"A Case of Conscience" by James Blish

Fried Egg

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I've just finished reading this...has anyone else read it?

I found it deeply thought provoking and I've not seen any book deal with the religous implications of finding sentient alien life (although please let me know if there are).

I suppose I was a little dissappointed by the ending (spoiler follows):
It seemed a shame that the Lithian's turned out to be nothing more than a satanic illusion. Why couldn't an alien species exist in such a way that it left no need for the concept of god to be invoked in order to explain it? Why should a perfectly moral society necessarilly need a God to lay down such morals? Of course, it makes sense that one could not possibly arrive at ethical positions by pure reasoning alone, but still...

And of course the book raised interesting questions with regard to our own society. Sure, we don't live in the "shelter" society described by Blish but it is certainly allagorical with our own. Ruiz-Sanchez himselfs wonders whether there has always been a signficant proportion of society completely alienated by the society they live in.
 

j d worthington

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I'm not at all sure that they did, actually.... Blish left that ending quite ambiguous -- after all, the whole point of the mining was to get an element that is very volatile and, under the wrong conditions....

Either way, though, Ruiz-Sanchez suffers. Even if his faith is regained, it's at considerable cost.

No, I think Blish was doing quite a nice balancing act with the ending... keeping both a mystico-religious and a mechanistic-materialist reading viable (a damned difficult stunt, really); and he allows the reader to draw their own conclusion as to whether it's Ruiz-Sanches' own orientation that provides for the religious reading, or whether it's genuine; whether it's his teammate's (and the corporations') greed and willingness to commit all over again the exploitation of indigenous peoples throughout history that caused them to overreach and cause the disaster or not...

Even though I'm an atheist myself, I find this one of the most satisfying books using the subject of religion, because it is done so intelligently, and reflects the question that troubles so many to this day: how to resolve the entire issue of spirituality vs. materialism (in the philosophical meaning of the term), without tying it all up in a neat bow and providing you with the answers. Instead, he stays artistically true to the ambiguities of the whole thing, and lets you draw your own conclusions... which aren't necessarily going to be the same ones the next time you read the book.... Which is one of the things that makes this book so successful: it can be read many times over, and reveals new levels with each reading.
 

Fried Egg

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I suppose it's just the way I read it. Like you say, after I have read it again, I might draw different conclusions...
 

j d worthington

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Well, to be honest, the first time I read it, if I remember correctly, I got something of the same impression you did. On a rereading I felt it leaned more the other way, and since I've come to feel that he manages to walk that tightrope very well....
 

Stenevor

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Read and enjoyed this last week. My immediate thoughts at the end were that the destruction of the planet was down to Cleaver's expedition and not the exorcism. I thought the author did an excellent job putting the religous arguments for Lithia being the devils work forward but when it comes down to it I personally find belief in god and the devil nonsense. I will admit to not following the Finnegans Wake sections at all, they went right over my head.
 

j d worthington

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I will admit to not following the Finnegans Wake sections at all, they went right over my head.
My take on those is that it (Finnegan's Wake), too, was a production of the Great Nothing... at least, from Ruiz-Sanchez's point of view. It certainly wasn't randomly chosen, as it made the point that this great work of art -- written by one of the best minds in literature of the early 20th century -- all hinged on, if you will, a child's prank... the placement of a punctuation mark. It, like Lithia, was a delusion of the Adversary, a distraction from the Truth, in his mind... which, again, adds another layer to the dynamic tension of the novel: Does this imply that the Adversary is at work on all these levels, or does it simply mean Ruiz-Sanchez is so inclined to see things this way that he's building patterns that are not there? This is even a question put forth by the Pope himself in the novel; and ultimately left unresolved....
 

Stenevor

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Cheers JD that clears it up a bit, I might give it a reread at some time with that advice in mind. I wont be trying Finnegans Wake itself though, after a look at some sections online I can see I would be out of my depth. There is something mesmerizing about the writing, but my comprehension of it is too low.
 

