Monday, October 22, 2007

Review - A Case of Conscience

A Case of Conscience
by James Blish
1959 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

1958 brought a new pope who was determined to reform the Roman Catholic Church. He announced the Second Vatican Council and it seems like science fiction fans were struck by the idea of moving religion into the future. In the space of three years two of Hugo winners for best novel had Catholicism at their heart. Most of James Blish's A Case of Conscience was written well before these events but I can't help but think that it had a lot to do with its victory.

In the book Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest and biologist, is on a mission to a newly discovered planet where there is intelligent life. The goal of the mission is to survey the planet and determine if it should be made open to wider trade or quarantined to protect the existing culture. He comes to believe that this planet, Lithia, is a trap designed by Satan to tear down Christian institutions.

For the second time in a row this is a very talky novel. A solid third of the book is the debate whether to allow open access to Lithia or to close it. Unlike The Big Time, though, this didn't bother me since the debate was an action in itself. There's agendas and theories and arguments in there and I think that Blish's characters, especially Father Ramon, are sharply defined by them. Also I found the theology Blish used interesting and while I'm not really conversant in pre-Vatican II catholic dogma it felt right to me (perhaps a Jesuit priest might disagree and if one does I'd love to hear it).

I don't want to run through Father Ramon's arguments since I think this discussion is the best part of the book, but to keep it brief he thinks that Lithia is designed as a literal Garden of Eden (and Blish takes that metaphor and runs with it); a pastoral location with no taint of sin. Since it manages a perfect Christian ideal without being Christian he concludes that it is a creation of Satan, a concept that is itself heretical. Blish remains coy on the true nature of Lithia throughout the novel.

You might take from that and modern religious discourse that Father Ramon is a ranting fundamentalist and nothing could be further from the truth. He argues from logic and reason, albeit reason tainted from a theological perspective.

The book is a an expansion of a novella of the same name which comprises the majority of the first half of the book and a second half detailing the life of a Lithian on earth. The first half is the much stronger portion of the book since I found the events following the Lithian to be a bit hard to swallow. It pushed the Genesis metaphor a bit too far and that's about as much as I can say without spoiling the bulk of the book.

Religious themed science fiction isn't particularly common and as one of the earliest A Case of Conscience is well worth reading. Exactly how our planet's religious institutions would respond to extraterrestrial life is an interesting question and Blish's answer to one of those is interesting.