A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience by James Blish is the 1959 Hugo award winning novel that was recently produced as an unabridged audio book by Audible Frontiers, the science fiction and fantasy publishing imprint from Audible.com.  The book is wonderfully narrated by Jay Snyder.  When I became addicted to audio books back in 2002 I constantly searched for classic science fiction books on audio.  There weren’t many available.  For about a year now Audible Frontiers has been cranking out far more SF audio books than I have time to listen to.  Even today, when I go through the audio sections at book stores, I seldom see many science fiction titles for sale.

You can buy A Case of Conscience as an audio book through Amazon, via a link back to Audible, or from the iTunes Store, for $17-19 dollars, but the cheapest way to get it is to join Audible.com.  To get those bargain prices requires committing to a 1 or 2 book-a-month plan.  I buy an annual 24-pack deal and get books for $9.56 each.  To get some idea of why you might want to join Audible.com, look at Hugo Winners on Audible and Heinlein on Audio.  The catch is you have to be tech savvy enough to listen to audio books on your iPod or MP3 digital player.  Audible.com does allow you to burn CDs, but that takes some tech know-how too.

Now, do I recommend you go buy A Case of Conscience?  I enjoyed the book, but I’ve got to warn modern readers about 1950s science fiction.  A Case of Conscience is a fix-up novel, combining the 1953 novella set on the distant planet Lithia, with newer material, with the same characters back on Earth continuing the story.  Many classic science fiction novels, like Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and City by Clifford Simak, were fix-up novels.  They feel like reading short stories rather than novels.  The second warning I have to give is about the nature of classic SF, especially books from the 1950s.  They are idea driven, rather than plot driven.  My guess is young people today who love action driven science fiction might grumble about these older cerebral stories.

James Blish does some excellent world-building with Lithia.  It’s a planet poor in heavy metals like iron, but the intelligent beings there have learned alternate routes to scientific discoveries and have engineered a technologically advance society.  The Lithians never discovered magnetism and electricity, but have created technology based on static electricity, and pushed the limits of biology further than we have.  Blish did a great job creating a fascinating planet and culture, but that’s only the setup for the real idea that’s central to the book.

A Case of Conscience combines science fiction and religion to make for a philosophical story.  A team of four scientists are sent to evaluate Lithia, but the biologist, Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit, and he makes a startling claim about Lithia and the Lithians.  The Lithians have no concept of God, afterlife, sin, or even things like fiction or lies.  They are logical.  Their culture is an atheist’s utopia.  I love what Blish does with this, and I won’t spoil any of his story.  I’m very appreciative to Steve Feldberg and Audible.com for bringing this book to audio.  I tried to read A Case of Conscience twice before in my life and didn’t get into it either time.  This wonderful audio reading made it completely accessible to me.  Blish’s style was too dry for me to read, but lovely to listen to.  I don’t know why.

The real reason I want to recommend this book is because we should think about contact with alien culture and religion.  What if SETI makes first contact and our new friends have never even imagined the concept of God?  That is possible.  What will they do when we tell them about our spiritual theories?  What if they have theories about the origin of the universe that we never thought about?

Most fundamentalists cannot handle even minor variations in their own religion, much less deal with ecumenical diversity of world religions.  Their narrowly focused personally held concepts would probably be blown away by ancient ideas in the many dead religions in our history, so how would they react to a true alien spirituality?  So what happens if the nightly news programs are bombarded with religious ideas from light years away?  What if these alien missionaries have existed for millions of years and know a lot more about everything?  Will we form cargo cults in reaction to these superior wisdom, like primitive people in the 20th century when encountering modern westerners for the first time?

In the next ten thousand years we will probably never meet any aliens face to face, but there’s a good chance of finally having some success with SETI, and initiate interstellar texting sessions with dialog response times in the decades, centuries or even millennia.  Even if we detected an alien signal today, it could take so long to respond and develop a way to converse that it could be centuries before we get down to chatting about vague philosophical concepts.  The novelty of the alien existence will wear off before we know what they think.

Today, because of science fiction, I believe most of the world assumes that there are intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe.  We also assume we’ll share the same mathematics, physics and chemistry, but will probably diverge with biology.  But what kind of overlap will be possible for philosophy, religion, art and music?  Music has a relationship with mathematics and physics, so it is possible there could be strange alien music we could hear and think of as melody.  Art connects with vision which also connects with physics.  The idea of creating beautiful objects that nature didn’t could be common.

