A Case of Conscience by James Blish. First Edition: Ballantine Books, 1958.
Cover by Richard Powers (click to enlarge)
A Case of Conscience
by James Blish
Ballantine Books (188 pages, $0.35 in paperback, April 1958)
James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Conscience, a Hugo Award winner in 1959, is one of the most famous SF novels that deals with religion. (The other major 1950s novel concerning religion is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I’ve also reread recently).
There aren’t many SF novels dealing with the religion, and it’s easy to understand why; science fiction and religion would seem to be at cross purposes. Religion typically entails belief in supernatural beings, claims about the nature of reality (e.g. the origin of the universe), and deference to ancient authority, while science fiction is about the possibilities of our understanding the universe on the basis of the evidence it presents us, and, like science itself, disregards ancient authority. How to reconcile these aims? Any SF story that presupposed the truth of this or that religion would, in practice, be placed in the religious fiction corner of the bookstore (or in one of the numerous specialty bookstores devoted to one religion or another). While books or stories that imagine that angels, or fairies, or gods are real in the supernatural sense would, within our genres, be classified as fantasy.
Ballantine 3rd printing, July 1972, cover by Jacques Wyrs;
Del Rey Impact’s September 2000 edition, no cover credit
So how would a science fiction novel about religion handle this conflict? Well, perhaps the author defers and simply writes a book about a character who is devoutly religious. Or about a church that plays a role in the destruction and recovery of the world (as in Miller’s novel). Blish’s Conscience treads a fine, shifty line, between portraying such a character, and threatening to presume that his particular religion is actually true. In the end, Blish has it both ways.
The novel was published in 1958 but five years earlier the first section – headed Book One in the novel, and consisting of the first nine chapters, up to page 102 of the 242 page 2000 Del Rey Impact trade paperback edition I’m reading – appeared in If Magazine for September 1953. That novella has been reprinted in anthologies a handful of times, notably in the Silverberg/Greenberg Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels in 1980, and in Andrew M. Greeley and Michael Cassutt’s 1991 anthology of “SF with Catholic themes,” Sacred Visions. (Both editions of the book I have, in the photo above, indicate the first part of the novel appeared in “abridged form” in If Magazine. I haven’t investigated to see exactly where the novel expanded the novella, except to verify a couple points, like the James Joyce matter, did appear in the novella.)
Blish, by the time the novel appeared in 1958, was an established author as well as critic. He had published four or five previous novels, including two in the Cities in Flight cycle, and had published acclaimed short works such as “Surface Tension” (1952), “Common Time” (1953), “Beep” (1954), and “A Work of Art” (1956). Blish had also, beginning 1952, been publishing critical reviews of then-current novels and stories, under the pseudonym William Atheling, Jr., essays later gathered into two books, The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand – both of which I summarized in this blog post, from April 2018.
Blish would go on to write two more Cities in Flight novels and numerous other novels and short works, but ironically became best known for writing a dozen collections of adapted Star Trek scripts for Bantam from 1967 to 1977. (Doubly ironically, Blish has been said never to have watched the show; he did the books for money, and farmed out the writing of most of them, past volume five, to his wife and mother-in-law! As I researched and documented in this blog post, from April 2019.)
A Case of Conscience, in contrast, is Blish at his most intellectual and erudite. The novel cleaves neatly into two parts, the novella of the first third, and then all the rest.
A reconnaissance team from Earth is on the planet Lithia to evaluate it as a port of call. One of the team is Father Ramon, a Jesuit father, and he discovers that while the local aliens (12-foot-tall lizards) have no apparent religion, their society has an intuitive moral code that exactly matches Christianity’s, and that of no other religion. Disbelieving that such a moral code could have evolved on its own, without divine guidance, he concludes the planet must be a set-up, a trap created by the Satan to cast Earthly faith in doubt, and recommends the planet be sealed off from Earthly use forever.
Ramon’s Lithian friend gives him an unhatched egg — his son.
The team returns to Earth. The egg hatches and grows, matures; named Egtverchi, the Lithian becomes a popular sensation, hosting a TV talk show, and rebelling against his home planet. Ramon loses the debate about shutting off Lithia, and is threatened with excommunication. Egtverchi’s behavior on Earth triggers riots. He escapes and returns to Lithia, as Earthly mining operations begin there using a dangerous new generator. Ramon sets about exorcising the planet, watching it through a huge, real-time telescope – just as the generator fails and the entire planet explodes.
I’m fascinated that such themes would be taken up by a science fiction writer; how would a person of faith deal with discoveries on alien worlds? (We already know how such people deal with scientific evidence, here on Earth, that contradicts traditional beliefs.) But I see the moral controversy here entirely contrived, too convenient, even presumptuous. The main character interprets everything he sees through the filters of his worldview, which strikes me as blinkered. It’s pareidolia, or the Virgin Mary on a tortilla, writ large. The book is fascinating as an intellectual exercise, but I find its issues more imaginary than compelling.
In my Facebook post about my previous review, I made the point that my comments in these reviews are completely subjective and not the result of research into what other readers, or academic experts, might think. For this novel, with much more intellectual content to unpack, and with my own reaction as I read bemusedly wondering what exactly Blish was up to, I took more time, and I did check out commentaries about the book. They helped explain some of its odd components, at least.
If, September 1953, cover art by Ken Fagg
Summary [[ with comments ]]
Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, from Peru, is one of four ‘commissioners’ from Earth on the planet Lithia, to evaluate the planet as suitable for a port of call. The planet is inhabited by 12-foot-tall reptilian aliens with a mixed technology and with no religion, no crime, no games. Ruiz-Sanchez (hereafter RS) is a Jesuit, and he’s reading a forbidden book that he has access to, that involves some profound moral issue. (This turns out to be Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce.) [[ The narrative is author omniscient, occasionally switching among viewpoint characters, or providing objective background, but usually focusing on RS. ]]
One of the others is physicist Paul Cleaver, RS’s bigoted foil, calling the locals “snakes” and dismissing women from the sciences for being too emotional.
It is April 2049 and RS is aware that next year, as every 50 years, is a great pardon, for which he plans to be back in Rome. But he faces qualms of conscience right here on Lithia.
The other two humans, Agronski and Michelis, are north on another continent, and RS heads into the city to use the Lithian “Message Tree,” a vast object with roots extending down into the crystalline hillside, that somehow connects the entire planet. RS doesn’t know what to do. He is approached by one of the Lithians, Chtexa, who offers to help send a message to those other two: that they need to return here for the ship that will take them back to Earth. RS has managed to learn some of the local language. Chtexa invites RS to his house — a first! — and RS accepts.
Meanwhile those other two have already returned to the hut and find Cleaver asleep and RS missing. Cleaver wakes, and they debate voting whether or not to open up the planet. And then – Cleaver only hears this, half asleep – RS returns, in shock.
Slight flashback to what happened when RS visited Chtexa’s house. They discuss meteors, a possible source of iron for a mineral poor planet. RS wonders how since Lithia never had a glacial epoch there could have been no garden, and so no original sin? He asks Chtexa about various things: death, clocks, and where are the children? Chtexa explains that the children are born in the sea, and eventually emerge to the forest, and then join adult society. And RS realizes: those barking creatures in the bay, the lungfish — those are the children!
RS, having returned from his revelatory visit with Chtexa, needs sleep. But he has much to tell the others before they make their ship. He reads more from his book. He ponders. In the morning he wants to begin their debate without Cleaver — but Cleaver manages to be awake to join them.
- [[ It’s in this chapter that RS reflects on the book he was reading back in chapter 1. Page 55: “Well. This was all very well. The novel even seemed to be shaping up into sense, for the first time; evidently the author had known exactly what he was doing, every step of the way.” And on page 56: “The answer, then, had been obvious all the time. It was: Yes, and No.”
