A Case of Conscience is a science fiction novel by James Blish, published in 1958, and winner of the 1959 Hugo Award for best novel. It's an interesting and thought-provoking, though very flawed, book. It's normal, to be expected even, that as time passes earlier works of speculative fiction will become outdated, bypassed by events as they actually happened. What's unusual about A Case of Conscience that the one aspect which seems most anachronist now isn't the hard science aspects, or even the social ideas, though these can be pretty bad, but the theology. The problem is that the protagonist is a Jesuit who spends most of the book wrestling with problems of faith and doctrine, and this book was written ten years before Vatican II.

A Case of Conscience is a sort of prototypical work of social fiction. It deals with the social and moral implications of the discovery of a race of aliens, the Lithians, significantly described as being like giant serpents, who live in perfect harmony, with no strife, crime, social disorder, or disagreement of any sort, unable to even understand the idea of lying, but also with no conception of religion or art.

It is divided into two parts. The first, and much better part, which was published alone as a short story in 1953, deals with a four man team sent to the Lithian world by the UN world government to observe them and decide how humanity should deal with them. The team is a sort of abbreviated cross-section of humanity: Father Ruiz-Sanchez, the morally tortured Jesuit and biologist; Cleaver, an ugly American type who sees everything in terms of potential for weapons research and industrialization; Agronski, a confused proto-postmodernist who seems unable to form an opinion on his own; and Michelis, a stereotypically phlegmatic and thoughtful New Englander.

The second half deals with the social upheaval which follows the growth and maturation of a Lithian egg which the four scientists bring back to Earth with them. The people of Earth here live almost wholly underground, a move they made in response to the possibility of nuclear war, which is now obsolete since the UN runs everything anyway, but the "shelter economy" has become so entrenched there is no returning. This part comes off as an abbreviated, and even more morally and intellectually shallow and confused, version of Stranger in a Strange Land (which would be published three years later in 1961), except that Egtverchi, the Lithian interloper, is treated as an antagonist, and a relatively one-dimensional one. This part gets extra points off in my book for Blish's repeated indiscriminate use of the word "schizophrenia" as a catch-all for any kind of major mental illness, when he's usually talking about depression. The ending is a bit of a badly telegraphed anticlimax.

I'm not totally down on A Case of Conscience. It made me think, which is something I can respect, even though I disagree with most of its premises. On the other hand, what I can't respect are the novel's literary shortcomings, which become particularly overwhelming in the second half.

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