A Case of Conscience
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Cover of the first edition
|Series||After Such Knowledge trilogy|
|Published||1958 (Ballantine Books)|
|Media type||Print (paperback)|
|ISBN||0-345-43835-3 (later paperback printing)|
|LC Class||PS3503.L64 C37 2000|
|Followed by||Doctor Mirabilis|
A Case of Conscience is a science fiction novel by James Blish, first published in 1958. It is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race that has no religion yet has a perfect, innate sense of morality, a situation which conflicts with Catholic teaching. The story was originally published as a novella in 1953, and later extended to novel-length, of which the first part is the original novella. The novel is the first part of Blish's thematic "After Such Knowledge" trilogy, followed by Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter, and The Day After Judgment
The story is unusual in several respects. Few science fiction stories of the time attempted religious themes, and still fewer did this with Catholicism. (Compare Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s Hugo Award-winning post-apocalyptic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.)
Many reacted negatively to the story, but surprisingly few Catholics were among them. One even sent James Blish a copy of the actual Church guidelines for dealing with extraterrestrials. These are not detailed, but merely suggest overall strategy based on whether the beings have souls or not, and if they have them, whether they are fallen like humans, or exist in a state of grace.
The story is set in 2049. Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez of Peru, Clerk Regular of the Society of Jesus, is a member of a four-man team of scientists sent to the planet Lithia to determine if it can be opened to human contact. Ruiz-Sanchez is a biologist and biochemist, and he serves as the team doctor. However, as a Jesuit, he has religious concerns as well. The planet is inhabited by a race of intelligent bipedal reptile-like creatures, the Lithians. Ruiz-Sanchez has learned to speak their language, the better to get to know them.
While on a walking survey of the land, Cleaver, a physicist, has been poisoned by a plant, despite a protective suit, and he suffers badly. Ruiz-Sanchez treats him and leaves to send a message to the others-Michelis, a chemist, and Agronski, a geologist. He is helped by Chtexa, a Lithian whom he has befriended, who then invites him to his house. This is an opportunity which Ruiz-Sanchez cannot decline; no member of the team has been invited into Lithian living places before. The Lithians seem to have an ideal society, a utopia without crime, conflict, ignorance or want. Ruiz-Sanchez is more than a little in awe of them.
When the team is reassembled, they compare notes on the Lithians. Soon they will have to officially pronounce their verdict. Michelis is open-minded and sympathetic to the Lithians. He also has learned their language and some of their customs. Agronski is more insular in his outlook, but sees no reason to consider the planet dangerous. When Cleaver revives, he reveals that he wants the place exploited, regardless of the Lithians' wishes. He has found enough pegmatite (a source of lithium which is rare on Earth) that a factory could be set up to supply Earth with lithium deuteride for nuclear weapons. Michelis is for open trade. Agronski is indifferent.
Then Ruiz-Sanchez drops his bombshell: he wants maximum quarantine. The things Chtexa revealed to him, added to what he already knew, convinces him that Lithia is nothing less than the work of Satan, a place deliberately constructed to show peace, logic, and understanding in the complete absence of God. Point for point, Ruiz-Sanchez lists the facts about Lithia that directly attack Catholic teaching. Michelis is mystified but does point out that all the Lithian science he has learned, while perfectly logical, rests on highly questionable assumptions. It is as if it just came from nowhere.
The team can come to no agreement. Ruiz-Sanchez concludes that Cleaver will probably get his way, and Lithian society will be exterminated. Despite his conclusions about the planet, he has a deep affection for the Lithians.
As the humans board their ship to leave, Chtexa gives Ruiz-Sanchez a gift—a sealed jar containing an egg. It is a son of Chtexa, to be raised on Earth and learn the ways of humans. At this point, the Jesuit solves a riddle which he has been pondering for some time, from book III of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (p. 572–3), which proposes a complex case of marital morals, ending with the question "Has he hegemony and shall she submit?" To the Church, neither Yes nor No is a morally satisfactory answer. Ruiz-Sanchez sees that it is two questions, despite the omission of a comma between the two, so that the answer can be "Yes, and No".
