Friday, September 25, 2009

1959 Hugo – A CASE OF CONSCIENCE by James Blish

Blish’s A Case of Conscience centers around a botanist and Jesuit priest from Peru named Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez. In 2049, he is part of an expedition to study and evaluate the first intelligence extraterrestrial life discovered by Earth, the Lithians. The Lithians live in harmony with their world and each other, and, most upsetting to Father Ruiz-Sanchez, they have no spirituality of any sort.

The book has two very disparate halves (I assume they were published separately in an anthology magazine). The first deals with Father Ruiz-Sanchez’s spiritual crisis and the rather extreme theological conclusions that he comes to regarding the Lithians. At the end of the first half, in what would have been a fantastic cliffhanger, one of the Lithians gives Ruiz-Sanchez his son to raise as an ambassador to Earth.

The second half follows the effects that this young Lithian has on Blish’s future Earth. Most of Earth has moved into concrete bunkers out of fear of nuclear armageddon (the Arms Race, we’re told, had turned into a Shelter Race). With Earth now united, only the elite live on the surface. The Lithian, raised on Earth in a matter of less than a year, decides that Earth’s inequalities are intolerable and leads a revolution. In this half, Ruiz-Sanchez moves to the sidelines.

There are a lot of interesting ideas here, and exploring how a man of faith (and a very orthodox Catholic faith at that) would deal with an alien life form is especially original and exciting. Unfortunately, this thread gets lost for most of the second half. Maybe Blish was setting up a dramatic clash – the Father judges against a utopian society because it clashes with his faith; the young Lithian judges against a dystopian society with a rational evaluation. That doesn’t seem to be Blish’s intention though, as he seems much more sympathetic to the Jesuit than the alien. I’m not really sure about Blish’s intentions. The pacing is odd as well – the first half is quiet and thoughtful, then the book gets dragged down in a long party (that is, I suppose, there to show how decadent and divided Earth has become), and then it rushes to a dramatic conclusion far too quickly.

Father Ruiz-Sanchez is probably the most fascinating character I’ve encountered in one of these novels thus far, and overall the novel has some very nice ideas. In the end, however, these ideas don’t quite shine through some murky plot development and herky-jerky pacing.

Grade: B

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