Thursday, April 29, 2010

"A Case of Conscience" by James Blish

(cover image borrowed from another good review here)

I just re-read A Case of Conscience (1958) by James Blish, our April selection in the ClassicScienceFiction Yahoo Group. I first read it decades ago, but this is one book that stayed in my memory all those years (that's unusual, for me).

I'd say it's held up pretty well, but parts of it seem rather odd these days. It starts with four humans on the recently-discovered planet Lithia, which contains an intelligent reptilian species. Their job is to learn about the planet and recommend whether or not the planet should be opened for human activity. But basically, they're just trying to see what use the planet might be for human beings. After all, what good is a planet if we can't put it to our own use?

No one seems to be particularly interested in the Lithians, the first sentient aliens humans have ever encountered. No, they just wonder what good the planet might prove to be (for them), and whether there are any hidden dangers there. It's base colonialism, yes, but it also shows an incredible, almost unbelievable disinterest in what would actually be one of the biggest discoveries in human history. A whole 'nother planet with a brand new people, with their own history, their own culture, their own thoughts,... and all we care about is what use we can make of it.

Oddly enough, that's not the story. No, it just seems to be understood as... natural. Well, this book was written in the 1950's, but still. This mindset is just bizarre, don't you think?

Anyway, one of the humans has discovered vast supplies of lithium there, so he wants the Earth government to use the whole planet as a giant fusion bomb factory. (There's absolutely no concern or even interest in what the Lithians might think of this.) Note that they don't actually have any enemies on which to use the bombs, since the Earth is all under one government, controlled by the UN. And the friendly, planet-bound Lithians are the only aliens ever discovered. But that seems to be just an insignificant detail. Surely if you build enough bombs, you'll eventually find someone to bomb, right?

Maybe some group will try to revolt on Earth - and need to be nuked out of existence. Or maybe they'll find some other intelligent species, one not so welcoming as the Lithians, one with the temerity to actually want to "stay out of our frame of influence." (How dare they?!?)  We'll be "damned glad if we're able to plaster the enemy from pole to pole with fusion bombs" then, right?  (Ah, the 1950's! This brings back the wonderful stench of Joe McCarthy, doesn't it?)

And he suggests that they force the Lithians to work in these bomb factories, keeping them ignorant so they don't learn how to make bombs themselves. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Would this be slavery? Of course, not! Sure, they'd be forcing the aliens to work, but after all, they do plan to pay them for that work, although the Lithians don't use money and don't want anything the humans would exchange for their forced labor. But again, those are just minor details.

And again, oddly enough, that's not the story here, either. No, the real story begins when the Catholic priest, a Jesuit who's one of these four humans, advises that the planet be quarantined permanently. Why? Well, the aliens are a very nice, friendly, honest people with a pleasant, peaceful culture,... but they don't have any religion at all. How could this possibly be? Obviously, there's only one explanation possible: the whole thing must be a trap - a trap set by Satan to convince humans that they don't need religion!

Yeah, bizarre, huh? But what's really bizarre, is that the other three take him seriously! They don't agree with the priest, but they don't burst out laughing, either.

This is only the beginning of the book, but it's like reading something written in the Middle Ages. The mindset is really strange. Presumably, all this must have seemed reasonable in the 1950's, but it seems bizarre as hell today. (I guess maybe we have advanced, a bit.) By modern standards, no one in the book is particularly likable, and Earth society certainly isn't at all admirable. OK, this wasn't supposed to be a utopia even back then, but I suspect that it was meant to seem reasonable, even expected. Now, it just seems to be insane.

But don't get me wrong. This is really just the premise of the book (a book which won a Hugo Award in 1959 for best novel of the year.) If you can shrug off the mindset, and accept the premise, the story itself is interesting, even today. These four human beings return to the Earth, taking with them the gift of a fertilized alien egg. And that alien, damaged in transit and raised in a laboratory, becomes a major focus of the rest of the novel.

