Review of A Case Of Conscience by James Blish

January 29, 2009
Filed under: Reviews, SFFaudio essential 

SFFaudio Review

Audible Frontiers - A Case of Conscience by James BlishSFFaudio EssentialA Case Of Conscience
By James Blish; Read by Jay Snyder
Audible Download – 7 Hours 55 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: November 2008
Themes: / Science Fiction / Religion / Catholicism / Aliens / Biology / Evolution /

Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a dedicated man – a priest who is also a scientist, and a scientist who is also a human being. He has found no insoluble conflicts in his beliefs or his ethics…until he is sent to Lithia. There he comes upon a race of aliens who are admirable in every way except for their total reliance on cold reason; they are incapable of faith or belief. Confronted with a profound scientific riddle and ethical quandary, Father Ruiz-Sanchez soon finds himself torn between the teachings of his faith, the teachings of his science, and the inner promptings of his humanity. There is only one solution: He must accept an ancient and unforgivable heresy -and risk the futures of both worlds…

A Peruvian priest is a strange enough protagonist for Science Fiction. Add in an essentially bloodless tale of alien human interaction, a token female, and a bowlful of Catholicism on every page, the fact that it’s clearly inspired, at least in part, by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and what you get is a classic SF novel? Yup! A Case Of Conscience is not quite the greatest SF novel of its era, but it holds up quite well. Blish put a good deal of thought into the original novella, and that pays off mid way through the novel (which is really two novellas put-together). The first half of the book is set on Lithia, a recently discovered alien planet teeming with unusual alien life. Lithia and its intelligent inhabitants are being considered for full human contact. There, judging the planet, are Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez a Jesuit biologist, Cleaver, a physicist, Michelis, a chemist, and Agronski, a geologist. Curiously Father Ramon seems to have strong reasons for opposing the opening of Litihia despite the fact that he has befriended one of the intelligent aliens. The fact that the Lithians seem to have an ideal society free of crime, conflict, ignorance and want also seems to worry Ramon. It all comes down to one question: Do the Lithians have souls? Despite his suspicions about the answer, the priest seems to only hold a deep affection for the Lithians.

I was highly impressed with the revelations that Ruiz-Sanchez (and Blish) give for it all. This is excellent idea driven SF. Blish seems to have taken the idea of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) very much to heart in writing the novel. These are/were the priests that were trained to take on the hardest tasks confronting the Catholic church. Blish has done them proud. But, that’s not the end of it. The turning point of the novel comes when the humans leave Lithia carrying with them a fertilized egg of one of the Litihians, an alien child to be raised on Earth and learn the ways of humans. This is where the second half of the novel begins. Earth is a “shelter society” (everyone lives in massive underground fallout shelters – you can see how it was written in the 1950s). There we follow our protagonist, a few other folks including the requisite token female named “Louella” (but called “Lou”) and the alien baby-cum-juvenile alien (who acts rather unlike his species normally does back on Lithia). Highlights here come when Ruiz-Sanchez is requested for a Papal audience! Again, some clever revelations occur in this second half, though they are generally weaker than the first. But, all together, and with the ending quite well done as it is, it’s very solid.

Included in the audiobook edition is the six page appendix, which is a ‘special preliminary report on the planet Lithia’ by Ruiz-Sanchez. As far as I can tell the narrator, Jay Snyder, has completely followed Blish’s own pronunciation guide for the book (which is not actually included in the audiobook). I’ve done a little comparing of the written text in the paperbook with the way Snyder says the alien names in the audiobook. It all sounds pretty accurate to me. Kudos to Audible Frontiers for carefully audiobooking this Hugo Award novel (and Retro Hugo Award winning novella). A Case Of Conscience is an SF classic!

Posted by Jesse Willis

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