The egg hatches and grows into the individual Egtverchi. Like all Lithians, he inherits knowledge from his father through his DNA. Earth society is based on the nuclear shelters of the 20th century, with most people living underground. Egtverchi is the proverbial firecracker in an anthill; he upends society and precipitates violence.
Ruiz-Sanchez has to go to Rome to face judgment. His conviction about Lithia is viewed as heresy, since he believes Satan has the power to create a planet. This is close to Manichaeism. He has an audience with the Pope himself to explain his beliefs. Pope Hadrian VIII, a logical and technologically aware Norwegian, points out two things Ruiz-Sanchez missed. First, Lithia could have been a deception, not a creation. And second, Ruiz-Sanchez could have done something about it, namely, perform an exorcism on the whole planet. The priest bows his head in shame that he has overlooked an obvious solution to his own case of conscience while he was absorbed in "a book [Finnegans Wake] which to all intents and purposes might have been dictated by the Adversary himself ... 628 pages of compulsive demoniac chatter." The Pope dismisses Ruiz-Sanchez to purge his own soul, and to return to the Church if and when he can.
A violent mass riot breaks out, fomented by Egtverchi and made possible by the psychosis present in many of the citizens as a result of living in the 'shelter state' (an earlier reference to the "Corridor Riots of 1993" indicates that this is not the first time violence has burst out among the buried cities.) During the riot, Agronski dies as a result of being stung by one or more genetically modified honeybees. Ruiz-Sanchez administers extreme unction, despite his almost-faithless state. Egtverchi secretly boards a spaceship to Lithia.
Michelis and Ruiz-Sanchez are taken to the Moon, where a new telescope has been set up, based on "a fundamental twist on the Haertel equations which makes it possible to see around normal space-time, as well as travel around it" so that the instrument presents a view of Lithia in real-time, bypassing the delay caused by the speed of light. Cleaver is on Lithia, setting up his reactors, but the physicist who invented the telescope technology believes he has found a fault in Cleaver's reasoning. There is a chance that the work will set off a chain reaction in the planet's rocks and destroy it.
As they watch on the screen, Ruiz-Sanchez pronounces an exorcism. The planet explodes, eliminating Cleaver and Egtverchi, but also Chtexa and all the things Ruiz-Sanchez admired. It is left ambiguous whether the extinction of the Lithians is a result of Ruiz-Sanchez's prayer or Cleaver's error.
While faulting the novel for "extreme unevenness," Galaxy reviewer Floyd C. Gale concluded that A Case of Conscience was "a provocative, serious, commendable work" and characterized it as "trailblaz[ing]". Anthony Boucher found Blish's protagonist "a credible and moving figure" and praised the opening segment; however he faulted the later material for "los[ing] focus and impact" and "wander[ing]" to an ending that seems "merely chaotic." In his "Books" column for F&SF, Damon Knight selected Blish's novel as one of the ten best science fiction books of the 1950s. He reviewed the novel as "resonat[ing] with a note of its own. . . . it is complete and perfect."
Awards and nominations
Notes and references
- Blish 1999, p.8.
- Blish 1999, p.135
- "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Magazine, February 1959, pp.139-140.
- "Recommended Reading," F&SF, August 1958, p.105.
- Knight, Damon. "Books", F&SF, April 1960, p.99.
- Knight, Damon. "In the Balance", If, December 1958, pp.108-09.
- Itzkoff, Dave (July 13, 2012). "Classic Sci-Fi Novels Get Futuristic Enhancements from Library of America". Arts Beat: The Culture at Large. The New York Times. Retrieved January 9, 2013.
- Blish, James (1999). A Case of Conscience. Great Britain: Millennium. ISBN 1-85798-924-4.
- Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. p. 28. ISBN 0-911682-20-1.