James Blish could not be accused of over doing his research for A Case of Conscience. The theology is off, the description of Catholic beliefs is often just wrong, the science is archaic, the behaviour of the characters often makes no sense and the reasons for their actions are hard to fathom. It is also truely an intriguing book. It crawls into your head like a lungfish crawling from a primordial ocean and once there gallops around like a twelve foot kangaroo-like reptile making strange leaps of narrative.
Jo Walton’s review of the novel says:
It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to point out all the things that are wrong with this book, from errors of theology and science to question begging and jumping to conclusions. But it’s also very good. It’s written in a quiet but compelling style that’s thoroughly absorbing. It’s easy to swallow the absurdities as I go along, it’s only on reflection that they leap out. It has genuinely alien aliens, and we see one of them grow up from inside. It’s very unusual and quite unforgettable.https://www.tor.com/2010/11/29/aliens-and-jesuits-james-blishs-a-case-of-conscience/
The story has won not one but two Hugo Awards. The first in 1959 for best novel and the second in 2004 for the retro-Hugo for Best Novella for the first part of the book.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to establish some bona-fides for this story of alien contact.
The Lithians are reptilian aliens with a ‘kangaroo’ like appearance. At no point does Blish doesn’t call them dinosaurs and indeed characters in the story often call them snakes. Yet they are clearly meant to evoke dinosaurs and the surrounding fauna of the planet Lithia include creatures referred to as allosaurs. The life cycle of a Lithian is nothing like that of a dinosaur but even this departure helps confirm that Blish intended them to be seen as dinosaur-like. The Lithians recapitulate a progressive kind of evolution in their life cycle. For a period they live as fish. Then as lungfish. Then as amphibians. Then in their juvenile phase as wild reptiles. Only in adulthood do they become intelligent beings but this final stage of evolution is intended to be distinctly NOT human. Further these steps in evolution are intended by Blish to resemble a common perspective of evolution of animals on Earth. So the dinosaur nature of the Lithians becomes theologically important – they represent a kind of pre-Adamic, pre-Eden form of creation.
In his forward to the book, Blish says:
The author, I should like to add, is an agnostic with no position at all in these matters. It was my intention to write about a man, not a body of doctrine.Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) . Orion. Kindle Edition
This in response to feedback he’d received at the time, questioning the theology he had put forward in the story. In 2010 Jo Walton went a step further an enlisted the aid of Vatican scientist and Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno who also explains where Blish’s theology goes awry.
So fair warning. The ideas in this book are distinctly half-baked but once you get in tune with it, things make more sense. Possibly it is an easier, even better, read now. The ideas and attitudes of the humans in the story are odd and often reactionary in strange ways. In the second half of the story we see a future version of Earth that is a borderline dystopia. Fear of nuclear war drove humanity underground and people live in cramped conditions, unwilling to move back to the more spacious surface. The human characters are hard to relate to but make some sort of sense if taken as representatives of a very strange future.
Likewise, the central character of Jesuit Father Ramon is more plausible if taken to be a representative of a very oddly changed Catholic Church — one in which the literal truth of creation in the Bible is a much more central belief. He is presented as a deeply sympathetic character, troubled by the collision of reality with his faith and yet Blish gives him almost straw-man religious positions as if he is setting him up as a one-dimensional religious bigot. Yet we get nothing of the sort. It’s not unreasonable to even take the novel as accepting Father Ramon’s rather dramatic conclusion about the planet Lithia as an in-universe fact.
I need to double back to the plot.
In the future, a team of four humans have been sent to the planet Lithia to evaluate its status in terms of human contact. Humanity has just begun exploring the stars and most of humanity live on Earth underground, ruled over by the United Nations. The team consists of:
- Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, late of Peru, biologist, Jesuit and medic for the team.
- Paul Cleaver, a physicist
- Martin Agronski, a geologist (who doesn’t appear to have a first name until the second half of the book*)
- Mike Michelis, a chemist
Skipping over the initial stages of the stories were we meet these characters and Father Ramon interacts with the Lithians, we reach the key scene in the novel. Before departing the four team members have to record their opinions on the planet for their report and recommendations. Each team member takes a different stance.
