A Case of Conscience (1958)
A Hugo Award winner by a Science Fiction great, widely considered a classic, and highly recommended--I can hardly think of a book I've anticipated more eagerly. The story concerns Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest and life scientist, whose mission to the planet Lithia reveals a reptilian culture which follows the dictates of reason so precisely as to seem to duplicate Christian ethics. This would seem at first glance to be something marvelous and much to be desired. However, the "morality" of the Lithians raises troubling questions. First, how did they arrive at a perfect moral system without God to establish the Natural Law? Second, if their understanding of the correct course of action in all cases is determined by mechanical resort to reason, do they have Free Will? As the Father notes, the Lithians resemble nothing so much as Man before the Fall, prior to our eating of the Tree of Knowledge and learning of Good and Evil, prior to Satan intervening in Creation. Indeed, he concludes that, like the apple itself, this inviting seeming world without Evil must represent a temptation:
"[W]hat we have here on Lithia is very clear indeed. We have--and now I'm prepared to be blunt--a planet and a people propped up by the Ultimate Enemy. It is a gigantic trap prepared for all of us--for every man on Earth and off it. We can do nothing with it but reject it, nothing but say to it, Retro me, Sathanas. If we compromise with it in any way, we are damned.But this presents the Father with a problem of faith shattering proportions. As his fellow crewman asks:
"A question," Michelis said, and his voice was painfully gentle. "To set such a trap, you must allow your Adversary to be creative. Isn't that--a heresy, Ramon? Aren't you now subscribing to a heretical belief?"For if Satan is capable of being a Creator too, then he is in some sense God's equal. In fact, all of Creation may be a project of the malevolent Satan, rather than of the benevolent God.
Now that's some set-up for a story, no? Easy to see why it's heralded as one of the most important, and earliest, treatments of religion in all of science fiction. However, the lamentable truth is that Mr. Blish doesn't do much with the story from there. Actually, this first part of the story was published as a separate story (in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 1953), and standing alone it's quite good--though it would obviously leave one wondering what Ruiz-Sanchez subsequently learns about Lithia. It is the second part of the tale, which concerns a Lithian egg that is presented to the Father as he leaves and which is raised on Earth, that just doesn't work too well. Suffice it to say that by the end of the book, as the young Lithian, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, and the two different spaceships they're traveling in approach Lithia, it seems fairly certain that this Eden is about to be destroyed, whether by the introduction of Free Will, by the exorcism the Father plans to conduct, or by the exploitation of the planet as an energy source. If it's somewhat satisfying that the Lithian's rationalism can't withstand exposure to Earth, the level of ambiguity that the novel ends in anyway hardly justifies its extension. I'd recommend just reading Book One, but that highly.
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd