Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Published: Ballantine Books (1958), Gollancz(2000)
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a dedicated man--a priest who is also a scientist, and a scientist who is also a human being. He has found no insoluble conflicts in his beliefs or his ethics... until he is sent to Lithia. There he comes upon a race of aliens who are admirable in every way, except for their total reliance on cold reason; they are incapable of faith or belief.

Confronted with a profound scientific riddle and ethical quandary, Father Ruiz-Sanchez soon finds himself torn between the teachings of his faith, the teachings of his science, and the inner promptings of his humanity. There is only one solution: He must accept an ancient and unforgivable heresy--and risk the futures of both worlds...”

I mostly grabbed A Case of Conscience due to its Hugo win—I’m almost finished reading all the Hugo winners (just less than 10 to go)!  However, I was also interested in reading another science fiction first contact story involving religion.

My Thoughts:

A Case of Conscience is a novel that is cleanly split into two halves, one of which takes place on Lithia and the other mostly back on Earth.  It seems quite clear that the two halves were written separately, in terms of the tone and general focus of the story. In fact, the first half was published as a novella in 1953, and the second half was added when the story was extended to novel length.  The first half focuses on the human investigative team’s views on the planet of Lithia and its sentient inhabitants, while the second features the effects of the expedition to Lithia on an Earth.

While many of the ideas brought up in the course of the story were interesting, the characters seemed very flat and pretty unconvincing. In general, I think most of the characters existed in order to hold particular views, and to see how those views fared against circumstances and one another.  For instance, in the first half of the novel, the major conflicts are due to the different expedition members’ views on Lithia, and the Catholic Father Ruiz-Sanchez’s attempts to reconcile the reality of the Lithians with his religious ideology.  The story begins near the end of the expedition, and most of the information about the planet and its inhabitants is simply told to the reader, with very little plot to break up the information.  The story is dominated by the conversation between the scientists about what they had concluded about Lithia, and of how the planet should be treated by human civilization.  While I wasn’t really engaged by the characters, I enjoyed reading about their opposing views.

The second half of the novel did not really grab me.  The story jumped from the peaceful Lithia to a decadent Earth with social structures and problems shaped by the fear of nuclear war.  Reading about the details of this future Earth was sometimes entertaining (even though some details seemed unlikely), but the pacing was rather strange.  For instance, there is an excruciatingly long description of a party, which does not seem nearly as important as the time lavished on it might imply.  There is significantly more action than in the first half, involving the effects of a parting gift from the Lithians, potential societal breakdown, and Ruiz-Sanchez’s confrontation of his heresy.  However, given the little investment I had in the characters, this was less engaging than the conversation of the first half.  I appreciated the ambiguity of the conclusion, but I felt that it, as well as much of the plot, was a little too overdramatic. 

My Rating: 2.5/5

A Case of Conscience is not one of my favorite Hugo Award winners. Some of the ideas presented were interesting, such as the consideration of how a non-religious, seemingly perfect alien species might be understood in the context of a certain view of Christianity.  However, the characters were bland, and the pace of the story was pretty uneven.  The first half was almost entirely based on information and conversation, and, due to my lack of interest in the characters, the relatively action-packed second half often bored me.  This is a novel that has endured for many decades, but I think I would have found the story more effective in its original novella form.

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