A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Con­science by James Blish is, on the sur­face, a nov­el about a cri­sis of faith when a priest is con­front­ed with a per­fect­ly moral and eth­i­cal alien soci­ety that has no sense of faith, or doubt or even guile. But James Blish is one of the most intel­li­gent sci­ence fic­tion authors I’ve ever read, so the nov­el is also much more than that. Blish was an athe­ist for most of his writ­ing career, or as Greg Bear men­tions in the intro­duc­tion to the ver­sion I read, an “appar­ent agnos­tic”. Since he has writ­ten a Hugo-win­ning mas­ter­work of reli­gious sci­ence fic­tion, I’m lean­ing toward the agnos­ti­cism angle myself.

I’ve had lit­tle to no con­tact with the Soci­ety of Jesus, despite my life­time immersed in Roman Catholi­cism. But from all I’ve heard and read, the Jesuits seem like my kind of Catholics, not afraid to wres­tle with thorny prob­lems of faith. Blish’s Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is not excep­tion in A Case of Con­science. The book opens with the padre work­ing his way through a labyrinthine moral dilem­ma in Finnegan’s Wake, and we then find out he’s doing this in his spare time, since he is actu­al­ly a xeno­bi­ol­o­gist on Lithia, an alien world 50 light years from Earth. So Fr. Ramon is a man who has no trou­ble rec­on­cil­ing sci­ence and faith, since he places faith as a high­er order of mag­ni­tude in his world. The cri­sis of faith comes to him sub­tly. His role on this plan­et is to deter­mine its via­bil­i­ty for human col­o­niza­tion. The padre doesn’t do this through a pure­ly sci­en­tif­ic cri­te­ri­on. First and fore­most he feels that it is nec­es­sary to deter­mine the sen­tient alien species state of grace. They are called Snakes and their soci­ety has no deviants, no taboos, no restric­tions of any kind, and runs like a pre­ci­sion instru­ment. As I men­tioned before, their com­plete lack of philo­soph­i­cal and moral thoughts creeps Fr. Ramon out. When he finds out how the Lithi­ans repro­duce and raise their young, he falls close to the heresy of Manicheaism which is some­thing along the lines of believ­ing that Satan has cre­ative pow­er; or more broad­ly, in a dual­is­tic uni­verse. In my under­stand­ing, this is con­sid­ered heresy because Satan is defined by absence and oppo­si­tion, he refus­es to be any­thing that God is, and there­fore can­not be cre­ative, he can only spin illu­sion, or some­such. Need­less to say, it is explained suf­fi­cient­ly in the book.

He comes back to Earth with a gift from the Lithi­ans, one of their chil­dren. As Egtver­chi grows up he becomes quite fright­en­ing, rem­i­nis­cent of Ivan Kara­ma­zov, but even more nihilis­tic and dan­ger­ous. I think Blish intend­ed this marooned being to be as close to Satan incar­nate as he could get. The read­er gets hit with a big old guilt-ham­mer here since we know that the only rea­son Egtvertchi thinks in the way he does, is because of the mis­takes his care­tak­ers made in rais­ing him. I guess that makes his claims of ulti­mate free agency all the more fright­en­ing. Once a genet­i­cal­ly pre­dis­posed ratio­nal mate­ri­al­ist gets a bit of phi­los­o­phy, look out! Not even the exis­ten­tial­ists took their idea of free­dom in such a self­ish light.

I read this book in an evening, it is about 250 pages, and very inter­est­ing. Blish is a lot like C.S. Lewis, I think. A very intel­li­gent man work­ing his way through his own cri­sis of faith, his own case of con­science, for per­son­al rea­sons. I get the sense that Blish was wrestling with these issues mere­ly because they are always going to be there to be wres­tled with and since he isn’t bound to either of the dual sides he picks, he can make each of them equal­ly potent. He’d’ve made a good Jesuit.

A tan­gen­tial­ly relat­ed link: a few thou­sand sci­ence fic­tion mag­a­zine cov­ers.
If you’d like more sci­ence as your reli­gion instead of reli­gion as your sci­ence, I rec­om­mend James Blish’s Cities in Flight