Sunday, February 20, 2011

1959: A Case of Conscience

Science fiction and fantasy are littered with great concepts that are poorly executed. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is one of those. The book starts with a great idea and it moves along nicely for a while and things just fall apart.

A Case of Conscience begins 50 light years from Earth on the planet Lithia. Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez and three other men have been sent to Lithia to decide if Earth should enter into a trade relationship with the local Lithians. This is where the book is at its best. Lithia is a fascinating jungle world populated by the reptilian 12 foot tall aliens, who are unlike aliens from anything else I’ve read or seen. They are technologically advance but in a very different way from humanity; their tech being based on ceramics and wood rather than metal and electricity. Their cities are made of cool ceramic buildings and they use a giant tree to communicate with radio waves. Blish is a skilled world builder and I loved reading about their world. In some ways the Lithians are more advanced than humans and in other less. Yet the strangest things about them is that have, besides ceramics, no art, no music, no war, no crime, no politics; basically no culture.

What concerns Ruiz-Sanchez though, as a Jesuit priest, is that they have no sin and seem to live in perfect Christian harmony. Because of this he believes that they are actually created by the Devil as a means to corrupt and attack humanity but believing this is blasphemous as it assumes that the Devil has the ability to create, something the Catholic Church officially denies. How Ruiz-Sanchez deals with this moral conundrum is the most interesting part of the book. Sadly, Blish becomes sidetracked from that promising beginning and the novel falls apart.

If you remember in my review of The Demolished Man I was worried that the novel would be too Cold War-ish and not have aged well. While I was lucky with that book, I was not so lucky with this one. A Case of Conscience has not one but two Cold War points that really don’t make sense and seriously detract from the book.

The first is John Cleaver, a man who is a part of the same team as Ruiz-Sanchez, a physicist, and a narrow-minded jerk. I won’t mind if he was a jerk if he added anythinginteresting to the story. Instead, he lies and manipulates the other members of the team so he can push forth his idea that Earth should enslave the Lithians and turn their lithium rich planet into a giant factory to make fusion bombs. He says that the bombs are necessary in case humanity runs into a threatening alien race. The odd thing is that humanity hasn’t done so yet. This desire to have a deterrent to a non-existent enemy seems very 1950s. Also, Cleaver does not bother to learn the Lithian language or science and refers to Lithians as “Snakes”. Which makes me wonder: if the UN needs to analyze the nature of Lithia, why would they send this asshole? He comes across as stupid, brutish, and silly. Even the other characters seem to think his idea is stupid.

The second part is even worst. Eventually the story comes back to Earth (its downhill from there) where we find that humans are organized in what’s called the “Shelter Economy”. Apparently at the height of the Cold War, every major nation engaged in an arms race-like massive underground shelter building program and moved a majority of their populations underground. These shelters rendered nuclear weapons useless, effectively ending the Cold War, and paving the way for the UN to become the global government. So far so good. Except that the book says that the Shelter Economy was too expensive to just be abandoned so people are forced to stay underground, where they are miserable and many are going insane.

I get that it is expensive to build but why would people continue to live underground when they no longer need to? It’s just stupid and I don’t buy it. You would think that it would be even more expensive to keep everyone underground rather than just letting them come to surface. The general population’s discontent with Shelter life is a major plot element so this can’t be ignored.

I had high hopes for this book. The premise is good and James Blish is a decent writer. It just doesn’t live up to all it could be. Also at 240 pages it feels rushed. Characters come in and out without the reader being able to get a feel for them. It’s a real shame because there was so much I did like. Lithia was a cool planet and there was a lot of room for interesting interactions between humans and Lithians. Another missed opportunity in science fiction.

One final note. The book, inadvertently I believe, proposes an interesting idea: That without sin there is no culture. As I mentioned above, the Lithians are sinless perfect beings without any form of culture. That are, in fact, very boring creatures. Was Blish saying that the wages of sin are not only death but also culture and civilization? I don’t know but is an interesting idea.  

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