on February 17, 2001
I resolve never to read a book that combines science fiction with religion again. I found the book to be slow, boring and of no value. I forced myself to finish it only to see if I could find those redeeming values so elequently spoken of by other reviewers.
Maybe I just don't get it but, I could not follow the issue of the heresy that Ruiz-Sanchez espoused. The issue is central, so that in itself is probably why I don't get the book. I also found the characters to be very shallow and single dimensioned.
Finally, the great evil that Ramon saw in the Lithians was not explained well. I simply saw a different culture, not a culture created as the entithesis of God. A planet of Satans? I didn't see it.
I don't need "Star Wars" action to enjoy a book. Subtle science fiction, like Asimov, often is more appealing and thought-provoking than books heavily relying on battles and crises. I enjoy an author who challenges his/her readers to rethink their understanding of the universe. The only thing Blish got me to think about is when will I finish the book.
on December 28, 2002
Around 1951 A E van Vogt wrote a science fiction novel called 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle' (which seems to me to be a precursor to 'Star Trek'). In it he proposes a science of nexialism. Here is van Vogt's definition of nexialism - '... the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields'. In this age of specialisation I believe nexialism could be very profitable - there are too few polymaths these days.
So why did I start this review of a novel by James Blish with commentary on one of A E van Vogt. Both of these writers are, of course, science fiction writers and I enjoy re-reading the 'classics' of science fiction to see what excited me so much when I first read them. For example, I recently re-read (and reviewed) A E van Vogt's 'The World of Null A'. Sadly this disappointed me despite its engaging introduction to 'Science and Sanity' and its P K Dick-like twists and shifts. I was not at all disappointed by 'A Case of Conscience' - this is immensely readable, inventive, well-structured and surprising (even when I knew roughly what was coming).
One of the great pleasures of science fiction is the way it can engage (but doesn't always do so) many fields of human endeavour. The political insight of Ursula LeGuin (such as in 'The Disposessed'), the metaphysics of P K Dick (such as in 'Ubik'), the studies of paranormal phenomena (such as Robert Silverberg's 'Dying Inside'), the studies of time travel (such as Alfred Bester's 'The Men Who Murdered Mohammed'). In each case there is nexialism at work - the combining of one aspect of human endeavour with speculations about it. 'A Case of Conscience' draws theology into science fiction and I am sure that every reader of this novel will take away more than just the memory of an engaging yarn. It opened my mind to theological questioning and debate that i suspect I may never have approached otherwise.
on October 12, 2002
Four scientists - including Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit and biologist - are sent to planet Lithia in order to produce a report detailing their thoughts about its future possibilities for Earth. Depending on their own interests, they have different views on the planet and its inhabitants, including Chtexa, a lithian metallurgist with whom Ruiz-Sanchez speaks at lenght, and, later, Chtexa's son Egtverchi, who grows up on Earth in the middle of a crisis which he himself aggravates via a TV show he appears in. The focus of the first part of the book is on Ruiz-Sanchez: the fact that Lithians seem to live according to the morals of Christianity without its dogmas forms the bulk of his self-interrogation, although the conflict between religious dogma, pure reason and human passions is only a fraction of the wide range of themes that Blish explores in 'A Case of conscience'. The dual structure of the book is quite clear, and both halves are absolutely necessary: the first, set in Lithia, is mainly concerned with causes (the exploration of Lithia and the mission of the four scientists), and the second, set on Earth, with effects. One could argue that the structure is only apparently dual and that the book's title is only partially correct - every character, from Ruiz-Sanchez to Michelis to Egtverchi, has his/her own case of conscience, something which is underlined not only in the first half of the book, but also in the underrated, complex second half. This is one of those works that can be re-read many times and still reveal new possible interpretations.
on April 3, 2002
This is one of the most thought provoking SF novels I have read (particularly the ending). On occasion, I finish a novel in such a way that makes me close the novel and just think about it for a while. Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz," is the only other novel I have read that is like it in all the science fiction I have read. It seems science fiction authors find it difficult to deal with religion (especially Christianity) in a serious fashion. There is frequent repetition of a pathetic caricature of Christians as irrational fideists whereas the scientist is generally depicted as a noble person who pursues truth throughout the science fiction genre. Blish was himself an agnostic.
The novel features humanity's first contact with alien race which humanity calls the "Lithians." The aliens have no native religion to speak of, their society is completely stable and they are moral, to the point of perfection. A committee sent by the United Nations (UN) to evaluate how Earth should view this new world. Technologically and scientifically, the Lithians are ahead of Earth in some areas and vice versa. It is coincidence that humanity has invented nuclear weapons and an efficient way to travel across interstellar distances.
