The novel “A Case of Conscience” by James Blish was published for the first time in 1958. The first part was published as a novella in the magazine “If” in 1953. The novel won the Hugo Award for best novel of the year. In 2004, the original novella won the Retro Hugo Award given to works published 50 years earlier.
In 2049 a human expedition is on planet Lithia, where the environment isn’t suitable for human beings but there’s an intelligent species that developed a culture completely different from those that appeared on Earth. Despite the many biological and cultural differences, humans are able to establish friendly relations with the Lithians.
The human expedition biologist, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, is also a Jesuit priest and is concerned by what emerges from his studies on the Lithians. They seem to have developed a perfect civilization without conflict but they don’t have a concept of divinity. Father Ruiz-Sanchez ends up getting convinced that they were created by Satan.
“A Case of Conscience” is part of an ideal trilogy called “After such knowledge” from a quote by T.S. Eliot along with the historical novel “Doctor Mirabilis” and the pair of fantasy novels “Black Easter” and “The Day After Judgment”. The novels of this trilogy concern various aspects of the price of knowledge.
“A Case of Conscience” is composed of two very different parts: the first is the original novella, set on the planet Lithia, the second was written by James Blish later to create the novel and is set on Earth.
The original novella is an intriguing story that describes an alien species that built a civilization totally different from the humans’. The relationship built between humans and lithians is friendly but there’s a huge gulf between them which limits their mutual understanding. The lithians have their own morality but they have no religion and this is the fundamental reason why Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez ends up getting convinced that they’re Satan’s creation.
At a time when the aliens tended to be simply the story’s villains, James Blish created a truly alien species of which he also described some biological background. This is the strong point of the novel because it forces us to confront with a way of thinking very different from the humans’. Eventually, every reader can decide whether to subscribe to Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez’s conclusion, reject it as a religious fundamentalist’s nonsense or even remain in doubt.
The second part of the novel describes a future Earth that has long been preparing for nuclear war, which luckily never actually started. In part this is also the story of a lithian brought to Earth when it was just an egg.
Unfortunately, I found this second part is a bit chaotic, split in James Blish’s attempt to have various subplots and at the same time describe the Earth’s future. In my opinion, it would’ve been better if it had been more developed but it’s a product of the ’50s, even in its limited character development. “A Case of Conscience” is a short novel by today’s standards – some editions may be less than 200 pages long – but for that time it’s quite long.
James Blish had a great culture and in his works there are scientific elements, especially biological, but also humanistic ones. Today “A Case of Conscience” could be published in two separate novels 500 pages long each and Blish could examine all the issues addressed. Especially the second part of the novel could have the length and the depth needed for a proper development.
As it is, “A Case of Conscience” is a novel controversial for the topics covered but also because of its flaws, especially in the second part. It remains in my opinion a work far above the average and therefore worthy of being read.