• Yehoshua Paul

1958 - A Case of Conscience

1958. The Space Race, NASA and government spending. James Blish writes A Case of Conscience. Warning! This review contains a lot of spoilers.

William Hayward Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun display a full-scale model of Explorer 1 at a Washington, DC news conference after confirmation the satellite was in orbit

“All knowledge goes through both stages, the annunciation out of noise into fact, and the disintegration back into noise again. The process involved was the making of increasingly finer distinctions. The outcome was an endless series of theoretical catastrophes.” (James Blish, A case of Conscience)

On January 31, the United States launches Explorer 1, the third artificial orbital satellite to be successfully launched into space. The first two were the Soviet Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. The United States is losing the Space Race and it has to catch up.

The launch of the Sputnik satellites is a huge propaganda victory for the Soviet Union and its allies. They have successfully demonstrated that they can launch objects into space, and more importantly – their rockets (with nuclear payloads) are capable of reaching the United States.

The media, being the media, induces a panic. However, President Eisenhower is not particularly concerned. In his view, Sputnik is a scientific achievement, not a military threat, and a challenge that America needs to meet with “resourcefulness and vigor” – which it does.

The president creates NASA because he wants a separate civilian agency to take charge of all nonmilitary space related activities. In his view, space exploration is a worthy scientific goal, not a means of winning the Cold War. A dedicated agency will be able to coordinate and manage all the research, development and operations of America’s space program – now a national priority.

The huge investment in space exploration, while popular, is also controversial. Scientists are concerned that the government’s funding is coming at the expense of other non-space-related research. There are many in the Black community who prefer that Congress spend less on space and more on helping the bottom 10%. And a lot Christian leaders worry that space exploration is against God’s will – by 2049, the Catholic Church at least, will change its mind.

Outer space holds many heresies humanity is going to end up having to deal with. Some are easily reconciled in church doctrine. Others are not. James Blish examines them in depth in A Case of Conscience.

First publication of A Case of Conscience, September 1953.

“I’ve spoken the truth. The truth can’t be unsaid.” (James Blish, The Thing in The Attic).

James Benjamin Blish (1921-1975) was an American science fiction author who started his career as a fanboy and troll before maturing into a practical writer and literary critic of pulp magazines. In recognition of his efforts, he was granted the honor of adapting Star Trek episodes into short stories, and writing the original novel Spock Must Die! (1970).

Blish began his career as a fanboy at age 15 when he self-published a fanzine called The Planeteer. During this period (the thirties), Blish attended meetings of the Futurians, an early science fiction society based in New York City. It was during these meetings that he got his first taste of professional trolldom.

The Futurians were a society of sci fi fans. They had very strong opinions on the direction the genre should take. Prominent members, like Donald A. Wolheim believed that the fandom should become more politically active and work towards the creation of a scientific world-state based on communism. Blish held the opposite belief. He defined himself as a “paper fascist” and considered Fascism to be an interesting theory that was applied horribly. These differences lead to some very heated arguments, in which Blish was repeatedly told he was wrong, forcing him to constantly introduce new reasons to justify his theories.

After high school, Blish went on to become a full time fiction writer for pulp magazines. As a writer, Blish did his best to raise the extremely low standards of pulp science fiction. He wrote a series of essays under the pseudonym, William Atheling Jr, in which he criticized authors and magazine editors for bad grammar and misunderstanding scientific concepts. These essays were collected in The Issue At Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1970).

As a writer, Blish had a very practical approach. First he would write short stories and novellas, and later he would revisit and expand the ones that turned out best or were very popular. The expanded stories helped showcase Blish’s talent as a writer of unusual depth for his time period.

A Case of Conscience is a good example of this approach. It began as a novella which Blish published in a 1953 issue of If magazine. After Blish rewrote the story into a full-length novel, it won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1959.

