Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a dedicated man, a Jesuit priest who is also a scientist, and a scientist who is also a human being. He doesn’t feel any genuine conflicts in his belief system—until he is sent to Lithia.
The reptilian inhabitants of this distant world appear to be admirable in every way. Untroubled by greed or lust, they live in peace. But they have no concept of God, no literature, and no art. They rely purely on cold reason. But something darker lies beneath the surface: Do the Lithians pose a hidden threat? The answers that unfold could affect the fate of two worlds. Will Ruiz-Sanchez, a priest driven by his deeply human understanding of good and evil, do the right thing when confronted by a race that is alien to its core?
The Science Fiction Encyclopedia lauds A Case of Conscience as “one of the first serious attempts to deal with religion [in science fiction], and [it] remains one of the most sophisticated. It is generally regarded as an SF classic.” Readers of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, or Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz will find this award-winning novel a gripping, compelling exploration of some of the most intractable and important questions faced by the human species. Includes an introduction by Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author Greg Bear.
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About the Author
James Blish (1921–1975) was a novelist whose most popular works include Jack of Eagles and his Cities in Flight series, about people fleeing a declining Earth to seek new homes among the stars. He attended Rutgers University and received a bachelor of arts degree in microbiology before serving as a medical technician in World War II, and was an early member of the Futurians, a group of science fiction writers, fans, editors, and publishers. In 1959, Blish received the Hugo Award for his novel A Case of Conscience. He was also a prolific short fiction writer and a major contributor to the Star Trek saga, rewriting scripts into anthologies and producing original stories and screenplays.
Greg Bear, author of more than twenty-five books that have been translated into seventeen languages, has won science fiction’s highest honors and is considered the natural heir to Arthur C. Clarke. The recipient of two Hugos and four Nebulas for his fiction, he has been called “the best working writer of hard science fiction” by The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Many of his novels, such as Darwin’s Radio, are considered to be this generations’ classics. Bear is married to Astrid Anderson, daughter of science fiction great Poul Anderson, and they are the parents of two children, Erik and Alexandria. His recent thriller novel, Quantico, was published in 2007 and the sequel, Mariposa, followed in 2009. He has since published a new, epic science fiction novel, City at the End of Time and a generation starship novel, Hull Zero Three.
Read an Excerpt
A Case of Conscience
By James Blish
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 James Blish
All rights reserved.
The stone door slammed. It was Cleaver's trade-mark: there had never been a door too heavy, complex, or cleverly tracked to prevent him from closing it with a sound like a clap of doom. And no planet in the universe could possess an air sufficiently thick and curtained with damp to muffle that sound — not even Lithia.
Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, late of Peru, and always Clerk Regular of the Society of Jesus, professed father of the four vows, continued to read. It would take Paul Cleaver's impatient fingers quite a while to free him from his jungle suit, and in the meantime the problem remained. It was a century-old problem, first propounded in 1939, but the Church had never cracked it. And it was diabolically complex (that adverb was official, precisely chosen, and intended to be taken literally). Even the novel which had proposed the case was on the Index Expurgatorius, and Father Ruiz-Sanchez had spiritual access to it only by virtue of his Order.
He turned the page, scarcely hearing the stamping and muttering in the hall. On and on the text ran, becoming more tangled, more evil, more insoluble with every word:
... Magravius threatens to have Anita molested by Sulla, an orthodox savage (and leader of a band of twelve mercenaries, the Sullivani), who desires to procure Felicia for Gregorius, Leo Vitellius and Macdugalius, four excavators, if she will not yield to him and also deceive Honuphrius by rendering conjugal duty when demanded. Anita who claims to have discovered incestuous temptations from Jeremias and Eugenius —
There now, he was lost again. Jeremias and Eugenius were —? Oh, yes, the "philadelphians" or brotherly lovers (another crime hidden there, no doubt) at the beginning of the case, consanguineous to the lowest degree with both Felicia and Honuphrius — the latter the apparent prime villain and husband of Anita. It was Magravius, who seemed to admire Honuphrius, who had been urged by the slave Mauritius to solicit Anita, seemingly under the aegis of Honuphrius himself. This, however, had come to Anita through her tirewoman Fortissa, who was or at one time had been the common-law wife of Mauritius and had borne him children — so that the whole story had to be weighed with the utmost caution. And that entire initial confession of Honuphrius had come out under torture — voluntarily consented to, to be sure, but still torture. The Fortissa-Mauritius relationship was even more dubious, really only a supposition of the commentator Father Ware —
"Ramon, give me a hand, will you?" Cleaver shouted suddenly. "I'm stuck, and — and I don't feel well."
