Great A-side, dreadful B-side. A Case of Conscience is James Blish’s 1959 Hugo-winning SF novel, expanded from the1953 novella. Part One (the original novella) is set on planet Lithia, introducing a race of reptilians with a perfect, strife-free society and innate sense of morality. However, to the consternation of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, they have no religion of any kind. Their morality is inherent, and they have no need of a religious framework to direct their actions.
As a Catholic, Ruiz-Sanchez cannot make heads or tails of this. Without religion, do the Lithians have souls? If so, are they fallen into sin like humans, or still in a state of grace like Adam and Eve? He struggles with this conundrum, as well as the purpose of the expedition to Lithia, which is to determine whether the planet should be exploited for its lithium or quarantined since the Lithians are clearly created by Satan to undermine the need for faith to form the basis for an ideal society. It’s very unclear whether Blish thinks this is a legitimate debate or not, and while it’s good for the author to let the reader decide (I’d like to see Heinlein hold back on judgment, for example), this Part ends inconclusively with Ruiz-Sanchez receiving an egg from his Lithian friend Chtexa to bring back to Earth.
Part 2 must be the most incoherent and poorly written second act ever written in SF. It’s about Egtverchi, the Lithian born from that egg, as he grows up in human society. He quickly learns about the world, and starts to question why humans are living in underground shelters brought about by earlier nuclear conflict. In the process, he causes a massive rebellion among the stir-crazy people of Earth, who are suffering from the psychosis of living underground.
At the same time Ruiz-Sanchez is brought before the Pope fore heresy, since his suggestion that Satan created Lithia to undermine God is a form of Manichaeism, a religion that posits a struggle between equally-matched good and evil. The Pope points out that Ruiz-Sanchez may have been deceived by the Lithians (and by extension Satan) and that he should have performed an exorcism of the planet! That wouldn’t have been my conclusion, but…
Then the story does another sudden about-turn and we discover that a scientist from the initial expedition has gone back to Lithia and is trying a dangerous experiment that may destroy the planet. As Ruiz-Sanchez performs his exorcism, Lithia explodes. Was it his exorcism that did it, unraveling Satan’s illusion, or merely the mad experiments of the scientists who destroyed an innocent and perfectly moral society? The story provides no answers, and furthermore no basis to form an opinion.
Part 2 was so badly-constructed and garbled that I wonder what happened to James Blish when he wrote it. It’s just a complete mess and actually got me fairly irritated. I really cannot understand how this book won the Hugo Award that year.
A Case of Conscience is truly dated in every sense, and it would almost certainly never be written or gain any following today. The wooden characters and dialogue wouldn’t withstand scrutiny, and a philosophy-centric story almost certainly would seem irrelevant in our information-drenched, hyper-realist world.
While I consider A Case of Conscience a failure as a piece of SF literature, it certainly deserves credit for its unlikely storyline and refusal to wrap things up neatly at the end. However, the deplorable quality of the latter half really makes it hard to take seriously. It’s clear that back in the 1950s authors often wrote good short stories and were then pushed by publishers to expand them into less satisfying longer works. Of course the pendulum has swung too far the other way now, since any genre work that wants to be taken seriously has to be at least 800 pages long. But it is unfortunate that some early classics feel poorly constructed, and that reflects the tenuous state of the genre back in the Golden Age of Astounding and Galaxy before full-length SF really hit its stride.