“I expect that in the long run, when we get right down to the fundamental stuff of the universe, we’ll find that there’s nothing there at all—just nothings moving no-place through no-time. On the day that that happens, I’ll have God and you will not—otherwise there’ll be no difference between us.” (James Blish, A Case of Conscience)

The book is divided into two parts, and presents two overlapping narratives. The first is Catholic: a Jesuit priest visits an alien planet whose very existence is heretical. The second is exploration: a commission of four human scientists evaluates a planet for colonization purposes. Later this narrative becomes dystopian. These two narratives are very thoroughly intertwined, which in the first part of the book presents a fascinating dilemma that is very unsatisfyingly resolved in the second part (in my opinion).

However, I am getting ahead of myself.

The Catholic narrative is that of Father Ramon-Ruiz Sanchez, a doctor and biologist, who has been tasked with exploring the planet Lithia to determine whether it should be opened up to human contact. The year is 2049, and Ruiz Sanchez hopes to finish his task quickly so that he can journey back to Earth, and arrive in Rome by 2050 – a holy year in which the Pope offers pardons from God and remission of sins.

For Ruiz-Sanchez, God and Science complement each other. Biology is an act of religion because all creatures are God’s, and each new planet with all its manifestations of life is an affirmation of God’s power. Lithia challenges that belief.

The planet is Eden-like. There are very few carnivores and the native species do not need to compete for resources as they are plentiful. At the top of the food chain are the Lithians, 12 foot tall lizard like sentient beings who are innately good as a species for purely rational reasons. For all intents and purposes, they exist in a state of grace, except the Lithians have no concept of God. Without God, you cannot have good, which means that Lithia must be something different, and that makes absolutely no sense to Ruiz-Sanchez.

According to church doctrine, the idea of good without God is an impossibility. Therefore, Lithia is clearly a creation of Satan, except Satan cannot create. He can only corrupt and destroy. The idea that Satan created Lithia is a heresy, one that will prevent Ruiz-Sanchez from being pardoned in the upcoming holy year, which places him in an impossible position. He knows the Lithians are Satan’s creatures, but he also knows they are good. Before he departs, he reluctantly accepts a gift from a Lithian, a sealed jar containing an egg.

The exploration narrative is that of the rest of the scientific commission. They are divided over whether Lithia as a planet can and should be used to enhance Earth’s nuclear arsenal. Two members, Cleaver and Agronski, want to open the planet up to human contact and build a factory that will supply Earth with materials for nuclear weapons. The other member, Michelis opposes the idea. The cost of transporting the materials back to Earth would bankrupt the planet, and building a factory on Lithia would introduce its inhabitants to the evils of colonization. You don’t need to be a Catholic to see why that would be wrong. Ruiz-Sanchez sides with Michelis, and the committee is deadlocked.

The second part of the book is where the book began to fall apart for me. This section largely abandons Ruiz-Sanchez, and the exploration narrative is replaced with a dystopian one: Earth of 2050. It’s a disappointing change that weakens the Catholic narrative, which is no longer a prominent part of the storyline.

Ruiz-Sanchez’s prediction that Lithia is a creation of Satan seems to come true when the Lithian Egtverchi hatches from the egg the father brought back to Earth. Egtverchi matures quickly, and as soon as he gains his own independence incites mobs and brings about a large scale societal collapse.

In the limited space devoted to the father, we learn that the Pope’s solution to the religious dilemma is pretty simple. Lithia could have been a deception and Ruiz-Sanchez should have banished it by performing an exorcism. As far as resolutions go, it’s pretty weak. The entire theological dilemma is dismissed simply and replaced with a religious ceremony; a ceremony completely out of place in a science fiction novel and one which significantly weakens the Catholic dilemma that the story so brilliantly presented in the first part.

Ultimately, I have very mixed feelings about this book. If you are a fan of stories that combine religion and science fiction, want to learn more about the Catholic church’s doctrines, or enjoy debates between science and religion, I would definitely give this book a shot. If you are just looking for an original and interesting science fiction novel, either skip this book or read only the first half (the original novella Blish published). I fall into the former category so I wouldn’t call this a wasted read, but it was definitely a disappointment all-things considered.



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