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REVIEW: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of ConscienceREVIEW SUMMARY: Thought-provoking story with strong characters


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A Jesuit biologist questions his faith when he deems the paradise-like planet of Lithia to be a trap set by the forces of evil.


PROS: Interesting premise; thought-provoking writing; strong characters.

CONS: Religion is not a favorite SF topic of mine.

BOTTOM LINE: Good, thought-provoking story.

Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is a Jesuit biologist who is part of a four-man mission to the distant planet of Lithia. Their mission is to recommend whether Earth should establish future contact with the newly discovered planet. Lithia is a paradise-like planet similar to Earth but lacking any significant precious metals. The Lithians, intelligent twelve-foot-tall lizard-like creatures, are relatively advanced despite this lack of metal.

Each member of the team has their own recommendation about the fate of Lithia. Agronski, (the geologist) is a bit in doubt of what is to be done, but Michelis (the chemist) thinks that the Lithians should stand on equal ground with the people of Earth. Cleaver (the physicist) thinks Lithia, with is core of Lithium, would make an ideal weapons factory. Ruiz-Sanchez, though, with his religious background, sees that planet for what it is: a trap for mankind set by Satan himself. In the process, Ruiz-Sanchez is labeled a heretic and excommunicated from the Church and must hold conference with the Pope for his sins.

Before returning back to Earth, the main Lithian contact, who is named Chtexa, gave Ruiz-Sanchez a gift: a Lithian embryo. The child, named Egtverchi, grows up on Earth, becomes a darling of the media and upsets the delicate balance of the Shelter society, the predominate culture on Earth.

A Case of Conscience won the 1959 Hugo award. The novella that makes up Book One of this 200-page novel was also named “A Case of Conscience” and just recently won the 1954 retro-Hugo award for best novella.

I found Book One, which is set entirely on Lithia, to be more enjoyable than the second book. I can’t say there was a whole lot of action here. Lots of it was arguments in favor of or against future contact with Lithia. While it was certainly very though-provoking, I wasn’t entirely bough-in to the data that led Ruiz-Sanchez to conclude that Lithia was a trap set by “The Adversary”. Perhaps because religion is not a favorite SF topic of mine – shelve it between economics and politics.

Book Two was less enjoyable in my opinion. The story of Egtverchi was interesting in that he was essentially exiled to Earth; alone and with no understanding of his own language. And yet, oddly, he was genetically predisposed to “know” lots about his past. Just before he poses a potential threat to Earth, Ruiz-Sanchez is told by the Pope that it is his duty to perform an exorcism?of the whole planet Lithia.

Overall, the characters were well written. Each had a strong personality and acted and spoke in a rational, consistent fashion. Ruiz-Sanchez was able to believably embrace both his scientific background and his own theology. To me, that was the appeal of this book.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

  1. so whats your beef with religion in sf? whereas, my beef is with religion in whatever context it maybe in — unless its penn and teller, james randi, and others like them…

  2. No beef. It just tends to make the story drag. I guess it’s hard to make it interesting (like economics and politics…yawn).

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