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James Blish – A Case of Conscience

Title: A Case of Conscience
Author: James Blish
Year: 1958

I generally enjoy religion as a theme in science fiction, counting A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr, as one of my favourite novels in this category. I often find it interesting to explore the religiosity of the main character in such novels, which made me happy when I began reading A Case of Conscience by James Blish. The story is about a Jesuit priest who is part of a scientific delegation of four people to the beautiful world of Lithia. Their mission is to investigate and provide enough information to be able to judge what status to ascribe Lithia and its population.

The other members of the group have fairly practical views of the aliens and their world, but father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez has something completely different in mind. He has spent much time together with the Lithians and is convinced that this world is the work of Satan. The world and its society is perfect, yet there is no concept of God, sin and other religious themes. In short, it is Eden before the Fall of Man. Some things on Lithia do indeed seem strange and Ruiz-Sanchez asks questions which are hard to answer. Things are further complicated when Ruiz-Sanchez is offered a gift by the Lithians he hardly can refuse: a beautiful vessel containing a fertilised Lithian egg.

I feel that the basic concept of this story is adequate to write a novel, but perhaps the original novella is better. The novel consists of two parts, which feel a little bit disconnected, even though Ruiz-Sanchez’ moral and religious questions tie everything together. On the positive side, James Blish never lets go of the reader. He constantly bombards one with action, interesting philosophical points or interesting setting (such as the Shelter Economy of Earth, the sequel to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War). The language is adequate, but not excellent. In short, it is a novel which is, in many ways, entertaining to read, but lacks something genuinely outstanding. Three and a half snails to James Blish and his A Case of Conscience.

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