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A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1959 Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel

The early Hugo-winning novels are – with the possible exception of They’d Rather Be Right – widely accepted as classics of the science fiction genre. In most, cases each book challenged readers in new ways, painting with words futures not yet visualized while reframing the basic questions surrounding the human experience. For an excellent example of this phenomenon, it would be hard to top James Blish’s extraordinary tale of the consequences of knowledge uncoupled from wisdom, A Case of Conscience.

Lithia is a world both Earth-like and strange, a near Eden of marshes and rivers inhabited by intelligent and sophisticated reptiles who build their cities out of ceramics, and are entirely lacking in the concepts of good and evil. The concept of sin baffles them. This deeply troubles the mind of one member of the first contact team sent to assess this inhabited world, a Jesuit priest, who upon discovering that the Lithians lack even the concept of original sin, is forced by his personal frame of reference to conclude that Lithia is a trap set by the Devil. The questions raised in his mind, and later expressed by him, have serious consequences for this man of the cloth, as do the questions and conclusions of his colleagues during the expedition. Each man is, like the Jesuit, trapped in a particular – and yet understandable – frame of reference and they draw their conclusions accordingly. All of them have the knowledge they need, but proceed from false assumptions and misunderstand completely what they experience on Lithia, among the peaceful Lithians. One does so to such a degree that he attempts to deceive the others into seeing the Lithians as something they are not, and cannot be, in an attempt to make his decision the one that carries the vote. For they have a momentous decision to make regarding whether or not to open Lithia and its swamp-loving, dinosaur-like inhabitants to the people of Earth. The decision ultimately reached has truly fateful consequences.

Before the investigators depart Lithia, Father Ramon is given as a gift a small porcelain jar that contains a friendly Lithian’s son. Lithians literally experience ontogeny as a recapitulation of phylogeny, and the tadpole-like creature in the jar will pass through all the evolutionary stages of the Lithians before becoming an intelligent dinosaur twice the height of a grown man. The purpose of the gift is to have a Lithian grow up among Humans, understand them, and then come home to share that knowledge. It’s a good idea, but the Lithian father, like his Human friends, is also proceeding from unavoidable false assumptions, the consequences of which are both profound and tragic.

The bulk of the novel – and I use bulk loosely, since this is a slim volume indeed – takes place on a future Earth that is a bizarre if logical extension of the Cold War paranoia just gripping the West as Blish wrote his book. The bulk of humanity lives underground in vast, complicated “shelters,” with the original cities slowly falling into decay. This shelter culture is based on the sound knowledge of the consequences of potential nuclear war. But it was a war that never came, and now Humanity is trapped by the consequences of that knowledge. In this world the young Lithian grows up as a literal stranger in a strange land, surrounded by humans who, though they were born to that world, could really be described in the same way.

This is not a long work, and yet this small book packs a punch that is often entirely lacking in more lengthy epics. (Curiously, all the earliest Hugo winning novels share this trait of being complex stories packed into a relatively small number of pages.) There is nothing about this book that misses the mark. All of the characters are developed quickly and well, the plausibility of the story flows from the world-building, and the questions asked are never so obviously answered that the book develops a “preachy” quality. In a very real sense, the reader is left to decide how the story ends, even though at first glance the ending might seem painfully obvious.

The word “compelling,” used to describe a novel, is about as over-used as “bestseller,” these days, and yet that word truly applies to A Case of Conscience. This is a book I could not easily set aside once I started reading it, an experience that I’ve had with it twice now, without it wearing in the least bit thin. Highly recommended, of course, with this caveat: when you think you know where the story is going, what it’s saying, pause a moment and consider where your own frame of reference might be leading you.

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