Monday Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish


This novel is not about Catholicism, the author tells us in his foreword. He wrote the story as an agnostic, with no personal position on the doctrines discussed within.

It is, however, about a Catholic – a Jesuit priest, one of four men on a fact-finding mission to the planet Lithia – and the matter of what he and the Church makes of alien life.

The Lithians are suitably alien; intelligent reptilian creatures, living in what appears to be a sort of Christian Utopia – crime, sin, violence, and countless negative emotions, are all alien concepts to the Lithians. Similarly alien though, are more positive concepts like God, the soul, the afterlife… And so the protagonist, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, arrives at the central question: Can such goodness exist without God?

The Father thinks not, and concludes that the whole society is a sham, some kind of trap set for mankind by the Ultimate Enemy. This, I think, is something of a leap of logic; the alternative, however – that a loving God could create a world and populate it with intelligent beings yet remain at arms length from it – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Therein, of course, hangs the wotsit.

This is classic science fiction in the stick-to-one-idea-and-don’t-use-thousands-of-pages mould, but still takes in the fall of man/Lithian, Catholic doctrine and heresy, the church’s reaction to alien life, and ultimately asks whether God is necessary for the existence of a pseudo-Christian moral society. And all in 200 pages – an excellent example of tight writing!

As for whether I would consider it a Christian novel, well… as I mentioned, the author admits to having written it from an agnostic viewpoint, so presumably that was not the intent, and it certainly asks more questions that it answers. It is, however, the story of one man’s journey of faith, and although I’m no expert on the doctrinal matters involved, Ruiz-Sanchez’s faith seems genuine, and his inner struggles are handled sympathetically.

All in all, a well-written, interesting take on a Christian response to alien life.

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