Patrick Mahon

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I read it last year, and found it a very interesting and thought-provoking read. I read it after reading a James Blish short story in a compilation, and realising that he had written some really impressive science fiction well before becoming famous due to the Star Trek novelisations. "A Case of Conscience" reinforced my new-found respect for him hugely.
 

Quokka

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I liked this one, some of the science is dated and at times it read like people in the 50’s had gained space travel (including a bizarre mention of the unknown forests of Brazil) but stories always date and the science is largely background here. What I did find really interesting was some of the logic and arguments developed by James Blish.

Occam’s Razor gets a mention and I liked that in the end Ruiz-Sanchez and Michelis would both have been completely confident that their view on what happened was the only solution that fit all the facts, the logic was sound and their only differences were their premises or starting points.


There was also a mention of miricles, something along the lines of a child being saved by medicine still being a miracle? So maybe there was also a third option (well more of a one and a half really) in that even if it was humans who destroyed Lithia maybe that wasn’t the full story?
 

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Yea i read this and got bored half way thru when the scene changed. I decided enough was enough and got rid of it. It was the first book that went thru bookmooch!
 

D_Davis

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Yea i read this and got bored half way thru when the scene changed. I decided enough was enough and got rid of it. It was the first book that went thru bookmooch!
The book takes a major nose dive at chapter 11. It's almost as if chapters 1-9 and 10-the end are written by different authors, because what is so brilliantly set up in the beginning is utterly lost and forgotten.

From my review:

The prose is not necessarily bad but it is only serviceable, and when an idea as ambitious as Blish's is conveyed in a less than remarkable way it accentuates the drabness. The biggest problem with the novel's execution is the dialog: it's too on the nose. The characters always seem to say exactly what they mean, and most of the narrative's mystery is told rather than shown. Plot points that should have been revelatory discoveries full of majesty are simply told to the reader through uninteresting dialog and exposition, like utterances of little importance.

Another major problem is chapter eleven. Alright, maybe I should back up a bit to give some perspective. First of all, let me give some praise, because there are some things beyond the premise that I really do like. It all starts out brilliantly with the central characters already on Lithia. That we don't have to wait for the excursion to get underway, nor do we have to sit through pages of exposition waiting for the alien planet to arrive, is a welcome turn of events.

This is good, the plot gets rolling from the first chapter, and pushes right along until about chapter ten. But then along comes chapter eleven, where I feel as though the book gets derailed, in a bloody, gory, massive train-wreck kind of way.

Chapter ten is the first chapter of the second part of the book, and its almost as if this part was written by an author who forgot what the first part was about. Unimportant new characters are introduced, Father Ramon is forgotten about for a long passages, and nothing interesting or of note happens.

But chapter eleven is the worse! It's one of my least favorite things I have ever read. It introduces a totally insipid situation that just doesn't make any sense, and offers up nothing in terms of believable character development, or engaging narration. You could probably rip this chapter out of the book and not miss a thing. It's as if Blish switched gears in between the two parts of his book, and decided to focus on a different premise than the one he initially set off with, one that is not nearly as interesting or well developed.

Unfortunately, the book never regained my interest after this crucial juncture. This book is like a roller-coaster with only one hill. It starts off great, and then, with each passing chapter, it becomes less and less interesting. I could hardly bring my self to finish the last fifty pages because I simply didn't care about anything that was happening or anyone it was happening to.


Needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed with this book.
 

j d worthington

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D_Davis: If you wouldn't mind the suggestion... revisit the book after a few years; you may find you feel differently at that point. Certainly such was the case with me, where I felt the latter portion was a let-down; but on rereading it some years later I revised that opinion quite seriously.... Either way, should you choose to revisit it, I'd be interested in your response at that point....
 

