11 March 2012

A Case of Conscience

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1959 Hugo Award Winner
Published by Ballantine Books
242 Pages

You know how sometimes you pick up a book, dreading the fact that for no reason at all, you know you’re going to hate it?  That’s how I started this book.  I was wondering if I had reached my limit and if I would start regretting the length of this project.  After only two chapters, all that concern was gone.  I love spiritual and personal turmoil, philosophical/social theory, heated debates of all kinds (and also crazy aliens) and this one hit me like a suckerpunch to the gut with all that.

After discovering the only other planet in the universe with intelligent life, 50 light years away, a commission of four scientists is sent to  Lithia to study the planet and its sentient reptilian species to determine what Earth’s response should be.  Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a biologist and a Jesuit Priest is the only one of the three who really gets to know the Lithians and is consequently the most disturbed by what they find.

Initial Response
While the other three scientists are off studying natural resources and other such science-y things, Father Ruiz-Sanchez is left to study the biology, habits and society of the Lithians.  What he finds is both amazing and terrible.

The Lithians and their planet are perfect.  Imagine if Earth never had an Ice Age, or later an intellectual Dark Age.  Not only was Lithia rich in nutrients of all kinds (especially those useful for weapons), but its people were insanely smart and although they hadn’t developed all the same technologies we have, their ability take in our lessons and quickly surpass our understanding of the topic was amazing (especially for a 12-foot lizard with a kangaroo pouch J).

For Ruiz-Sanchez, the Lithians represented what we could have become had we never left the Garden of Eden.  They have no social ills of any kind.  No crime.  Utopia.  Oh, and they also have no God or faith of any kind.  For a Jesuit priest, a being without original sin was as fundamentally different from humans as any being can be and this means that humans could never interact with them successfully.  What?!  We can’t mix fundamentally different beings?

This actually forced me to set the book down and just stare, thinking.  Whatever you believe about humans being wretches, this got me to thinking about how humans would respond to first contact.  I’ve always maintained that discovering life of any kind, sentient or not, would probably not really change our fundamental philosophies, faith or ethics all that much.  Kind of like in The Big Time, how history changed as little as possible to account for the absence of a person or event – I think people would incorporate this change with as few changes as possible.   In any case, it was a great thought and not surprising that it would first come from a religious man.  In the end, it turned out to just be a step in the direction of Ruiz-Sanchez’s final determination though and all my weak philosophizing was premature.

Humanity chooses wrong…again
As it turns out, these are all indicators that a thing is a product of the devil and in this case, another temptation.  There are only men playing in the garden this time and guess how we respond?  (I couldn’t help thinking of the “Eve was framed” bumper stickers.)  This might be strange, but for me, the big question here was when precisely did we choose wrong?  The entire planet seemed the obvious choice as the metaphor for the apple, but then one Lithian offers Ruiz-Sanchez a parting gift (which I won’t reveal), which has disastrous consequences for both planets!

The debate about whether to open the planet to humans was amazing and the gift was both heart wrenching and totally cool so I don’t want to give away too much.  Oh, I want to say so many things about the gift, but I’m afraid to give away anything because it was so delicious.  In fact, I’ve already deleted about ten half-begun sentences that gave away too much, so I’ll bow-out here. 

The first half of this book was amazing.  I would literally stop reading and look up at the ceiling like I can’t believe he said that!  After that, it was very near miserably boring until the last 10 pages.  While I was intensely interested in what Ruiz-Sanchez would say or think about the Lithians, I don’t think Blish really gave us much else to grab onto and I really did not care one iota about what happened to any of the characters.  As boring as Blish’s characters were though, the theological discussions and social issues back on Earth were equally amazing.  Overall a great choice…if you’re looking for a book heavy on theory and light on investment in characters. 


Universe 3/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 3/5
Scientific Wonders 4/5 (A 600 foot telescope that can see faster than the speed of light!)
Characters 2/5

Overall 17/25

The Roll of the Die
This week’s book is They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley.  While this book is generally panned by critics, I did hear once that it makes a lot of sense in light of Clifton’s other short stories.  Alas, I did not have the time nor the energy to track these down in time, so the book is going to have to stand on its own.

Next week’s book is Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.  So for the second time the die chose the first book of the decade first.  I’m pretty excited about this one because, though I’ve read a number of “Heinleins”, I’ve never made it to one of his most popular.  Should be fun!  Yay for a new decade!


  1. I have so much to say about this that I feel like it would take an hour of verbal discussion to relay everything. LOL! What an interesting topic. I don't think that I would ever be able to make it through the whole book, because I would want to think about and debate each aspect in full before moving forward. ;)

    1. I know, this review was an exercise in self-restraint. That might be the best reason for you to read it though, there is some pretty juicy debate that I'm sure you'd like. Not sure if you saw the quote from this one earlier this week, but that was just a taste!


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