- As if Blish is reassuring the current reader that Blish himself knows what he’s doing. And that a dilemma can be resolved by accepting both choices, not one or the other. It’s tempting to see this as a foreshadowing of the end of the novel — except that the second half of the book hadn’t been written when Blish published the novella. Unless Blish was playing a very long game. ]]
The four Earthmen conduct a recorded session in which each man lays out his case, whether or not to open the planet for exploitation. Cleaver goes first, revealing that the planet is rich in certain ores, like rutile, which provides material for making fusion bombs -! For what purpose? Earth and its commonwealth of planets are at peace. Cleaver explains that they’re bound to encounter other planets, p70, that may be hostile, and the bombs would be needed. [[ The 1950s anxiety about nuclear war is evident here. ]]
Agronski, the geologist, goes next; he agrees with Cleaver. Michelis goes next, undermining Cleaver’s plan as infeasible. How would the mining work? Enslave the natives to mine the ores? Invent money to pay them with? And then RS’s turn: his verdict is not only to not open up the planet, but to seal it off — forever.
RS explains, at length: the planet is a “set-up,” a kind of paradise that has an intuitive moral code – without ordinary laws, etc. – that perfectly matches Christianity, and not any other religion, p86. By the Ultimate Enemy. The problem for RS is that all of this would imply that the Adversary is creative – and this is a heresy the church will not admit. His points:
- Lithia had no Ice Ages, and so life here was permitted to live in paradise
- There are virtually no carnivores except in the sea
- The Lithians have a high ethical code but without any laws to enforce it; there are no criminals
- And their ethical code is exactly what Christians strive for, not like any other codes.
- The hard-nosed Cleaver calls this argument parochial; RS responds, “Do you mean that what we think true on Earth is automatically made suspect just by the fact of its removal to deep space? I beg to remind you, Paul, that quantum mechanics seem to hold good on Lithia, and that you see nothing parochial about behaving as if it does. If I believe in Peru that God created and still rules the universe, I see nothing parochial in my continuing to believe it on Lithia.”
- [[ I think RS’s argument is misguided; quantum mechanics is true everywhere on Earth, but religious beliefs vary widely. Let’s bring a Buddhist next time and have him insists his religion should be true on Lithia too. But Blish has thought of this, considering say, a Muslim; the difference is that on Lithia is found the ideals of Christianity, not Islam. OK, but this is purely by the contrivance of the author. It might have been interesting if Father Ruiz-Sanchez had come to Lithia and found evidence that validated Islam. ]]
- The Lithians have no belief in gods or myths, nothing supernatural. Yet they have a perfect system of justice. How could this be unless it’s being “propped up”?
- Also, they have complete physical recapitulation outside the body. We’ve seen some of this: The LIthians lay eggs, that hatch into fish-like things that live in the sea, before emerging to become frog-like things, and then kangaroo-like things called ‘hoppers,’ before maturing into their final form.
- And RS explains why the church is still hostile to evolution, p94; he refers to the “Diet of Basra” that met in 1995; if Adam was given a navel, as everyone assumes, then why couldn’t the entire geological record and evidence for evolution have been created intact by God? [[ Or perhaps the entire universe was created 5 minutes ago, complete with all our memories; I don’t find this rationale for dismissing evolution the least bit plausible. ]]
- And then RS lays out the premises, p96 (quoted below), that are implied if this world is real: that reason is sufficient, that the self-evident is real, and so on.
- But this means the Adversary must be creative! A heresy. Manicheanism.
The vote is tied. They pack up and leave. Chtexa brings RS a gift — a box containing an egg: Chtexa’s son. (Here ends the original novella.)
Later, on Earth, the alien Egtverchi (hereafter Egt) grows in his egg, then through other forms, watched over in a lab by Liu Meid and RS. RS hates New York, which is mostly underground. We get background about the Shelter race, p114, that led to much of the world going underground to escape potential atom bombs. RS and his team need to write a formal report for the UN, but RS is concerned about being charged with heresy.
Egt wallows in the mud, perceives other creatures, and awakes. He’s now 9 ft tall. He doesn’t talk, but reads a lot, and quotes Bertrand Russell. His keepers wonder, is he a UN citizen? Should they let him go free?