Alien religion and philosophy are harder to imagine.  James Blish essential creates an alien world and then forces a John Milton like Catholic interpretation upon it.  Mary Doria Russell explores the same ground in her magnificent novel, The Sparrow.  Is it possible to evaluate an alien religion without seeing it through our own glasses made from our religion?  Can we even see a religion without being religious?  Do dolphins and whales have religion?  They are the closest thing we have to alien intelligence and we know so little about them.

Is worship the defining characteristic of religion?  Is it possible to have religion without gods, either seen or unseen?  If all aliens have the same image in their homes, do we consider that a sign of religion?  Would aliens exploring our world think of religion when they count all the photos of Brittany Spears?

We often talk as if God is the same deity whether the Earthy believer is Christian, Muslim or Jew.  Would our alien friends see that?  Would they assume our God is their God?  For most of this planet’s history, our believers believed their God made this world, but they never knew it was just one of billions upon billions of worlds.  Does each world get their own creator?  Or is their one God that knows about every sparrow on this world, also know about every sparrow like creature on every other world?

In the end, we have to judge James Blish on how he handles his religious problem in A Case of Conscience.  Does the ending imply that Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez was right in his judgement of Lithia?  If that is true, then we have to believe that Blish does believe, at least for this story, that it’s possible that our God is supreme, that our Earth is the center of reality, and that all the rest of the universe is part of a lesson to teach us about God’s word.  Isn’t it rather strange that God would build such a big school-house just for us?

What would a universal religion be like that covered a universe fourteen billion light years across and was home to billions of intelligent life-forms and their planets.  Knowing as much astronomy as I do I find it hard not to be an atheist, but I could be wrong.  I believe religion is only practical at the tribal level, but again I could be wrong.  But if there is one God and his territory covers all of the cosmos, then I can’t help believe that mathematics, physics, chemistry and all the other sciences is the true Bible of this God.

JWH 12/21/8

4 thoughts on “A Case of Conscience by James Blish”

  1. Crap man, you’ve been blogging more often! I usually only check in once a week or so.

    I found this a really fascinating book, too, and recommend it. I’m an atheist myself, and find most religious positions intellectually bereft, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting speculations to make about them.

    Your final statements reflect Einstein, by the way, who rejected all organized religion as ridiculous and embraced Spinoza’s god, god reflected in the laws of nature.

  2. A couple of minor disagreements, Jim:

    Although the first part of “A Case of Conscience” was originally published as a novella, I was not aware of that until now. IMO, it’s not obvious. It certainly doesn’t read as a series of episodes. No, it’s always seemed like a real novel to me – and a deservedly well-respected classic SF novel, at that.

    And second, I strongly disagree that Blish “forces a John Milton like Catholic interpretation” upon anything in this book. That’s one interpretation, yes. That’s the interpretation of the priest in the book, and you can believe it if you want. But there’s also a perfectly rational secular explanation for everything.

    I’m an atheist, but I tend to enjoy investigations of religion in science fiction. And I particularly enjoy books like this, where the interpretation is largely left up to the reader. James Blish doesn’t force anything on us. Just the reverse, he leaves it up to us to decide what’s really going on.

    1. Well Bill, I agree with you that the book can be seen in different ways, but I tend to read a book and accept the story from the lead character’s point of view, which for this story, I picked Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez’s POV.

      It was unfair of me to say it was Blish’s POV, but he did create Father Ruiz-Sanchez, and one way to see the story’s ending is as an exorcism. And I think Blish wants some of his readers to explore that view.

      It’s like there are two sides, and you have to take one side. If you take the non-religious side, most of the story is just weird crazy worries that a priest is thinking. If you take the religious side, and by the way, I am an atheist too, the story has epic qualities, like those found in Paradise Lost.

      Science fiction novels often set up artificial situations to create interesting idea stories. Did Blish set up this situation to explore religious ideas, or to make religious ideas seem absurd? That’s harder to tell, but for me, to make the story have more impact, I believe Blish wanted us to look at the story from the religious perspective. Even if it’s just pretending. And I think if you do, the novel has more drama and impact.

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