A Case of Conscience by James Blish – Book Review

What a complex topic James Blish tackles in his 1959 Hugo award-winning novel! Father Ruiz-Sanches is one of a committee of four researchers sent to explore the world of Lithia and offer advice on what this planet’s role should be regarding humanity’s expansion. When the Father discovers that the Lithian race of perfectly rational and highly evolved lizards has reached the crux of its civilization without any form of religious faith and morality, he has a wee freak-out and concludes that the planet must be put under quarantine forevermore. This decision comes from Ruiz-Sanches’ belief that Lithia is a trap designed for humanity by the Enemy, which in turn has dangerous consequences for the priest—he falls into the heresy of Manichaeism, which offers a metaphysical and moral dualism centred around the belief that evil is as powerful as good, that the Devil has the same capacity to create life as God does, basically equating the two. Cool stuff if you’re a Christian living in the fourth century C.E.—less so if you’re a Jesuit priest who should know better. The first part of the novel sees the Father argue this case on very religious grounds, and propagating a heresy he is very conscious of, to his three scientist colleagues; it’s an intellectually stimulating back-and-forth, which sees three points of view clash against one another, twisting and turning in unexpected ways.   

The second plot deals with a Lithian come to Earth; this latter one strikes a more chaotic tone. Rather than a study of Lithia packed in a few dense chapters told over a short span of time, Blish tells this second part of the novel over a longer period, concentrating more on the dangers of rousing an angry populace through the use of modern media by a demagogue—eerie to read in 2021. Jibes towards our common political reality aside, the latter half of the book deflates a little compared to the strong start; it failed to pack so much of a punch, though I appreciate the notion of this ultimate outsider drawing from the fears of an alienated humanity towards a violent frenzy of purposeless violence. Eventually, however, we are returned to the original conversation in the book and treated to a hell of a conclusion!

This is a sci-fi of its time in that it speaks directly to the fears of the late 50s of an oncoming nuclear apocalypse. Humanity back on Earth lives mostly under billions of tons of concrete set in multiple layers. The lack of sunlight and living like rats in a maze for most of the population is causing a petri dish of psychoses to appear; all that’s necessary for things to spin out of control is a demagogue with a powerful enough will and rhetoric. Again…eerie, innit?

It is a good sci-fi; I can see why it won the Hugo. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in the question of faith from angles outside the strictly religious, as well as if you’re itching for a work that has the most nightmarish view of how far the Cold War might’ve pushed humanity, as well as an ending that puts a whole new spin to the word ambiguous. Fun stuff!

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