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I just found it muddy and cloudy. Started off interesting but the priests' ramblings and quotes from some book or play just did my head in,I wanted to skip past it and get to the story. Then it died a death. A good story ruined.
 

j d worthington

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While I see where you're coming from, I can't agree. The story (in the sense of the plot concerning the interaction between the humans and aliens, etc.) wasn't the point of this one; the book is more concerned with perception, with questions of faith and knowledge, and -- as the title itself states -- questions of conscience. That, it seems to me, is why it opens with the lengthy quotation from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, which is the original "case of conscience" Ruiz-Sanchez is intended to examine, and the same question he poses himself there permeates the book -- in fact, it can be said to create his perceptions of the entire situation to the point of creating the "case of conscience" he is confronted with in the "real world".

It's a complex book that, like A Canticle for Leibowitz (though in its own, very different way), delves into the nature of belief and faith, knowledge and wisdom, and how each of these forms the ways we see the universe around us. As I said with D_Davis above, on my first reading, I felt something of what you express as well; but revisiting it later (and at least 2-3 times since) I've found it to be a book that grows and becomes a richer experience with each reading.

It's definitely not a book for everyone, and those expecting to find a "typical" sf story won't find it here. This one, to me, does what sf is so often said to do, but which in truth it does very rarely: it challenges one to think about questions we so often take for granted, and in doing so it transcends the genre and becomes literature in the greater sense....
 

Quokka

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I got lost in the James Joyce but otherwise pretty much agree with JD, like I said before the science is dated and I didn't buy all the characters (Cleaver shows such disdain on Lithia that he'd never have been on the team in the first place) or find it a particuarly believable story as a whole but I'm not sure that was Blish's main concern. He seems to have simply created a situation that works in exploring an interesting idea and in a novel this short I think sometimes that's enough.
 

D_Davis

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I definitely wasn't expecting a "typical SF" story with this one (I don't tend to enjoy "typical SF"), and with my love of religious themed science fiction, as well as my own deep rooted spiritual beliefs and my desire to have open discourse on such things, I expected to be blown away by this book.

However, it was my experience that Blish totally lost focus of his main theme when he began to focus on the other characters rather than Father Ramon. Ramon was easily the most interesting part of the book - his pontificating is what made him memorable. His crisis of faith is, at first, well shown, but it is ultimately thrust aside for some insipid party scene and a focus on the alien Blish completely lost me when he leaves Ramon behind for a series of misplaced scenarios while focusing on characters that are not nearly as interesting.

I can see myself reading this again in some time, but I will most likely skip chapters 10 and 11 - they annoy me to no end.

I thought the James Joyce stuff was interesting. He is an author I don't like to read, but I love reading about. Robert Anton Wilson's writing and lectures on Joyce are some of the most interesting things I've ever read or heard.
 

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See i didn't think for me Ramon was the most important character. I was more interested in the Lithians and the guy who had the accident with a thorny plant at the start. I'd hoped he would have played a bigger part from the start.
 

D_Davis

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To me, the Lithians were just a catalyst that spurred Ramon's crisis of faith. They could have been anything, they just so happened to be aliens. They were basically a MacGuffin, a thing used to explore the theme of religion and spirituality in the face of a scientific discovery.
 

j d worthington

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Ramon was easily the most interesting part of the book - his pontificating is what made him memorable. His crisis of faith is, at first, well shown, but it is ultimately thrust aside for some insipid party scene and a focus on the alien Blish completely lost me when he leaves Ramon behind for a series of misplaced scenarios while focusing on characters that are not nearly as interesting.

I can see myself reading this again in some time, but I will most likely skip chapters 10 and 11 - they annoy me to no end.
Sounds as if we had much the same impression on first reading. As I indicated above, however, I found that these chapters actually do take on a different feeling, and become much more vital to the themes Blish is exploring, on a second reading. I suppose it's the abrupt change of not only pace, but the sorts of things he seems to be doing, that causes that reaction; but it really does form an important part of the book. Look at it, if you will, as Ramon witnessing a new Inferno, with Egtverchi being a rather inverted Virgil to his Dante....
 
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