Cleaver goes first. Militaristic and paranoid (we learn he’s been actively deceiving the other team members), Cleaver believes the presence of particular minerals (especially lithium) make Lithia perfect to be turned into a munitions factory developing nuclear weapons for the UN. Such weapons are necessary to defend humanity from itself and from possible alien threats they might encounter later. Therefore, Cleaver recommends closing the planet for any other purposes.
Agronski has little say. He’s otherwise unimpressed by what Lithia has to offer and is willing to back Cleaver’s recommendations.
Michelis then speaks pulling apart Cleaver’s claims and takes a strong anti-colonialist stance:
“Lithia is not even the beginning of an arsenal,” Michelis said. “Every piece of evidence you offered to prove that it might be is either a half-truth or the purest trash. Take cheap labour, for instance. With what will you pay the Lithians? They have no money, and they can’t be rewarded with goods. They have almost everything that they need, and they like the way they’re living right now—God knows they’re not even slightly jealous of the achievements we think make Earth great. They’d like to have space flight but, given a little time, they’ll get it by themselves; they have the Coupling ion-jet right now, and they won’t be needing the Haertel overdrive for another century.” He looked around the gently rounded room, which was shining softly in the gaslight. “And I don’t seem to see any place in here”, he said, “where a vacuum cleaner with forty-five patented attachments would find any work to do. How will you pay the Lithians to work in your thermonuclear plants?”Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (p. 75). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Michelis goes on to say that what humanity needs from Lithia and the Lithians is some insight into how they have managed to organise their society so harmoniously.
The story at this point is set up as a conflict of ideas between Cleaver and Michelis. Cleaver, duplicitous and paranoid, has all the hallmarks of a conventional bad guy and Michelis that of the liberal minded hero. It can be difficult to tell with this book what is accidental and what is intentional from the author but I think Blish is intending to frame the argument in this way so that Father Ramon’s position is all the more shocking when he derails not just the team’s discussion but the whole plot and narrative role of the characters.
Michelis’s arguments sway Agronski away from Cleaver’s position but not completely. Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez then speaks last. Note, that in the preface Blish explicitly calls the priest the hero of the story.To the shock of everybody, the one member of the team to have established a positive report with the Lithians recommends the most sever finding:
Ruiz-Sanchez took a deep breath. What he was about to do would hurt him, without doubt, for the rest of his life, regardless of the way time had of turning any blade. The decision had already cost him many hours of concentrated, agonized doubt. But he believed that it had to be done. “I disagree with all of you,” he said, “except Cleaver. I believe, as he does, that Lithia should be reported triple-E Unfavourable. But I think also that it should be given a special classification: X-One.” Michelis’s eyes were glazed with shock. Even Cleaver seemed unable to credit what he had heard. “X-One—but that’s a quarantine label,” Michelis said huskily. “As a matter of fact——” “Yes, Mike, that’s right,” Ruiz-Sanchez said. “I vote to seal Lithia off from all contact with the human race. Not only now, or for the next century—but for ever.”Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (pp. 82-83). Orion. Kindle Edition.
The crux of Father Ramon’s position is that Lithia and Lithian society is just too perfect. It is suspiciously perfect. The Lithians live in a society that, according to Father Ramon (we are told rather than shown) fits perfectly with Christian morality but that the Lithians themselves have no religion or concept of God. This and their odd biology, which appears to serve primarily to demonstrate how evolution works, has convinced Father Ramon that Lithia is the work of Satan:
“But in the meantime, what we have here on Lithia is very clear indeed. We have—and now I’m prepared to be blunt—a planet and a people propped up by the Ultimate Enemy. It is a gigantic trap prepared for all of us—for every man on Earth and off it. We can do nothing with it but reject it, nothing but say to it, Retro me, Sathanas. If we compromise with it in any way, we are damned.” “Why, Father?” Michelis said quietly. “Look at the premises, Mike, One: Reason is always a sufficient guide. Two: The self-evident is always the real. Three: Good works are an end in themselves. Four: Faith is irrelevant to right action. Five: Right action can exist without love. Six: Peace need not pass understanding. Seven: Ethics can exist without evil alternatives. Eight: Morals can exist without conscience. Nine: Goodness can exist without God. Ten—but do I really need to go on? We have heard all these propositions before, and we know What proposes them.”Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (pp. 95-96). Orion. Kindle Edition.
