Before the publication of James Blish's A Case of Conscience, winner of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1959, religious themes played a relatively minor role in science fiction literature. But over the next decade, many of the most provocative—and popular, judging by sales—works in this genre gravitated to issues of spirituality, redemption and, above all, the concept of the sci-fi messiah.
At first glance, this was a strange turn of affairs. During this same period, American public life was taking a decidedly secular turn. A few months after Blish won his Hugo, candidate John F. Kennedy allayed the concerns of voters who were about to elect the first Roman Catholic president by asserting, in a famous speech to a religious group in Houston, that "I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me." Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court moved to prohibit prayer in public schools, and soon after also banned Bible- reading and other school-sponsored religious activities.
Meanwhile, the religious doctrines no longer promulgated in the classroom were now permeating the sci-fi books favored by high school and college students. We see them writ large in Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963), Frank Herbert's Dune (1965), Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), among others. Each of those novels, with the exception of Cat's Cradle, was also awarded the Hugo for best science fiction novel, and they all remain fan favorites today.
Yet if these other fictions explored the sociological dimensions of religion with fervid imagination, Blish's novel remains unsurpassed for its theological richness. If Dune or Cat's Cradle forced readers to mull over the essence of belief systems and their impact on society, A Case of Conscience demanded, as its title might imply, a perhaps more troubling reexamination of right and wrong, and the essence of evil. Blish himself was an agnostic and a scientist by training—his entry into the literary field came when he was hired as science editor by the Pfizer pharmaceutical company—but he left us one of the great novels of religion of modern times.
Some believers were less than pleased with the end result. One Roman Catholic reader responded to A Case of Conscience by sending Blish a copy of the the Vatican's teachings on extraterrestrials. Sci-fi author Jo Walton, for her part, went so far as to enlist a response from a Jesuit friend, Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is also an astronomer (and owner of, in Walton's words, the "world’s coolest rosary"). Consolmagno found Blish's theology wanting, but optimistically added to his assessment the Jesuit maxim "Find God in all things"—which apparently includes aliens from another galaxy.
A Case of Conscience begins with a familiar sci-fi scenario. A group of four space explorers have settled on a new planet where they encounter an intelligent life form. They need to assess the environment of Lithia, make a preliminary investigation of the dominant species, a large reptile akin to a talking dinosaur, and make recommendations on the potential for further settlement or study of the planet, located some 50 light years away from Earth.
At this stage, however, Blish breaks one of the time-tested rules of sci-fi. Instead of inserting a dramatic conflict or, at a minimum, a disagreement between the earthlings and the extraterrestrials, he presents a calm, peaceful, rational relationship between the two camps. This is no War of the Worlds; indeed the exact opposite. It’s hardly even a war of the words. The uncanny fact of the Lithians is how perfect they seem to be—almost to a boring degree.
"The Lithians had no crime," Blish writes, "no newspapers, no arts that could be differentiated clearly from their crafts, no political parties, no public amusements, no nations, no games, no religions, no sports, no cults, no celebrations." For the visitors from earth this presented a puzzling enigma. "Surely they didn't spend every waking minute of their lives exchanging knowledge, making things go, discussing philosophy or history, or planning for tomorrow! Or did they?"
Any other author would struggle to find a plot in this simple perfection. But if the Lithians are a model of concord and agreement, the four visitors from Earth are rife with discontent, and bitter disagreement over the nature of the planet and the recommendations they should send back to home base. The chemist Michelis admires the peacefulness of Lithian society, and believes that it should studied as a role model for better human institutions. The physicist Cleaver, in contrast, wants to exploit the natural resources of Lithia, turn the planet into a production site of lithium-based weapons, forcing the peaceful residents to serve as workers, or perhaps slave laborers, in the factories.
But the biologist on the mission, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, has a strange, surprising interpretation of the planet. A Jesuit as well as a scientist, Ruiz-Sanchez is disturbed by the resemblance between Lithia and the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam. He wonders whether he has encountered a new world without original sin. And if were so, "could men bear to live among them?"
The more he learns about the Lithians, the more Ruiz-Sanchez fears that their apparent perfection is a snare for the human race, a temptation to embrace a worldview that morals can exist without law, without restriction, without conscience and without God. "What we have here on Lithia is very clear indeed," the Jesuit biologist tells his colleagues. "We have—and now I am prepared to be blunt—a planet and a people propped up by the Ultimate Enemy. It is a gigantic trap prepared for all of us—for every man on Earth and off it. We can do nothing with it but reject it, nothing but say to it, Retro me, Sathanas. If we compromise with it in any way, we are damned."
The sharp disagreement between the space explorers, however, is the least of Ruiz-Sanchez's worries. As he gradually realizes, his interpretation of the new planet places him in a position of heresy within his own Church and religious order. By claiming that Satan has creative powers—indeed has created a whole planet and its inhabitants—the priest has embraced Manichaeism, a philosophical system strictly forbidden by Catholicism since the early Middle Ages. The approved theology of Rome insists that only God has the power to create, and that evil merely represents the negation of the good.
Ruiz-Sanchez is summoned to Rome, where he expects a literal Inquisition, a defrocking and excommunication. But on his journey back home, he also carries a sealed urn, a gift from a Lithian, which contains a hatched egg of one of his sons, who will serve as a kind of a stranger in a strange land when the travelers return to earth. But unlike the interplanetary messiahs of Heinlein and Herbert, Blish's talking dinosaur, Egtverchi, proves to be a kind of antichrist. Soon after he comes to Earth, he gets his own TV show, and builds a cult following made up half of children and half of disaffected, violent and occasionally mentally ill adults.
At this point, Blish’s book takes an intriguing turn, leaving Aquinas behind and picking up with Marshall McLuhan. Nowadays we are quite familiar with the notion that revolutions can start by staring into the moving pixels of a screen, but A Case of Conscience presented, back in the 1950s, a prescient sense of how not only our political systems and social intercourse, but even our inner life, is shaped by our passive reception of screen- based narratives. When H.G. Wells wanted to present the conquest of earth back in 1898, he gave the invaders weapons and space ships. Sixty years later, James Blish realized that you only needed one alien to do the job, provided you gave him his own TV show.
This plot twist is all the more ironic when one considers the final stage of author James Blish's career. The novelist who pushed science fiction ahead with A Case of Conscience devoted most of the final decade, before his death from lung cancer in 1975, churning out pulp fiction adaptations of Star Trek screenplays. Certainly Blish's connection with this popular TV franchise gave him a financial security and crossover audience that works such as A Case of Conscience could never match. Yet his masterwork remains this early novel, which even today stands out as a landmark work and a role model for those who believe science fiction can rise above the formulas of escapist entertainment. Even Blish's own close association with the great escapist science fiction franchise of his day—recall that Star Wars was still two years in the future at the time of his death, and Trekkies still reigned supreme at sci-fi gatherings—doesn't detract from that achievement. Perhaps, oddly enough, it merely reinforces it.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.