Sunday, 14 February 2010

James Blish, A Case of Conscience

I finished reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience weeks ago, but haven't got around to blogging about it till now. The Hugo award-winning book was a must-read for my upcoming honours thesis on (loosely) the role of the priest in science fiction literature. The 1958 novel is divided into two parts, with the first part being an extended version of Blish's 1953 short story by the same title.

The protagonist of A Case of Conscience is Father Ruinz-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist, who at the opening of the novel is part of a research team on the planet Lithia. The first part of the novel, set entirely on Lithia, sees Ruinz-Sanchez make a discovery about the indigenous Lithians that is central to the rest of the story. In short, Ruinz-Sanchez finds out that after birth the Lithians go through a very visible evolutionary cycle before they reach adulthood (evolving from sea creature to land-dwelling reptile). Ruinz-Sanchez believes that this, and the fact that the Lithians seem to live perfectly civil and moral lives without any religion, are incontestable evidence that the entire planet was created by Satan (a heresy, since his faith teaches that Satan cannot create). The rest of the first part of the story is mostly concerned with a lengthy conversation between Ruinz-Sanchez and his three associates, Cleaver, Michelis, and Argonski. The four scientists discuss whether or not Lithia should be open to the general public, and Ruinz-Sanchez argues that it should not, since it is all the work of Satan.

I found the logic here, not to mention the science, to be somewhat problematic – though I suppose that was more to do with when the text was written than anything else. Nevertheless, the entire book seemed to be predicated on some highly questionable assertions: that Satan would create an entire planet to shake the faith of a few Catholics; and that seeing the growth or "evolution" of the Lithians would actually destroy Catholicism altogether. The possibility that Lithian society is "perfect" because the Lithians were not fallen creatures was dismissed out of hand by Ruinz-Sanchez, solely because of how the species "evolves". I found the long conversations between the scientists to be a struggle to get through, primarily because of the absurd logic involved. However, I was never sure whether or not I was meant to understand the logic. I kept thinking that Ruinz-Sanchez was a lunatic, but perhaps I was meant to?

At the end of the first part of the novel, the Lithian Chtexa gives Ruinz-Sanchez a jar with a Lithian infant inside, with the intent that he take the child back to Earth to learn from it and teach it about human life. The second part of the book is set on Earth and is mostly concerned with this Lithian youth, named Egtverchi, who is raised by Ruinz-Sanchez and Liu Meid, another biologist. The story seems to grow increasingly absurd, as Egtverchi, probably the only alien life on Earth, becomes a prominent television personality. Ever critical of Earth and the state of human society, Egtverchi incites hatred towards authority and eventually calls for widespread rioting and civil unrest. There is also a very confusing scene set at a dinner party, with people getting high on psychotropic gasses and so on.

The second part of the novel seemed like quite a different animal to the first, though I didn't find it any more interesting. It is primarily concerned with the same issues as the first part, but it has a faster paced narrative (which is a mercy). I found the end of the story to be rather underwhelming – perhaps because by that point I had given up trying to care about the story, or any of the characters.

It is clear why Blish chose to have a Jesuit priest as his protagonist – he needed to utilise the priest's moral and theological framework in order to create the "case of conscience" upon which the story is based. This, perhaps, reflects one of the most common uses of the priest in science fiction: as the source of a unique worldview. I believe that this utilisation of the priest character is most common when the priest is one of a number of central characters. For example, in Joss Whedon's space opera Firefly, the priest, or "shepherd", provides the crew with a unique concern for morality, frequently offering counseling and spiritual insights to others. Dan Simmons' Hyperion (which I have just finished reading), is comprised of six "tales" within a frame narrative, and "the priest's tale" presents us with a unique concern for the theological and religious implications of what the priest uncovers, particularly as they pertain to the Catholic church. I shall have to find some way to work this use of the priest as the provider of unique insights and opinions into my thesis somehow...

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