Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: A Case of Conscience

James Blish
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

A Case of Conscience begins with biologist and Jesuit priest Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez at the very end of a stint on the planet Lithia. He is there as part of a team of four scientists whose assignment is to evaluate the planet and give it a rating as to its usefulness and hospitability to Earth.

Lithia has a hot, muggy, tropical climate over its entire surface. It has abundant plant and animal life, including one intelligent species: twelve-foot tall reptiles who stand on their hind legs like a tyrannosaurus rex.

The Lithians’ most remarkable characteristic is that they rely completely on logic and reason. They have no faith or belief system of any kind. This, of course, bothers Father Ruiz-Sanchez quite a bit. But what really throws him for a loop is that they don’t seem to need it. The Lithians have a stable, technologically advanced, cooperative, crime-free culture, more disciplined and peaceful than ours on Earth, with no reliance whatsoever on religion.

This leads Ruiz-Sanchez to the conclusion, naturally, that Lithia and all its life forms are creations of the devil. “Only the children of God,” he says, “had been given free will, and hence were often doubtful.” Since the Lithians are not beset by doubt – they aren’t bothered by “night thoughts” such as: Why am I here? What is the purpose of existence? – they must not be children of God, and are therefore children of the devil.

In fact, he posits, Lithia may be a new devilish garden of Eden, with the Lithians as the snakes in the garden, testing us, exposing our weaknesses, using pure logic to make us question our faith.

This makes it easy for Ruiz-Sanchez to decide how to vote on Lithia: total quarantine. But, unfortunately, it also puts him in really bad stead with his church. To Catholics, only God has the power to create life, so if Ruiz-Sanchez believes that Lithia was created by the devil and therefore that the devil has “creative” power, he is therefore a heretic, and will have to be tried in Rome and probably excommunicated.

Ruiz-Sanchez’s life gets even more complicated when one of the Lithians gives him a hatchling as a farewell present, and he is honor-bound to take it back to Earth with him. His co-workers take care of while he goes to Rome; it grows rapidly into a twelve-foot-high lizard without the ethical code of its parents, gets itself a national TV show, and begins fomenting unrest among the ever-present third or so of humanity that feels cut off from society’s dominant cultural traditions.

A Case of Conscience is a short little book that raises big issues. On the back cover of my library's 2000 paperback edition, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says that it was “one of the first serious attempts to deal with religion in SF, and remains one of the most sophisticated.”

I think that is probably true. My problem was that I just wasn’t that thrilled with the story. The plot felt aimless and unresolved. It neither answered the questions it brought up nor left me with a conscious ambivalence out of which I could draw my own conclusions. It seemed like it was trying to do both, and did neither satisfactorily.

I also didn’t really like the main character or his friends. And I didn’t wholeheartedly buy the motivations of the hatchling, the priest’s enemies, and the society at large.

Older, seminal pieces of SF often have strong plot elements that appear in later pieces of fiction; it always makes me wonder, in each case, if it is a coincidence or if the more recent authors either consciously or unconsciously adapted them from the earlier books.

A minor one in this book was a scene in which mutant bees protect the main character from marauding foes, which also happened in a key scene in The Hunger Games.

But most strongly, this book kept reminding me of Orson Scott Card’s far more satisfying Speaker for the Dead. That book, too, had a quasi-religious figure as the main character who was trying to make sense of an alien world. And in both cases, the indigenous intelligent species native had a unique biology, in which they took very different physical forms as they progressed through different life stages. If Card did borrow consciously from Blish, he certainly did it in a way that not only honored the original ideas but also greatly improved on them.

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