, Ruiz-Sanchez thinks that Satan has set up Lithia to look like a society that never had a fall from Grace of God, and therefore is sinless, but really is the tool of the devil to defeat God. That is to say, the combination of directly observable recapitulation and a race of beings that humans would certainly feel compelled to emulate, and which has no concept of God, will push people to rationalize their own use for God and ask something like, "well, if this creature needs no God, why do I?" Ruiz-Sanchez is afraid of a slippery slope, and fears where that kind of thinking will lead even those who have faith. For Ruiz-Sanchez Satan disproving God is not the risk. Having humanity see him as useless is, and since the Lithians don't need him, humanity may figure that it doesn't need him either. I don't think that this says very much about his faith, and he may be more of a pragmatist than I thought at first glance.

Where the first book is tied up very snuggly with religion and theology the second book is all about politics. In it the Church eventually abandons its quest to segregate Lithia and instructs Ruiz-Sanchez to exorcise the entire planet. But something goes wrong before he can get back and do that. Upon his first departure from Lithia Ruiz-Sanchez was gifted with a beautiful urn that held the fertilized egg of a Lithian. The creature hatched into a being named Egtverchi who grew up and became corrupted by Earth society. Egtverchi matured and by his presence as well as his actions, created chaos on Earth, though Blish was careful to point out that Earth was a mess long before Egtverchi got there. Eventually he fled back to Lithia. Ruiz-Sanchez followed him to the planet and when he got there, began the exorcism rite, and upon its completion Lithia exploded.

Blish demonstrated a facility in asking more questions than he answered. Considering that this is a book whose primary theme is faith, that makes perfect sense. I consider the entire religious experience to be an exercise in making one question into two, then finding answers to neither. One question that Blish left unanswered was why Lithia exploded. One is left with the impression that the exorcism did it, but there may have been a secret plan, suggested by another of the original four examiners, to build a nuclear bomb testing range on Lithia. The planet was ripe with tritium and lithium, two elements that exponentially expand the yield of explosive force in atom bombs. If Earth's government had started that project, then they may have been responsible for the destruction of Lithia.

Another question that Blish left unanswered was what Egtverchi's role really was. Did he became corrupted by Earth society, or was he there to point out Earth's flaws? Earth made a celebrity out of him and threw extravagant and lavish parties for him constantly. Egtverchi eventually became a news commentator and went far to point out the evils of human society. But Egtverchi was essentially a gift to humanity, and his main purpose was to expose the hypocrisy of Earth's culture. Though in another light, Egtverchi was insane and may have been bent on destruction for its own sake. If that was his purpose, Blish was not interested in saying why. Was it because he grew up without his culture? He had inbred knowledge of how to be a Lithian, but was on his own for his entire life. Was it from the gravitic changes of returning from Lithia to Earth while still an embryo? Ruiz-Sanchez worried about that during the trip home. Was it because he was evil and this was part of the plan all along? There is no evidence of that at all save for Ruiz-Sanchez's opinion.

I was not too far into this book when I realized that it would not provide me with any answers to these questions. Blish, of course, did let down in the end on this. But even though he left more questions unanswered than answered, he did take the very first shot in American SF at writing a book about religion. That on its own probably earned him the 1959 Hugo for this thing. But he also wrote a graceful and lovely story in Book I. Book II, in my opinion, leaves a lot to be desired, though it does bring the tale to conclusion well enough. The story is told in a very gentle and peaceful tone, despite the fact that Blish is dealing with some heavy themes and a vicious, conniving character or two. I really hope that I get more out of this one the next time around. I smell something bigger in there than I see. I wonder what it is.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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