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A Case Of Conscience
James Blish
Victor Gollancz, 192 pages

A Case Of Conscience
James Blish
James Blish was born in 1921 at East Orange, New Jersey. He received a BA in microbiology from Rutgers in 1942 and served in WWII as a medical technician. After the war, he continued his studies at Columbia for 2 years. His first wife was Virginia Kidd, the literary agent. Blish moved to England in 1968 with his 2nd wife, Judith Ann Lawrence. A prolific author, he also wrote under such names as William Atheling, Jr., Arthur Merlyn, Donald Laverty and John MacDougal. His awards include the 1959 Hugo for Best Novel for A Case Of Conscience. He died on July 29, 1975, at Henley-on-Thames, UK

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A review by Martin Lewis

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The most obvious thing to say about A Case of Conscience is that it is a slightly disjointed novel due to the fact it is a fix-up of an earlier novella. The first part, the original novella, is set on the planet of Lithia. A contact team of four scientists (Ruiz-Sanchez, Michelis, Agronski and Carver) have been sent to decide whether to open the planet up to Earth. This decision is complicated by the fact that Lithia is inhabited by intelligent, civilized aliens with the appearance of twelve-foot high reptilian kangaroos. Michelis believes the planet should be opened up so Earth can benefit from contact with the peaceful, unified Lithians; Carver believes the planet's high quantity of lithium makes it ideal for turning into a bomb factory; Agronski is undecided, flitting between both views.

This brings up a serious flaw in the novel: the depiction of Agronski and Carver. Carver is portrayed as stupid, xenophobic and venal to a degree that undermines the credibility of his selection, and his plan for Lithia is simply laughable. Agronski on the other hand has no characterization at all; he is simply a blank slate. This means a lot of the tension generated in the build- up to the discussion is dissipated. However Ruiz-Sanchez, a priest as well as a biologist, has an even more radical conclusion: that Lithia should be placed in permanent quarantine because it is a creation of the devil. In doing so he has committed heresy since this belief, Manichaeanism, is against Catholic dogma.

As an atheist interpreting an agnostic's depiction of Catholic theology several decades after the fact, I don't find this entirely persuasive but this does not really matter. James Blish notes in his foreword that it was his intention to write "about a man, not a body of doctrine." He largely succeeds in this; his portrayal of the deeply conflicted Father Ruiz-Sanchez is the core of this section.

It is Blish's writing that is the real joy here; compared to that of a fellow Futurian like Isaac Asimov, his writing is a revelation. His depiction of Ruiz-Sanchez and the Lithian society would not look out of place published today, in stark contrast to most 50s SF.

The second half of the novel is set on Earth and charts the development of a Lithian specimen from embryo to TV star. This Lithian, Egtverchi, is a catalyst for social change that touches the lives of all the original contact team.

Again Blish's writing is ahead of the field but this time only as far as the 70s. His depiction of Earth is reminiscent of that of John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar and Thomas Disch's 334, though without the stylistic experimentation of the New Wave writers.

The satiric tone of the second half is in marked contrast to that of the first and this is not necessarily for the best. Likewise the relegation of Ruiz-Sanchez from centre stage to the role of supporting player. This dissonance is also present in a superfluous scientific appendix that detracts jarringly from the ending. The ending itself, however, is well-written and thoughtful, and provides a final solution to the problem of Lithia and Egtverchi.

Blish is certainly a historically important author and should be read for that reason alone. However, you can't help thinking that if the novel had been written as a whole, the results would have been more satisfying. Nevertheless A Case Of Conscience has aged well and, for all its flaws, holds its own with any SF published in the last 50 years.

Copyright © 2001 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.


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