In a long scene Egt comes out to society, at the NY mansion of Count Lucien (mentioned back in chapter 2 as an Earth expert on “affine theory”), of which one story is above ground and the rest below. Egt has gotten his citizenship, and even has an advice show on TV for his fans. Liu, Agronzki, and Michelis are there, but not Egt, who’s now living on his own. Three serpentine trains carry guests around through rooms of illusions and special effects. [[ This scene evokes Bradbury’s “Usher II.” ]] Finally Egt Arrives, now over 10 feet high, but the arrival is spoiled and Aristide (the dramatist, or party planner) is furious. No one important sees the entrance, trapped in one of the other rooms. And so on.
An aside chapter from the POV of Agronski, who realizes he doesn’t know who he is; he despairs, one night when Egt’s program isn’t on. He’s now a resident at Fordham’s seismological labs. But life seems pointless. Working for Jesuits, he understands that some new issue of policy is to be decided this Holy Year. He went to the party, but only got drunk.
Later, RS is on a train for Rome, reading a letter from Michelis about what happened at the party: how Egt got impatient, smashed through walls and exposed private chambers; the countess is ruined. Mike and Liu have gotten married. The worry is whether Egt is dangerous. RS arrives in Rome and looks for lodgings, while reading about Egt’s apology—which criticizes his critics for hypocrisy. Abruptly, RS changes his mind and rushes to a church to pray.
Michelis and Liu watch Egt on 3-V. They live in a high-rise — a slum. They eat dinner. Egt has encouraged his fans to write nasty letters to his sponsors (for Bifalco knish mix). For some kind of revenge? The UN citizenship committee chairman arrives, gravely concerned about the letters coming in. Some of these people are madmen. The chairman needs their help finding a reason to get him off the air. What do they do? Call Ramon? But Michelis knows that the UN has decided in favor of Cleaver, and against Ramon, who is likely to be excommunicated by his church. Cleaver is already back on Lithia.
[[ The developing argument of these scenes, I gather, is that Egt is evil, bringing the evil of Lithia to Earth, sowing discord in human society. Furthermore, RS fears the Lithians (via their demonstration of evolution in action) will bring atheism to earth. Yet, evolution has already been demonstrated to explain the history of life on Earth, and most people don’t care or reject the evidence; you hardly need to go to Lithia for that. Still, this is of course RS’s interpretation of the cause of this discord; it might just as well be the effect of a novel celebrity, from anywhere. ]]
RS arrives at St. Peter’s for a special audience with Pope Hadrian VIII, who is certain Ruiz has made a grave theological error – he hasn’t considered that Lithia might simply be an illusion. There will be no trial, but Ruiz is given a special task. If Lithia is a sending (from Satan), cannot sendings be banished? By an exorcism? A whole planet?? Sure, because it’s an illusion. He is in any case excommunicated. Ruiz departs for NY, agonizing.
Authorities are concerned about Egt’s effects on 21st century society. They contact his father, Chtexa, by appealing to Lucien, a scientific tinkerer, who has a device that can connect to the Message Tree on Lithia. Once connected, Chtexa suggests they send Egt back to his homeworld, but Egt has no interest in going there, he’d rather stay on Earth where, he says, “I make up my own laws as I go along.” In the background they hear the sound of Cleaver, cutting down the Message Tree. RS worries that if he does what he must and the illusion goes away, what will happen to Cleaver and his men? In Egt’s latest broadcast, he renounces his citizenship and tells others to do the same: to stay on the surface.
Chaos rages for days. Egt disappears. Crowds turn to mobs, and storm the building where RS is, in Liu and Michelis’ apartment. The mob releases bees from a neighboring apartment that attack and kill several residents. Agronski survives; Michelis and Liu return three days later.
Finally it’s discovered that Egt is on the way back to Lithia, having stowed away on a supply ship carrying equipment for Cleaver. RS and the others are summoned to the Moon. There, the Count has completed a giant 600-ft telescope, with a device that allows visual contact with Lithia in real time; they need to contact Cleaver before he performs an experiment with a Nernst generator that the Count thinks will go disastrously wrong. Meanwhile Ruiz conducts his exorcism: he shouts it out to the image on the telescope screen.
And on the screen the planet turns white and explodes. There was an error in Equation Sixteen, the Count says. No, thinks RS, an instance of fulfilled desire, his desire to use Lithia to defend the faith, and he’s done so. They realize that in 50 years they’ll see a nova.