The Jesuit biologist arose in alarm, putting the novel aside. Such an admission from Cleaver was unprecedented.
The physicist was sitting on a pouf of woven rushes, stuffed with a sphagnumlike moss, which was bulging at the equator under his weight. He was halfway out of his glass-fiber jungle suit, and his face was white and beaded with sweat, although his helmet was already off. His uncertain, stubby fingers tore at a jammed zipper.
"Paul! Why didn't you say you were ill in the first place? Here, let go of that; you're only making things worse. What happened?"
"Don't know exactly," Cleaver said, breathing heavily but relinquishing the zipper. Ruiz-Sanchez knelt beside him and began to work it carefully back onto its tracks. "Went a ways into the jungle to see if I could spot more pegmatite lies. It's been in the back of my mind that a pilot-plant for turning out tritium might locate here eventually — ought to be able to produce on a prodigious scale."
"God forbid," Ruiz-Sanchez said under his breath.
"Hm? Anyhow, I didn't see anything. A few lizards, hoppers, the usual thing. Then I ran up against a plant that looked a little like a pineapple, and one of the spines jabbed right through my suit and nicked me. Didn't seem serious, but —"
"But we don't have the suits for nothing. Let's look at it. Here, put up your feet and we'll haul those boots off. Where did you get the — oh. Well, it's angry-looking, I'll give it that. Any other symptoms?"
"My mouth feels raw," Cleaver complained.
"Open up," the Jesuit commanded. When Cleaver complied, it became evident that his complaint had been the understatement of the year. The mucosa inside his mouth was nearly covered with ugly and undoubtedly painful ulcers, their edges as sharply defined as though they had been cut with a cookie punch.
Ruiz-Sanchez made no comment, however, and deliberately changed his expression to one of carefully calculated dismissal. If the physicist needed to minimize his ailments, that was all right with Ruiz-Sanchez. An alien planet is not a good place to strip a man of his inner defenses.
"Come into the lab," he said. "You've got some inflammation in there."
Cleaver arose, a little unsteadily, and followed the Jesuit into the laboratory. There Ruiz-Sanchez took smears from several of the ulcers onto microscope slides, and Gram-stained them. He filled the time consumed by the staining process with the ritual of aiming the microscope's substage mirror out the window at a brilliant white cloud. When the timer's alarm went off, he rinsed and flame-dried the first slide and slipped it under the clips.
As he had half-feared, he saw few of the mixed bacilli and spirochetes which would have indicated a case of ordinary, Earthly, Vincent's angina — "trench mouth," which the clinical picture certainly suggested, and which he could have cured overnight with a spectrosigmin pastille. Cleaver's oral flora were normal, though on the increase because of all the exposed tissue.
"I'm going to give you a shot," Ruiz-Sanchez said gently. "And then I think you'd better go to bed."
"The hell with that," Cleaver said. "I've got nine times as much work to do as I can hope to clean up now, without any additional handicaps."
"Illness is never convenient," Ruiz-Sanchez agreed. "But why worry about losing a day or so, since you're in over your head anyhow?"
"What have I got?" Cleaver asked suspiciously.
"You haven't got anything," Ruiz-Sanchez said, almost regretfully. "That is, you aren't infected. But your 'pineapple' did you a bad turn. Most plants of that family on Lithia bear thorns or leaves coated with polysaccharides that are poisonous to us. The particular glucoside you ran up against today was evidently squill, or something closely related to it. It produces symptoms like those of trench mouth, but a lot harder to clear up."
"How long will that take?" Cleaver said. He was still balking, but he was on the defensive now.
"Several days at least — until you've built up an immunity. The shot I'm going to give you is a gamma globulin specific against squill, and it ought to moderate the symptoms until you've developed a high antibody titer of your own. But in the process you're going to run quite a fever, Paul; and I'll have to keep you well stuffed with antipyretics, because even a little fever is dangerous in this climate."
"I know it," Cleaver said, mollified. "The more I learn about this place, the less disposed I am to vote 'aye' when the time comes. Well, bring on your shot — and your aspirin. I suppose I ought to be glad it isn't bacterial infection, or the Snakes would be jabbing me full of antibiotics."
"Small chance of that," Ruiz-Sanchez said. "I don't doubt that the Lithians have at least a hundred different drugs we'll be able to use eventually, but — there, that's all there is to it; you can relax now — but we'll have to study their pharmacology from the ground up, first. All right, Paul, hit the hammock. In about ten minutes you're going to be wishing you'd been born dead, that I promise you."
Cleaver grinned. His sweaty face under its thatch of dirty blond hair was craggy and powerful even in illness. He stood up and deliberately rolled down his sleeve.
