January Books 3) A Case of Conscience

One of my 2009 resolutions is to re-read the Hugo-winning novels which I haven’t otherwise reviewed on-line, in more or less chronological order (allowing for the gaps in my library). The first by most measures is James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, published as a novel in 1958 (an expansion from a shorter piece which won a Retro-Hugo in its own right much more recently).

It’s a curious assortment of several different stories set in 2050, with the two big factors in the plot being the Roman Catholic church (which Blish mostly gets right) and the alien planet of Lithia, which is an oddly perfect society. It is certainly, in intellectual terms, far ahead of a lot of the sf circulating in the late 1950s.

But I think it misfires crucially on a couple of points. The first is the decision of the central character, the Jesuit Ruiz-Sanchez, that the Lithians are the direct creation of the devil. This is crucial in plot terms but (as the Pope points out to him in a later chapter) theologically very dubious. And although the presence of an alien child on Earth results in an effective and comprehensive breakdown of the human social order, I’m not completely clear on whether we are meant to think this is actually a Bad Thing; Blish’s future Earth is more repressed and more debauched than ours, beyond the point where one can see it as an allegory, which means that we readers are a bit adrift as to what he is trying to say.

If the story were written today, the key character would be Cleaver, who deceives his exploratory mission colleagues, sees Lithia as a strategic military/industrial asset, returns to it to rape it of its resources, and, at the end, inadvertenty destroys it.

A Case of Conscience remains a decent effort to inject serious religious debate into the genre, but it is overshadowed by later efforts, including particularly the next Hugo winner on my list.

Hugo Awards
1950s: The Demolished Man (1953) | The Forever Machine (1955) | Double Star (1956) | The Big Time (1958); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958) | A Case of Conscience (1959)

One thought on “January Books 3) A Case of Conscience

  1. I read it ages ago and liked it, but that might partly be out of general Civil War interest. I did like seeing a book largely set in the home front of a country disintegrating.

    Two things you didn’t mention: firstly, you didn’t mention it, but I think the book is meant to be a take on the Odyssey. Secondly, I was really struck by how many animals they kill in the course of the book. I mean, I know it’s an agrarian meat eating society but it really did seem like an animal holocaust at times. I wondered if that was meant to be the blah blah human violence of war being vented on the beasts of the earth or something.

    the twist ending annoyed me.

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