Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...
read and review the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novels.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, was first published as a novel in 1958 and won the 5th Hugo Award. The book is divided into two distinct sections, the first of which was published as a novella in 1953 then expanded for the novel. ACOC starts in the year 2049, and takes place on the planets Lithia—50 or so light-years from Earth—and a bomb-shelter-obsessed Earth. The main thrust of the story concerns religion and science, and the ways in which they interact and overlap.

I’d like to start by saying that I’m an agnostic and a libertarian (at least loosely). I’m willing to entertain the idea that the Christian God or Norse Odin exist and have an effect on our lives, but I don’t think there’s any way (or need) to prove it—you believe in your thing, and I’ll believe in mine, and please don’t try to convert, subvert, or divert me. As a libertarian, I’m not a political anarchist—I just believe that human adults should be responsible for their own actions and decisions, and also responsible for those of their children. If I’m not hurting anyone else by my actions, the government should have no right or responsibility to dictate that I live or behave in a different way than I choose to (as it turns out, I’m married to a person of the opposite sex and the same race, we own a home and two cars, and we have a lovely daughter and a few pets—I’m pretty traditional when you get right down to it; however, I don’t believe that the church or the government should be able to dictate that their way or even my way is the only “right” way.) My stances on religion and politics almost certainly influenced my opinion and understanding of this book.

After I got past the annoyance of the myriad pencil markings left by a previous reader (who either stopped reading or stopped marking on page 137 of 188), ACOC was an interesting, thought-provoking read. Like many authors of the time, Blish seems to make use of every word in his extensive vocabulary; because the English vocabulary has evolved in the ensuing decades, it makes for slow reading—and cross-referencing with a dictionary—at times. Add in the references to Catholicism and its tenets, and it slows down even more (at least for a reader with no grounding in Catholicism).

The first part of the book centers on a Jesuit priest who is also a biologist, and a crisis of faith brought on by his experiences and observations of the Lithians. The second part focuses on a young Lithian who is raised on Earth by humans— an outsider by definition, and described in the book as “a preacher without a creed, an intellect without a culture, a seeker without a goal.” The book’s characters—even these two—are, for the most part, more sketched-in archetypes than fully-fleshed individuals. Some of the minor characters, who appear only briefly, are pretty colorful—including a few members of the glitterati, a scientist/nobleman who goes by the pseudonym of H.O. Petard, and a politician who finds it easier to talk than to listen. They’re all still just hazy outlines, though.

The science and future tech are pretty standard sci-fi fare, although the Lithian race, their evolutionary process, and their world’s science are a little more original. The fearsome weapon of the time is that 50s bugaboo, the hydrogen bomb. The Earth has moved beyond a state of war into a “Shelter state” brought on by the rampant bomb scares of the past; with only a few exceptions, humankind dwells in underground bunkers, told to be afraid mainly because their parents were. For the most part, this message is probably lost on current generations—although I can remember having bomb drills at my elementary school in the 70s (we lived fairly close to an active Air Force base), many modern readers probably weren’t exposed to the post-war fears and paranoia that came at the true height of the Cold War. When a main character rises up, issuing a call to passive anarchy and urging the populace to return to the surface, future readers probably won’t have any idea what a radical suggestion it is that humanity throw off the inherited fears and move on.

Throughout the story, the reader is shown things from two different perspectives—faith and science—and left to judge for himself which of them drives the characters and events of the story. Blish leaves it open to individual interpretation, and even the characters in the climactic scene view the same event with different interpretations—one believes that what he sees was caused by his faith in God, and another believes it’s the result of a math error. Either one, or both, could be correct.

This book, like Stranger in a Strange Land, which Robert A. Heinlein would come to write within a few years of this one, deals with a character who is essentially a fish out of water. After reading ACOC, I have to wonder if Heinlein wrote SiaSL after reading this one, and as a foil for it. ACOC’s outcast, while he preaches passive anarchy, instigates a violent worldwide revolution; SiaSL’s outcast also has a widespread effect on the world, but in a more peaceful and positive way (although it’s been a few years since I last read SiaSL, and I could be remembering it incorrectly…). I’ve heard that The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell and published in 1998, is essentially a modern update of ACOC—it won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the BSFA Best Novel Award in its year, so might be worth tracking down.

I liked this book, but more as a piece of the larger “history of sci fi” puzzle than on its own merits. It’s a short book, and if you have some understanding of Catholicism it might be a faster read for you than it was for me. I don’t regret reading it, but probably haven’t become an ardent fan of James Blish. Rating: 3/5

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