"Not much doubt about how you'll vote, either," he said. "You like this planet, don't you, Ramon? It's a biologist's paradise, as far as I can see."
"I do like it," the priest said, smiling back. He followed Cleaver into the small room which served them both as sleeping quarters. Except for the window, it strongly resembled the inside of a jug. The walls were curving and continuous, and were made of some ceramic material which never beaded or felt wet, but never seemed to be quite dry, either. The hammocks were slung from hooks which projected smoothly from the walls, as though they had been baked from clay along with the rest of the house. "I wish my colleague Dr. Meid were able to see it. She would be even more delighted with it than I am."
"I don't hold with women in the sciences," Cleaver said, with abstract, irrelevant irritation. "Get their emotions all mixed up with their hypotheses. Meid — what kind of name is that, anyhow?"
"Japanese," Ruiz-Sanchez said. "Her first name is Liu — the family follows the Western custom of putting the family name last."
"Oh," Cleaver said, losing interest. "We were talking about Lithia."
"Well, don't forget that Lithia is my first extrasolar planet," Ruiz-Sanchez said. "I think I'd find any new, habitable world fascinating. The infinite mutability of life-forms, and the cunning inherent in each of them ... It's all amazing, and quite delightful."
"Why shouldn't that be sufficient?" Cleaver said. "Why do you have to have the God bit too? It doesn't make sense."
"On the contrary, it's what gives everything else meaning," Ruiz-Sanchez said. "Belief and science aren't mutually exclusive — quite the contrary. But if you place scientific standards first, and exclude belief, admit nothing that's not proven, then what you have is a series of empty gestures. For me, biology is an act of religion, because I know that all creatures are God's — each new planet, with all its manifestations, is an affirmation of God's power."
"A dedicated man," Cleaver said. "All right. So am I. To the greater glory of man, that's what I say."
He sprawled heavily in his hammock. After a decent interval, Ruiz-Sanchez took the liberty of heaving up after him the foot he seemed to have forgotten. Cleaver didn't notice. The reaction was setting in.
"Exactly so," Ruiz-Sanchez said. "But that's only half the story. The other half reads, '... and to the greater glory of God.'"
"Read me no tracts, Father," Cleaver said. Then: "I didn't mean that. I'm sorry. ... But for a physicist, this place is hell. ... You'd better get me that aspirin. I'm cold."
Ruiz-Sanchez went quickly back into the lab, made up a salicylate-barbiturate paste in one of the Lithians' superb mortars, and pressed it into a set of pills. (Storing such pills was impossible in Lithia's humid atmosphere; they were too hygroscopic.) He wished he could stamp each pill "Bayer" before it set — if Cleaver's personal cure-all was aspirin, it would have been just as well to let him think he was taking aspirin — but of course he had no dies for the purpose. He took two of the pills back to Cleaver, with a mug and a carafe of Berkefeld-filtered water.
The big man was already asleep; Ruiz-Sanchez woke him, more or less. Cleaver would sleep longer, and awaken farther along the road to recovery, for having been done that small unkindness now. As it was, he hardly noticed when the pills were put down him, and soon resumed his heavy, troubled breathing.
That done, Ruiz-Sanchez returned to the front room of the house, sat down, and began to inspect the jungle suit. The tear which the plant spine had made was not difficult to find, and would be easy to repair. It would be much harder to repair Cleaver's notion that the defenses of Earthmen on Lithia were invulnerable, and that plant spines could be blundered against with impunity. Ruiz-Sanchez wondered whether either of the other two members of the Lithian Review Commission still shared that notion.
Cleaver had called the thing which had brought him low a "pineapple." Any biologist could have told Cleaver that even on Earth the pineapple is a prolific and dangerous weed, edible only by a happy and irrelevant accident. In Hawaii, as Ruiz-Sanchez remembered, the tropical forest was quite impassable to anyone not wearing heavy boots and tough trousers. Even inside the Dole plantations, the close-packed irrepressible pineapples could tear unprotected legs to ribbons.
The Jesuit turned the suit over. The zipper that Cleaver had jammed was made of a plastic into the molecule of which had been incorporated radicals from various terrestrial anti-fungal substances, chiefly the protoplasmic poison thiolutin. The fungi of Lithia respected these, all right, but the elaborate molecule of the plastic itself had a tendency, under Lithian humidities and heats, to undergo polymerization more or less spontaneously. That was what had happened here. One of the teeth of the zipper had changed into something resembling a kernel of popped corn.