He concludes his argument:
“But now we have, on Lithia, a new demonstration, both the subtlest and at the same time the crudest of all. It will sway many people who could have been swayed in no other way, and who lack the intelligence or the background to understand that it is a rigged demonstration. It seems to show us evolution in action on an inarguable scale. It is supposed to settle the question once and for all, to rule God out of the picture, to snap the chains that have held Peter’s rock together all these many centuries. Henceforth there is to be no more question; henceforth there is to be no more God, but only phenomenology—and, of course, behind the scenes, within the hole that’s inside the hole that’s through a hole, the Great Nothing itself, the Thing that has never learned any word but No since it was cast flaming from heaven. It has many other names, but we know the name that counts. That will be all that’s left us. “Paul, Mike, Agronski, I have nothing more to say than this: We are all of us standing on the brink of Hell. By the grace of God, we may still turn back. We must turn back—for I at least think that this is our last chance.”Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (p. 97). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Now I must stress again: Father Ramon is the hero of the story and otherwise a compassionate and sympathetic character AND Blish is an agnostic and not that well informed about Catholicism and not a partisan for Catholicism. Yet, here we are at the end of the key scene that defines the rest of the book and the hero takes the position that the genuinely nice Lithians are the work of the devil and have to be shunned.
Aside from the ethical issue of his own stance, Father Ramon is also appalled by the theology of it. He regards the idea that the Devil can actively create tangible things (rather than just mislead or deceive) to be tantamount to the heresy of Manicheanism. As much as I’d love to spin off into a discussion about Manicheanism I can’t without giving up any hope of keeping this essay under control.
The second big twist of the story happens before the close of the first part. Just prior to leaving the planet, Father Ramon is approached by Chtexa, a Lithian he had befriended. Chtexa gives Father Ramon a kind of ceramic urn. Inside the urn is a Lithian egg for Father Ramon to take to Earth. Eventually a Lithian will hatch from the egg and spend the aquatic part of its lifecycle inside the urn. This act sets us up for the second half of the story.
The second half of the novel is not as well regarded as the first half. The term ‘hot mess’ might work if it didn’t feel anachronistic. We are plunged into the strange world of future Earth. The threat of nuclear war had led to a ‘shelter race’ for humanity as nations found ways of living underground to ensure that they could survive a nuclear attack. With peace and world government, humanity still has not adapted back to surface living. People live stressful and sometimes violent lives in cramped conditions, while the wealthy indulge in a hedonistic life style.
Book Two begins with an account of Egtverchi, the child of Chtexa given to Father Ramon, developing in his egg and then inside the vessel. It is an excellent piece of writing — tracing the growth of this creature that from the start of its life has a kind of genetic memory of its ancestral past. The vessel is being cared for by Liu Meid, the UN Laboratory technician and Father Ramon’s colleague.
From here the story spirals off in many directions. Mike Michelis and Liu Meid become the adoptive parents of Egtverchi. Father Ramon is recalled to the Vatican to have his heretical views examined. Cleaver disappears mysteriously. Agronski becomes isolated. Once Egtverchi reaches young adulthood he becomes a charismatic and revolutionary figure. He begins to surrounded himself with followers and makes nihilistic broadcasts that increasingly trouble the authorities.
Father Ramon is challenged (sympathetically) by the Pope who accepts that the devil may have a role to play in Lithia but as the Devil cannot create any role he may have played must be by deception. The Pope asks, given that, why Father Ramon had not attempted an exorcism while on Lithia. To this Father Ramon has no good answer.
