Thursday, 14 February 2019
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Finishing this book also means I'm one book closer in my quest to read all the Hugo nominations for Best Novel. I'm over halfway there!
A Case of Conscience is an interesting book. In an afterword, Blish writes that he does not himself believe in Catholicism, but was trying to write a book that took that theology seriously, and I think, in the end, that he does a fairly good job of it. Near the beginning, I was irritated by some of the arguments, but then I figured out that they were actually more subtle than I was thinking, and, if taken at face value, did mean something was amiss.
The book starts out on another planet, Lithia, where, it seems, the first sentient alien race humans have ever discovered lives. A four-man team ("man" is chosen deliberately - there's a woman who is a scientist later, but not on the planet, and her role is mostly to be a nurturer, and to marry another character) is sent to assess the biology, geology, sociology, etc., etc., to decide how the planet should be categorized for further contact and/or exploitation. (They'd probably say the exploitation part under their breath, although if you read the book, you'll find that one character rapidly makes that subtext text.)
One of the members of the team, the biologist, I think, is also a Jesuit priest. As the book opens, the team is readying their report, and Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has grown concerned. Lithia seems too perfect - everyone lives in perfect, Edenic harmony, and, what concerns him most, there never seems to have been a period of conflict in their past. They have no religion, and the biology of the dominant species is a literal representation of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny (AKA embryos reenact the entirety of human evolution before they're born). The Lithians have offspring that grow up outside the body, but go through various phases before they are reborn as fully functional Lithians, complete with the harmony, etc.
As a result, Ruiz-Sanchez believes this is an entire planet created by the Devil to tempt humans into irreligion, by giving them an example of an idyllic life without Christianity. I had issues with this at first, even within the logic of the book. Then I realized it did make internal sense. I was initially thinking that Ruiz-Sanches was saying that a world without religion that was idyllic must be demonic, which is circular reasoning if I've ever seen it. Then I realized that this character was saying something different - it wasn't that the world was idyllic (although that would have shaken his worldview too), it was that the Lithians had always had harmony, that there had been no period of development before they arrived at this perfectly balanced, perfectly harmonious, endpoint.
This leads him to fall into Manichaeanism, the belief that evil can create instead of just distort, and that heresy is of concern as he returns to Earth with a Lithian in an egg and then hatched. Egtverchi, as the baby Lithian is called, has no knowledge of Lithian society, but looks at that of Earth as he grows, and finds it grotesque. (Or is always just there as an instigator of evil.) On Earth, people live mostly underground, in huge complexes that were built through fear of nuclear war. Now people live in dense tight urban-like spaces, and unrest is growing. Egtverchi helps egg it on.
This is a fascinating experiment, writing science fiction that takes Catholic theology as a given, and then writes around it to take the story in interesting directions. Once I got the nuances of the argument, I didn't have to buy the worldview to appreciate what Blish is doing here.