The Mars surface-landers, for as much as NASA and science at large was concerned with their findings, likewise held the fascination of another huge community. With bated breath, Christians from around the world watched to see whether any forms of life might be discovered, their precious Bible, with its Adam & Eve roots, on the line. To this day no indisputable proof has been found that (sentient) life exists or existed on Mars, much to the relief of Christians worldwide. But what if Martians—little green men—were to pop out of craters and start to parley? Undoubtedly some obscure verse from the Old Testament would be rousted out to explain why they were excluded from the Genesis story, and then a missionary would be sent to convert them. But what if that missionary found a perfectly moral society—a species without sin? That crisis of faith is precisely the crux upon which James Blish’s 1958 A Case of Conscience hinges.
A Case of Conscience is the story of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist. Visiting the planet Lithia as part of a four-man scientific mission, he is the only one with religious convictions, and in the process of studying the soils and bacteria, animal life and aliens who inhabit the planet, ruminates upon the quandaries and paradoxes the Lithians, a reptilian species, present. The biggest is the fact the Lithians do no evil. No murder, no theft, no malicious acts whatsoever, their existence is purely a logical one that has seen them evolve through various phases of simple technology, the lack of metals like those found on Earth the limiting factor. With the scientists time on Lithia drawing to a close, each must cast their vote what is to be done with the planet. Ruiz-Sanchez’s crisis of faith determining his choice, the planet is never the same after.
Conflicted and conflicting, A Case of Conscience is a novel with pretensions to religious and humanist inquiry. The resulting story a mix of successes and failures, on one hand Blish creates a wholly progressive priest that truly feels like an objective observer within the limits of Catholic dogma. In fact, his humanity most often draws from a much deeper well of empathy regarding social issues we are now sensitive to (e.g. gender, procreation, etc.) then his so-called enlightened scientist colleagues. At other moments, however, he and the others feel like sock puppets, animated by forced emotions backing the philosophies Blish wants to see duke it out on the page. Cleaver, for example, is far more representative than mimetic, as are Agronski the geologist and Michelis the chemist. The methodology distancing the narrative from plausibility, the reader must approach the story from an ideological perspective if they are to engage fully with the slow twists and turns of opinion the story slaloms through.
The most significant problem with A Case of Conscience— as hinted at in the opening—is its inability to address the paradox of alien life and the creation story. The opening chapters of the Bible entirely ignored, Blish skips ahead to the moral issues, accepting that God simply left aliens—like dinosaurs!—out of the good book for a reason. Original sin (the largest sticking point, for all the fluctuation of Pope-approved morals that have occurred over the centuries) is instead the starting point of Ruiz-Sanchez’s philosophical contemplation.
Regardless of adherence to doctrine, A Case of Conscience has a point. Blish driving the plot hard, whipping it into submission in the second half, in fact, he ends up where he wants: ambiguity. The plot road all the more bumpy for it, conclusion is one the reader can appreciate, and for that has survived the exigencies of time with only a few scratches, but exceeds the unwritten bounds it imposed upon itself in the first half. There are more natural ways to achieve the same in fiction…
In the end, A Case for Conscience is an ambitious novel (fix up, in fact) that seeks to examine the validity of Christianity in an alien setting. Stapledon’s Star Maker presenting similar subject matter in far stronger and more empathetic terms, Blish nevertheless is capable of hitting some intriguing chords while mangling the rest. The ending note strong, the melody that takes the reader there is most often lacking characters, dialogue, and plot events that feel unforced or natural. The author like the grand puppet master himself, little happens that does not fully present the book’s contrived nature, but does, interestingly, ring conceptually true.