The book contains much rather pointless erudition. It opens with a pronunciation key, and ends with an 8-age appendix giving details about the planet. (It’s mentioned that Lithia’s sun is Alpha Arietis, and that it’s 50 light years from Earth. That star actually has a proper name, Hamal, that Blish doesn’t mention. The name derives from the Arabic for “head of the ram.” And currently it’s taken to be 65 light years from Earth.) Some vocabulary I jotted down: phleom, bourse, squill, popish, gosse, eft, mesentery, wonted. I’ve already mentioned the preoccupation with an abstruse moral issue in the James Joyce novel. Early in the book Ruiz-Sanchez discusses pharmacological treatments involving bacilli, spirochetes, a spectrosigmin pastille, polysaccharides, a glucoside, and antipyretics. (Blish had studied microbiology.) Was all this to signal the seriousness of the theme, in a genre still rife with space opera adventure? Or was he just showing off? Or was this just his mode? I haven’t read enough other Blish fiction (not in recent decades anyway) to know if this was typical, or special to this book.
In chapter 10 and elsewhere there are mentions of Garrard and the Haertel overdrive. These are references to Blish’s famous story “Common Time,” and perhaps a gesture at otherwise not explaining the easy interstellar travel between Earth and Lithia and back.
Theological issues aside, the end of the book is shamelessly contrived with the appearance of not one but two handy SF gizmos, not foreshadowed. They had to appear for the apparent simultaneous effect of RS’s exorcism to be visible.
As mentioned, I consulted several commentaries about the book to see if I could understand how serious was Blish putting forth a premise about the truth of a religion. In particular, that Satan created an illusory world for the purposes of undermining Catholic morality on Earth. Is that what the novel is about? Or is it simply about a Jesuit who believes this to be true?
The book’s conclusion leaves it open to reader preference. Either RS performed his exorcism and destroyed Lithia, or it was coincidental that he performed an exorcism, which a non-believer might consider as pointless a ritual as a rain dance, and the generator on Lithia failed and destroyed the planet.
The evidence is that Blish was an agnostic. In the Library of America set of 1950s SF novels, editor Gary K. Wolfe quotes Blish’s introduction to the UK edition: “The author, I should like to add, is an agnostic with no position at all in these matters. It was my intention to write about a man, not a body of doctrine.”
Yet it seems Blish leaves the reading open to either interpretation. Might it be because, writing in an era when intellectuals and perhaps many of his readers followed traditional religious faiths more than many do today, Blish didn’t want to risk offending those readers by seeming to mock their faith? Or that, by undermining Ruiz-Sanchez’s belief in the power of his exorcism, he would be reduced to a pitiful character? I wonder.
Pages 8-9, noted without comment:
“Well, don’t forget that Lithia is my first extra-solar planet,” Ruiz-Sanchez said. “I think I’d find any new, habitable world fascinating. The infinite mutability of life-forms, and the cunning inherent in each of them… It’s all amazing, and quite delightful.”
“Why shouldn’t that be sufficient?” Cleaver said. “Why do you have to have the God bit too? It doesn’t make sense.”
“On the contrary, it’s what gives everything else meaning,” Ruiz-Sanchez said. “Belief and science aren’t mutually exclusive — quite the contrary. But if you place scientific standards first, and exclude belief, admit nothing that’s not proven, then what you have is a series of empty gestures. For me, biology is an act of religion, because I know that all creatures are God’s — each new planet, with all its manifestations, is an affirmation of God’s power.”
Page 96: These are the premises RS claims would have to be true were Lithia not a product of the Devil, i.e., he thinks these are heresies:
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 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 these propositions before, and we know What proposes them.
(What a strange argument. While I think one or two of these is factually wrong, especially #2, I imagine many people have no trouble accepting many of the others.)
Mark R. Kelly’s last review for us was Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein. Mark wrote short fiction reviews for Locus Magazine from 1987 to 2001, and is the founder of the Locus Online website, for which he won a Hugo Award in 2002. He established the Science Fiction Awards Database at sfadb.com. He is a retired aerospace software engineer who’s lived almost his entire life in Southern California. Find more of his thoughts at Views from Crestmont Drive.