Jan. 11th, 2012

Blish's novel, in many ways, feels like the precursor of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow; it is a first-contact story strongly, and intimately, concerned with the personal and theological impact of that first contact on a Jesuit, and the struggle to integrate the alien species into pre-existing Catholic theological models.  The differences are larger than the similarities, however, because whilst in The Sparrow much of the struggle is with atheism or nihilism, A Case for Conscience sees Father Ruiz-Sanchez struggle with Manichaeism.

The plot is in two parts; the first sees the end of the expedition to Lithia, in order to classify it, of four scientists, including Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Peruvian Jesuit who is also a biologist.  Lithia is an inhabited planet, and the four scientists each have a different attitude to it; but Ruiz-Sanchez' attitude is changed dramatically on learning, at the last minute, some significant facts about the development of Lithian young and the nature of Lithian thought.  This makes him suspect the whole planet of being a Satanic creation, to deceive Christians - thus, flirting with Manichaeism.  On returning home, Ruiz-Sanchez is is presented with a Lithian baby, which he accepts and returns to Earth with.  The second part of the novel sees the consequences of the first come into action; the Lithian, divorced from its society and natural environment, developes amorally and amorality, using its exotic nature to propogate such doctrines amongst the disaffected society of mid-21st century Earth.  This draws all four scientists in, in very different ways.  That the second half of the plot is harder to describe than the first is, in part, because it is messier and less well-controlled (much of what happens is not really connected together very well and occasionally Blish introduces elements which go nowhere, despite routes both obvious and logical for progress); and because it spends an awful lot of time building a projected future, reliant on some interesting ideas - but ones which, especially since the close of the Cold War, are demonstrably failed futurism.

The strength of A Case for Conscience is in its first half, and in its characters - or at least, some of its character.  Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a brilliantly written figure, sympathetically and thoughtfully portrayed without his failings being whitewashed.  This is encapsulated by his contradictory attitudes to Lithia; despite his fears about the planet, he is still drawn to the Lithians themselves.  Blish's characterisation is well-written and intelligent, with Ruiz-Sanchez; he brings together the various aspects - scientist, Jesuit, and human - of his personality into a single, and very believable, whole.  However, the problem comes with the rest of the cast; from Cleaver, one of the first characters we meet, on, everyone is pretty much a caricature.  Everyone seems to have their single characteristic - which may at least change across the course of the novel, as Michelis does - but that's about it.

In the end, A Case for Conscience isn't about the characters, or even the plot, really; it's about the essential, theological problem at the heart of the novel, and in that, it is a really strong novel, because it treats it intelligently, thoughtfully, and without ever coming down on either side of the equation.  A thought-provoking, if perhaps not well-written, novel.

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February 2012

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