The air grew dark as Ruiz-Sanchez worked. There was a muted puff of sound, and the room was illuminated with small, soft yellow flames from recesses in every wall. The burning substance was natural gas, of which Lithia had an inexhaustible and constantly renewed supply. The flames were lit by adsorption against a catalyst, as soon as the gas came on from the system. A lime mantle, which worked on a rack and pinion of heatproof glass, could be moved into the flame to provide a brighter light; but the priest liked the yellow light the Lithians themselves preferred, and used the limelight only in the laboratory.
For some purposes, of course, the Earthmen had to have electricity, for which they had been forced to supply their own generators. The Lithians had a far more advanced science of electrostatics than Earth had, but of electrodynamics they knew comparatively little. They had discovered magnetism only a few years before the Commission had arrived, since natural magnets were unknown on the planet. They had first observed the phenomenon, not in iron, of which they had next to none, but in liquid oxygen — a difficult substance from which to make generator cores!
The results in terms of Lithian civilization were peculiar, to an Earthman. The twelve-foot-tall, reptilian people had built several huge electrostatic generators and scores of little ones, but had nothing even vaguely resembling telephones. They knew a great deal on the practical level about electrolysis, but carrying a current over a long distance — say a mile — was regarded by them as a technical triumph. They had no electric motors as an Earthman would understand the term, but made fast intercontinental flights in jet aircraft powered by static electricity. Cleaver said he understood this feat, but Ruiz-Sanchez certainly did not (and after Cleaver's description of electron-ion plasmas heated by radio-frequency induction, he felt more in the dark than ever).
They had a completely marvelous radio network, which among other things provided a "live" navigational grid for the whole planet, zeroed on (and here perhaps was the epitome of the Lithian genius for paradox) a tree. Yet they had never produced a standardized vacuum tube, and their atomic theory was not much more sophisticated than Democritus' had been!
These paradoxes, of course, could be explained in part by the things that Lithia lacked. Like any large rotating mass, Lithia had a magnetic field of its own, but a planet which almost entirely lacks iron provides its people with no easy way to discover magnetism. Radioactivity had been entirely unknown on the surface of Lithia, at least until the Earthmen had arrived, which explained the hazy atomic theory. Like the Greeks, the Lithians had discovered that friction between silk and glass produces one kind of energy or charge, and between silk and amber another; they had gone on from there to van de Graaf generators, electrochemistry, and the static jet — but without suitable metals they were unable to make heavy-duty batteries, or to do more than begin to study electricity in motion.
Excerpted from A Case of Conscience by James Blish. Copyright © 1986 James Blish. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A very original novel that uses the sci-fi to ask unashamedly big questions about religion & ethics. At times the level of scientific & theological learning can be so expert it is bewildering & can loose the reader. feb 08
An excellent study of the relationship between science and the supernatural, in the same vein as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, although this obviously came well before that film. When an event has a scientific explanation, does that negate the possibility that the event was brought about through supernatural means? What of the case where the event was unpredictable in a natural sense, but supernaturally predicted?
An apparent Eden is discovered and a group of scientists and a priest must come to grips with it. A good book with some thought-provoking ideas.
After reading this book I went to look at reviews and discovered why I was so confused while reading this: it seemed really sort of choppy and disjointed until I found out that this was actually 2 smaller novels in one. The first book centers on the character of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest who is part of a mission to investigate a planet called Lithia. The inhabitants of Lithia are lizardish-type aliens. They live in peace among each other, with no war, no crime, no dissension, because they live according to the principle of reason. If things don't make sense, they simply aren't done. Ruiz-Sanchez is there with 3 others who are trying to determine if Lithia should be open to inhabitants of earth. The first book is outstanding: Ruiz-Sanchez makes what he feels is a startling discovery about the population and for that he is excommunicated from the church. I won't say what, but you'll love this part of the story. On leaving Lithia, the team is given a present: one of the aliens sends the egg of his son with them to Earth. The second book focuses on the alien Egtverchi, who is born on Earth and grows up away from his culture. He has no instinctive understanding of the reason that guides his native culture, and as time progresses, becomes somewhat of a celebrity. I won't say more about this either, but suffice it to say, the book does give you a lot to think about.I loved the first part of this book, but the second part (which is also good, don't get me wrong) is not as nicely formulated and gets a little confusing at times. I definitely recommend it to all readers of sci-fi as a no-miss read.
Pretty good. I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half. The planet was interesting, the biology, etc. The religious discussions my be more interesting to Catholics. While I didn't have any objections to it, I just found it a little boring at that point.
Very interesting look at the future, from a late 1950's, early 1960's perspective. The heart of the book is a moral crisis introduced by an alien race with perfect morals but no belief in a god. Also interesting to look at as a first contact novel from a time that was less xenophobic and more nuclear disaster preoccupied.