A Case of Conscience

by James Blish

Cover image

Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: April 1958
Printing: May 1975
ISBN: 0-345-24480-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 188

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The concept was promising enough. A Jesuit priest is part of an evaluation mission to an alien race who seem cordial, pleasant, and cooperative, logical and satisfied, but completely without any conception of religion. Confronting the reality of their existence, he has to reconcile them with his religion. Are they unfallen innocents? Soulless biological machines? Some form of moral puzzle or test? A Case of Conscience is early science fiction, so I wasn't expecting great writing, but it did, after all, win a Hugo.

Alas, this book is not a success, or even a reasonable failure, just a hideous mess. Questionable biology leads into dubious theology, pathetic zoology, slapdash physics, and frankly unbelievable sociology. The reader is unremittingly splattered with turgid wads of exposition, crushing the life out of the small bit of action with their sheer mass. The theological arguments that could have formed a centerpiece quickly find a pat answer (it doesn't have a recognizable religion, so it must be Satanic!) with observations that contradict themselves within pages. This conclusion is then never reconsidered, even after the influence of this alien species brings an obviously much-needed upheaval to a ludicrous society, and finally the Pope informs the priest that he was right about the danger (even if he applied the wrong bit of theology), just wrong about the solution. Quarantine isn't sufficient; nothing less than annihilation will suffice to deal with the unforseen. The ending would be a disturbing bit of nihilism if I cared in the slightest about any of these characters or their world.

The primary characters are all scientists in the now-unbelievable gung-ho engineer mode of 1950s science fiction. The world's most brilliant physicist constructs a hyperspace radio himself, armed with a soldering iron and an electronics lab board. There are only two female characters in the entire story, one leech of a socialite wife and a token female scientist who... well, I'll let Blish's description speak for itself.

Liu was as small-boned and intensely nubile as a geisha. She dressed with exquisite modesty, but it was not the modesty of concealment, but of quietness, of the desire to put around a firmly feminine body clothes that would be ashamed of nothing, but would also advertise nothing. Inside her soft colors, she was a Venus Callipygous with a slow, sleepy smile, inexplicably unaware that she — let alone anybody else — was expected by nature and legend to worship continually the firm dimpled slopes of her own back.

The inevitable capture and male rescue this sort of introduction promises never materialized. Such a burst of action and adventure would have destroyed the flow of the exposition.

I was sorely tempted not to finish this book, and in the end did so only because it was short. While there are more actual events in the last half of it, the action of the entire book could have been compressed into fewer than fifty pages, and that's generously including pages of superficial theological debate. The remainder of the text is filled with digressions, musings, ponderings, and outright lecturing, most of which is mind-numbingly dull and establishes only such trivia as the author's knowledge that aspirin is also called acetylsalicylic acid. The characters frequently launch into poetic description or emotional plaints that vary between sad and incomprehensible. Blish is clearly in love with language. Unfortunately, language dislikes him intensely.

"Preaching is my vocation," Ruiz said. "If I make a vice of it, I expect to atone for that somewhere else than here."

I would not wish the atonement that would require on anyone, particularly not Blish who was doubtless a nice and pleasant chap. He just had the misfortune of writing a dreadful book about a good idea. Many reviewers continue to praise this book today for its willingness to tackle that idea when it did, apparently accepting the shoddy writing, unbelievable characters, and questionable science because of the era in which it was written. I'm not as generous.

Rating: 1 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-01-03

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