The team sent to evaluate Lithia is composed of a chemist, a physicist, another person, and a Jesuit biologist called Ruiz-Sanchez. The team has some friction but it is still required to reach a decision; its recommendation to the UN will determine the state of future relations between Earth and Lithia. Opinion is divided; one wants to open relations and start learning from the Lithian's impressive social strucutre. Another wishes to make Lithia into a planet-wide nuclear weapons factory. Ruiz-Sanchez wants to quarantine it; cut if off from all future contact with man.
As the team is about to leave, one of the Lithians gives Ruiz-Sanchez a young Lithian in an artificial womb. The alien has his name, Egtverchi, encoded into his DNA somehow. He survives the journey back to Earth and starts to grow up with no contact with his native world. He gains UN citizenship and becomes something of a celebrity. Then, Egtverchi becomes a media personality of sorts who stirs up social dissent among the insane and other social rejects. One interesting aspect of the society on Earth in 2050 is that almost everybody lives in underground cities. This is set up as a consequence to the nuclear arms race; countries slowly moved their entire populace under ground until a "Shelter economy" is created. This fear of nuclear destruction and speculation about an underground society somewhat dates the novel but it is otherwise difficult to see that the novel was in fact written in 1959. There are some stylistic anachronisms (e.g. Blish uses the term "Earthmen" for the humans who visit Lithia and the term "rocket" is used for space ships) but, like Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (this novel, which I have also reviewed, aged better) it has aged well.
Ruiz-Sanchez's inner struggle is well written conflict but the nature of the conflict is somewhat ambiguous. He regards the morally perfect, unbelieving Lithians as elaborate creations of the Adversary (Blish's use of this term instead of "Devil" or "Satan" somehow makes the whole concept more plausible, in my view) to confuse man. Ruiz-Sanchez's audience with Pope has some of the better dialogue and conflict in the novel; it is unfortunately short.
There are a few flaws in the novel that detract from it. First, the story was initially meant as a novella. The section of the novel that takes place in Lithia was initially its own story and then Blish decided to improve on it. This leaves the novel with an awkward sort of transition. The other members of the original Lithia commission are not developed in any meaningful way; their role seems relegated solely to being foils for Ruiz-Sanchez. The "scientific" appendix on Lithia can only be described as superfluous; no use of made of this "data." It is world building for the sake of world building; I would advise any reader to finish the main text of the novel and then just stop.
This novel is a valuable contribution to the genre due to its interesting exploration of religion. It seems to be a theme that the most easily deployed form of religion in SF is Roman Catholicism; an interesting trend, I think.
on March 31, 2002
There were two trees in the Garden of Eden - the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Like many before him, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a primary character of "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish, sought to eat of both trees. He was a priest who is also a scientist. As most of those before him who have done the same, he found himself in danger of separation from God - or, at least, the Church. He found himself a heretic. But, have not many great creations and improvements (even revolutionary changes) in the quality of life of mankind been brought about by (at least, those labelled) heretics?
I greatly enjoy reading science fiction that was written before I was born - 1965. I believe that reading such texts widens my perspective when considering history. It helps me to see what may have been lost or gained in the attitudes of men since the time of publication. It affords me a view of the past from a perspecitve that I could not otherwise achieve. As so many science fiction writers, especially in earlier decades, have been labelled heretics or blasphemers, I think reading their works affords me a view from more objective eyes - from the eyes of those who were so labelled or shunned because they did not simply accept what they were taught or continue to accept dogmatic traditions. From such eyes, I believe that lost truth can sometimes be found. I found all of these attributes and joys that I desire upon reading "A Case of Conscience".
In all ages, it seems, men have struggled with reconciling their desire for BOTH the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge - even when there is no temptress or serpent around. This story describes such a struggle in a time beyond our own, but written by a man from a time before our own. I find that interesting and thought-provoking and I think that you will, too.
on June 6, 2001
Well, to sum up my feelings about this novel, it is intellectually stimulating, fun (here it helps to have some affinity for SF tales with religious themes), and at times amusing (Egtverchi's ultrasuccessful TV show for kids? Come on, it's worth a snicker), surreal, and satiric. Anyone who thinks the middle portion is boring must have glossed over the "party sequence" with the traipsing thugs of Egtverchi, the train rides, the psychotropic gases, the Senator's...um, goings-on in the basement, etc. etc. Anyone who says this novel lacks for incident has got to be screwy. For the reviewer who just "couldn't see" Lithia as a planet of Satans ... well, Lithia wasn't a planet of Satans. It was, through a series intellectual abstractions based on certain givens of Catholic dogma, determined to be evil in nature. You are supposed to like the Lithians -- you are supposed to feel sorry for them. You aren't supposed to like what Ramon has unveiled. This novel treats aspects of Catholic law in the same way the laws of physics work in "The Cold Equations." It is a vigorous extrapolative "what-if." It can also a be read as a (relatively mild) attack on Cold War thinking -- the Shelter Economy presages Dr. Strangelove's infamous "mineshaft gap" satire. True, the characterization is thin. But then, neither Ramon nor Egtverchi nor any of the other players on Blish's stage are the protagonists. The protagonist, just as in "The Cold Equations," is unstoppable Law. Taken from this perspective, this novel is a tour-de-force. Recommended.