Eventually we learn that Cleaver has returned to Lithia and has enacted his plan to turn it into a munitions factory. On the planet he is destroying forests and important parts of Lithian culture. I should add though, that this is not the central conflict of the story. Instead, events are increasingly dominated by Egtverchi whose speeches are destabilising human society. Egtverchi’s followers are running riot through human cities and we learn that Agronski has become a mindless devotee of Egtverchi’s cult like movement.
Eventually, the authorities act against Egtverchi who attempts to escape to Lithia even though his beliefs will be just as out of place their as on Earth. Meanwhile, Father Ramon, Mike Michelis and Liu Meid learn that Cleaver’s nuclear experiments on Lithia run the risk of destroying the whole planet. They also gain access to a new kind of telescope that allows them to see in real time the planet Lithia (i.e. a kind of faster than light telescope).
Realising that distance should be no obstacle to an exorcism, Father Ramon takes the opportunity of viewing the planet remotely to perform the rite. At the same time Cleaver performs a fatal nuclear act. As a consequence Lithia explodes and also destroys Egtverchi who is on route.
That’s the resolution of the story: the priest performs an exorcism and the planet blows up AS IF the exorcism caused it but also because of Cleaver’s actions. What the flipping’ heck?
At this point I have to circle back to the start of the book and indeed the title of the book. Oh and James Joyce.
When we first meet Father Ramon at the start of the book, he is reading Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. This is an infamously difficult book and no, I haven’t read it and yes, I tried once and I couldn’t cope. The specific part Ramon is reading is a parody of a type of writing called a casus conscientiae (a case of conscience) for which the Jesuit order were famous. These were ethical problems/puzzles, a kind of moral word-problem where the right course of action (based on Catholic teaching) has to be arrived at. The capacity of Jesuits to split hairs and make fine logical distinctions on matters of ethics was infamous to the extent that the generic term ‘causitry’ took on a pejorative meaning for duplicitous argumentation.
The casus conscientiae in Finnegan’s Wake is not intended to be solvable. It is a parody of the form that Joyce would have been familiar with. The passage is full of complex details about a group of people who are all involved sexually with each other in various ways. Father Ramon treats the passage as a genuine ethical case and believe he has a solution to the riddle Joyce has posed.
Unless his impression that he understood the problem at last was once more going to turn out to be an illusion, he was now ready for the basic question, the stumper that had deeply disturbed both the Order and the Church for so many decades now. He reread it carefully. It asked: “Has he hegemony and shall she submit?” To his astonishment, he saw as if for the first time that it was two questions, despite the omission of a comma between the two. And so it demanded two answers. Did Honuphrius have hegemony? Yes, he did, because Michael, the only member of the whole complex who had been gifted from the beginning with the power of grace, had been egregiously compromised. Therefore, Honuphrius, regardless of whether all his sins were to be laid at his door or were real only in rumour, could not be divested of his privileges by anyone. But should Anita submit? No, she should not. Michael had forfeited his right to dispense or to reserve her in any way, and so she could not be guided by the curate or by anyone else in the long run but her own conscience—which in view of the grave accusations against Honuphrius could lead her to no recourse but to deny him. As for Sulla’s repentance, and Felicia’s conversion, they meant nothing, since the defection of Michael had deprived both of them—and everyone else—of spiritual guidance. The answer, then, had been obvious all the time. It was: Yes, and No. And it had hung throughout upon putting a comma in the right place. A writer’s joke. A demonstration that it could take one of the greatest novelists of all times seventeen years to write a book the central problem of which is exactly where to put one comma; thus does the Adversary cloak his emptiness, and empty his votaries.Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (pp. 55-56). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Yes and no. Rather than a single question, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez regards the problem posed by Joyce’s casus conscientiae as being two seperate but related questions that can have their own independent answers. This dual possibility is something he returns to in the final chapter of the book, this time on the question of how God might intervene into events in the world:
And perhaps he had seen, too, that the time Ruiz-Sanchez had devoted to the elaborate, capriciously hypercomplex case of conscience in the Joyce novel had been time wasted; there was a much simpler case, one of the classical situations, which applied if Ruiz-Sanchez could only see it. It was the case of the sick child, for whose recovery prayers were offered. These days, most sick children recovered in a day or so, after a shot of spectrosigmin or some similar drug, even from the brink of the terminal coma. Question: Has prayer failed, and temporal science wrought the recovery? Answer: No, for prayer is always answered, and no man may choose for God the means He uses to answer it. Surely a miracle like a life-saving antibiotic is not unworthy of the bounty of God. And this, too, was the answer to the riddle of the Great Nothing. The Adversary is not creative, except in the sense that He always seeks evil, and always does good. He cannot claim any of the credit for temporal science, nor imply truthfully that a success for temporal science is a failure for prayer. In this as in all other matters, He is compelled to lie.Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (pp. 227-228). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Prayer has saved the child, in Father Ramon’s analysis, and temporal science. That is also his (and apparently the book’s) answer to the question about the fate of Lithia. Does it explode because Father Ramon performs a long-distance exorcism or does it explode because of Cleaver’s poorly thought through physics? Both. The two questions can be answered independently within the bounds of the book.