The question remains:  Is all this a supernatural trap, designed by Satan specifically to drag human beings into Hell? Or is it just what it appears to be, a different species with its own evolved biology and its own culture, which just doesn't happen to include the belief in invisible magical creatures? The neat thing about this book is that everything can be interpreted either way. You can accept the priestly explanation as being the literal truth, if you want. Or, just as easily, it can all be interpreted rationally, since there are perfectly reasonable secular explanations for everything. Even the very memorable ending of the story can be interpreted either way.

I loved this when I first read the book, and I still do. And after these four people - plus the alien egg - leave Lithia, things seem more reasonable (given the 1950's mindset, admittedly). The Catholic Church accepts the priest's explanation that it's all Satan setting a trap (with the pope's minor correction that Lithia must be just an illusion, since Satan isn't supposed to be able to create anything else). But the rest of the Earth seems to be... well, not rational, since they go ahead with the bomb-making proposal, but at least secular.

[As an aside, one interesting thing about this future Earth is that almost everyone lives underground. That's the result of the "shelter race," that part of the Cold War which followed the race for fusion bombs. This was the race to build bomb shelters, which ended up with the whole world living underground. I think it's interesting, because it must have seemed like a very plausible future history back in the late 1950's. When I went to grade school back then, there were always piles of Civil Defense pamphlets at every school function. They included plans for building your very own bomb shelter, and each urged all Americans to do so as a defense against nuclear war. (I could never understand why my parents wouldn't build one, especially since there were all those scare stories about how the Soviet Union was ahead of us in building shelters.) So I really enjoyed seeing this "shelter race" trend projected into the future.]

A Case of Conscience was one of the first science fiction books with a religious theme. But I admired it, and still do, for the clever way the author let each reader decide for himself what was really going on. You can interpret everything the way the priests do, that it's all about this supernatural battle, with Satan and God both being unhealthily obsessed with human beings. Or you can interpret everything in a secular fashion, since there are rational explanations for everything that happens. And your feelings about the outcome - whether the book is a tragedy or a triumph - will depend entirely on that interpretation. That's neat.

On the other hand, as I say, the mindset is hard to accept these days, especially since it doesn't seem to be criticized at all in this book. And no one, to my mind, is actually likable. Earth society is grim and unpleasant (ironically, Satan - if you accept the religious explanation of things - has created a far nicer world than Earth's religions have), and none of the humans are particularly admirable. (Priests are still required to be celibate, and I thought that this one, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, acted rather creepy when he was around the young woman in the story.)

A Case of Conscience is worth reading for any fan of science fiction, just because it is such a famous classic in the genre. It's still interesting today, though not particularly likable. I don't think I'd recommend it for its entertainment value, not these days. But it's an interesting example of 1950's science fiction.  (For another - brief - example, read on.)



(cover image from Wikipedia)

Another science fiction novel I just finished is Harry Harrison's The Technicolor Time Machine (1957), but I don't have as much to say about this one. It's a SF comedy, a humorous take on time travel and the movie industry, as a desperate director in a near-bankrupt movie studio uses time travel to complete a Viking movie in just a few days.

Really, it's lots of fun. The characters are stereotypes, but also individuals. And they're all rather humorously likable. It's not a serious book, and there's nothing to really examine. It's just entertainment. But although it was first published the year before A Case of Conscience, there's really no objectionable 1950's mindset in this one. In fact, it's pretty much just the reverse. These are basically decent people - funny, but sympathetically so.

The story goes pretty much exactly where you expect, but it's a lighthearted, enjoyable journey. It's still a bit old-fashioned, I know, but it's fun. And there are incidents and reactions, here and there in the book, that surprised me with their basic decency and humanity. This isn't a serious novel, but I didn't have any trouble with the mindset in this one.

1 comment:

Rena said...

I remember A Case of Conscience...what I mostly remember is that I couldn't stand it because no religion= SATAN (and oh, lets force people who we've decided aren't people to make us the bomb) broke my brain. I also have a possibly false memory that they decided to destroy the planet because of the Ebil?

I can either take or leave Harry "pretty girls can never be evil/criminal! because they always get what they want 'cause they're pretty" Harrison. I liked the Stainless Steel Rat books, and "To the Stars," but others never really grabbed my interest.