on May 21, 2001
This is the story of a group of men sent to evaluate a new-found planet for suitability of use by Man. The planet already has a race of intellegent beings (they are reptilian, like seemingly every other intellegent alien in science fiction!), who have a perfecly evolved society. There is no crime, no unemployment, no nations, etc. And there is no religion, which bothers one of the evaluation team, who happens to be a Jesuit. By Catholic (and Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, etc.) theology, perfection cannot be obtained in the absence of God, so this raises a quandry for the priest - either God doesn't exist, or this planet is a trap set by the Devil to snare mankind.
With such a setup, I thought this novel would primarily deal with how the aliens are reconciled to Catholicism. Instead, it follows the latter path, along the belief that the planet is an illusion created by the Adversary, and how the church must deal with it in that light. This is a brave, and somewhat unexpected path, and I applaud the author for taking it. Unfortunately, the setup is contrived artificially.
By setting the novel 100 years (at the time it was written) into the future, Blish creates two worlds - the fictional future and the alien world of Lithia. Thus, the morality play takes place in an Earth that doesn't exist. This distracts the reader, and detracts from the value of the novel. Still, it's an interesting book, and I recommend it with the reservation that is seems contrived at times, in spite of the well-written prose.
on April 12, 2001
I really wanted to like this book. As a science fiction fan who happens to be a minister, I was looking forward to how James Blish would explore the idea of religion in a sci fi setting. While I still like the idea, I had a hard time making it through this book. The book gets off to a good start on the planet Lithia as Sanchez and the others disvocer some surprising revelations and discuss whether or not to allow the planet to be opened up or to close it off to further contact. However, as soon as we get back to Earth, things slow down considerably and the book loses alot of momentum. I think the biggest problem is that I wasn't really sure what Blish was trying to say. What does it all mean. Of course, this could be a problem of my own ignorance and missing the point rather than a flaw in the book. If you like your sci fi novels plot driven and full of action, this is not the book for you. If you like your sci fi to be more thoughtful and character driven, this book might be worth your while to pick up just because it IS one of those classic sci fi novels that made an impact on the genre. Personally, this is not a book I regret reading, but not one I would want to read again either. Maybe I just wanted too badly to like it.
on December 7, 2000
Blish is known for his subtle writing ,his flowing style. This book is dated. Yet ,veteran sci-fi readers will be able to enjoy this work. Lithia is a jungle world ,Lithians are it's 12ft dragonlike dominant species. They are highly inteligent ,polite ,and gentle. Their society has no writen laws ,yet there's no crime on Lithia ,no out-casts ,no psychopaths. They all conform yet every Lithian is truly an individual. Infact ,though they're world has no art ,no religion ,no spiritual activity at all ,they all act like perfect christians.
Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanches is part of the Lithia commitee. While the other members have their reasons to open Lithia ( to make it a nuclear-bombs factory for example ), Padre' believes that the whole planet is a big trap made by Satan ,to show humanity that logic alone is enaugh to guide beings towards good.
Padre' fails in closing the planet to earth ,and brings with him a lithian egg ,from which grows an orphan lithian ,who's a genius but with a total lack of respect to authority and a twisted mind. He wrecks havoc on earth playing on the mob's feeling of frustration and hatred and anarchy.
in the end good prevails ,but Blish never setteld the question whether the victory over the threat was divine-intervention or man-made.
Cute book. recommended for old sci-fi lovers ,and soft sci-fi readers.
on May 17, 2000
Four males visit a planet of highly intelligent dragons that have no vices, no misfits, no art, no iron, no magnetism, no electriocity, but a different kind of technology in which they are more advanced then earthlings. Two of the men want all the lithium that's availlable on the planet for themselves (to make bombs in this cold war dated book). One other thinks it's morally dangerous at the planet. No sin exists there. But this is not because of religion and redemption, since these do not exist on that planet. The jesuiet thinks this planet is the Devil's attempt to make Christianity obsolete. For a contemporaine secular reader this makes it a bit hard to really get into that story, and that particular fear of the devil, or the greed for bombs.
The dragons are very well done, though. Their society, their planet, and technology are all new and very interesting to read about. As are the hillarious and deeply frightening adventures of the sole dragon that is to visit the earth. He, the dislocated orphan, functions knowingly and willingly as a catalisator for the previously burried feelings of discontent in the people who feel they don't fit in society. Blish strikes a nerve there that hasn't changed much since the book received the Hugo Award in 1959.
Perhaps the Devil had a hand in it after all.