Is that horrible? Yes. Why is Blish doing this? He has gone to great lengths to show that humanity is corrupt and the Lithians are essentially good. Egtverchi is a disruptive influence on Earth but he is also the only Lithian brought up within human society. Blish doesn’t pull any punches here: Earth society is shown as unstable, hedonistic, violent and corrupting. Cleaver (who if we take the ending at face value is the instrument of God’s exorcism of a satanic influence) is a straight-forward sci-fi baddy. Cleaver lies, is cynical and hopes to reduce the Lithians to slavery. Cleaver is quite horrible and intentionally so. Good grief, modern science-fiction that is often derided by traditionalist as morally grey and fall of downer endings has nothing on this classic from the golden age. (Also “Cleaver” as a name clearly isn’t meant to be endearing.)
But I need to pivot back to the start once again, to where Father Ramon is thinking about Finnegan’s Wake:
“Well. This was all very well. The novel even seemed to be shaping up into sense, for the first time; evidently the author had known exactly what he was doing, every step of the way. Still, Ruiz-Sanchez reflected, he would not like to have known the imaginary family hidden behind the conventional Latin aliases, or to have been the confessor to any member of it. Yes, it added up, when one tried to view it without outrage either at the persons involved—they were, after all, fictitious, only characters in a novel—or at the author, who for all his mighty intellect, easily the greatest ever devoted to fiction in English and perhaps in any language, had still to be pitied as much as the meanest victim of the Evil One. To view it, as it were, in a sort of grey twilight of emotion, wherein everything, even the barnacle-like commentaries the text had accumulated since it had been begun in the nineteen-twenties, could be seen in the same light.Blish, James. A Case Of Conscience (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (p. 55). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Is this how Blish wants us to read the novel? That the author had known exactly what he was doing, every step of the way? That we should view it without outrage either at the persons involved or at the author? The word ‘devil’ appears only once in the book. ’Satan’ only three times. The term mainly used for the force behind Lithia is ‘adversary’ – a being attempting to control Father Ramon and who has created the planet Lithia and its too-good-to-be-true circumstances. Who is that other than Blish himself?
What can I say? This is not a great book but rather a sketch of a great book. Perhaps the underlying work whose framework Blish has charted is itself unwritable. Its flaws are legion and its strengths equally so. The Lithians are sympathetic aliens that are genuinely alien in a way that science fiction often fails to depict. The use of science fiction to explore religious and ethical questions is pioneering. The scope of ideas and the literary ambition of the book are substantial. Genuinely both a master work of science fiction and yet a heroic failure.
And at this point I must stop. I am going to spin off a seperate post on how the 1959 Hugo Awards and how A Case of Conscience fits in. Apologies for this rambling essay on this terrible and wonderful and appalling and fantastic book.
*[I only found his first name after I posted this. I think Blish is playing some sort of game with the character names but I don’t know what.]