Blish and his conscience

A while back over at Worm’s we were discussing the Vatican’s recent announcement that there’s no conflict between the Catholic faith and belief in alien life. Somewhere in the course of that discussion, A Case of Conscience was mentioned as an example of a sci-fi novel that deals with religious issues, and several of us decided to read it shortly thereafter. That worked for me, since I’ve been immersing myself in the classics a lot lately, and this is one of those books that commonly appears on “top 100” book lists and such, so it’s all part of furthering my SF education.

Published in 1958, the book is James Blish’s attempt to be deep and philosophical, viewing science fiction through a religious lens, or viewing religion through a science fiction lens, or something like that. Apparently this was one of the first science fiction novels to grapple with religious themes, and I suppose Blish should get some points for originality on that score. Beyond that, I’m having a hard time deciding how successful Blish was at saying what he tried to say, mainly because I’m still not sure what he was trying to say (always a bit of a hindrance, that).

The plot in a nutshell: humans discover a planet called Lithia, home to a species of intelligent lizard-like creatures who have what appears to be a perfect society. No crime, no war, no pollution, no social problems of any kind; the Lithians live a peaceful and enlightened existence in harmony with their world; they don’t fear death but see it as a part of the natural order; and, furthermore, they have no religion, indeed no concept of God/gods, sin, evil, or an afterlife. What’s the problem, then? Well, one of the four men sent to make contact with the Lithians is a biologist who is also a Jesuit priest named Ruiz-Sanchez, who comes up with his own strange theory of what Lithia is all about. He thinks it’s all a big trap created by the Adversary, the Ultimate Enemy, Mr. Evil Himself…. yeah, Satan. The idea is that humanity will look at this society that is so good and admirable but has no need for God, and will begin to emulate it, dumping their religion at the curb with the weekly trash. That’s a rough sketch; there’s more detail that goes into Ruiz-Sanchez’s theory, of course, which I’m not going to get into. Even so, it seems to me the evidence is far from ironclad, and he fails to consider any alternative explanations, instead fixating on his “trap of Satan” idea and recommending to Earth that the planet be declared off-limits. Throughout the book, Ruiz-Sanchez struggles with himself, trying to decide if he’s actually right, and what it means if he is. One of the other characters nails Ruiz-Sanchez perfectly when he says:

“But I can’t make Ramon listen to me. He’s becoming more and more bound in some rarefied theological torture of his own.”

I won’t spoil the ending, for those who haven’t read the book, but suffice it to say that there is a certain level of ambiguity all the way to the end, and Ruiz-Sanchez’s theory is never proven. Everything that happens could be explained that way, but at the same time a natural interpretation is never ruled out, and it’s never entirely clear which one is the real explanation. Although, some aspects of Lithia would be very difficult to explain in natural terms, and this seems to tilt things toward the supernatural side. In that sense, I think a phrase Ruiz-Sanchez uses to describe Lithia — “a rigged demonstration” — actually applies well to the book as a whole. There are times when Blish is fairly blunt, almost crude, in making Ruiz-Sanchez’s theory appear to be coming true, and a bit more subtlety would have helped a lot.

Aside from the theology, the book is weak on science, but I’m not sure I can blame Blish too harshly for that. Some of those weaknesses are due to ideas that may have seemed sound back in the 50’s, but are clearly outdated today. And that’s not the only way the book seems outdated. The way the characters speak, and the social biases and outlooks they portray, also date the book as something from the 1950’s, more so than other books I’ve read from that period.

It’s hard to say what Blish’s message is. Perhaps it is simply that science and religion will both always be around and will both always be contenders for the human mind; that there will always be those who draw upon the supernatural to explain the world, and there will never be a way to definitively rule that out, and we’re just stuck with the situation. I’m just not sure what Blish wants to get across, but I’ll say one thing: even if it’s flawed in some ways, it’s a book that makes you think. For that reason, it was worth reading, but in the end I can’t escape the feeling that it’s a bit overrated.


3 responses to “Blish and his conscience

  1. crotchetyoldfan

    The ambiguity is, I think, essential to the presentation of the conflict: there is no such thing as religious certitude. Ultimate questions are all eventually laid at the doorstep of ‘faith’.

    One message in ACOC is that religion can NOT accept ‘perfection’. To do so would obviate the entire purpose, wouldn’t it? Religiously inclined humans strive for perfection at least partly out of a need to please their god and meet its requirements. If the state already exists, there’s no longer a need for the god…

    Another message is one of religious (in)toleration. Rather than examine the phenomena, it is immediately branded as evil and a threat.

    Perhaps one the theme is: if humanity could achieve ‘perfection’, would it have to give up religion or hampered as we are by religion, would we even be able to accept it?

  2. Nice review. This book is on one of my reading lists. I know what you mean by the dated nature of 50s sci fi. I often found otherwise good books hopelessly devoid of any believable women characters, for example.

  3. COF, thanks for that insight. The point you made about religion being unable to accept perfection is especially good.

    Shannon, this book does show its age in its attitudes toward women. One of the scientists on the expedition to Lithia says something to the effect of “I can’t abide women in science.” Reading that today, one can only roll one’s eyes and groan.

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