A Case of Conscience by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Case of Conscience stands apart from other science fiction because it deals with a most unlikely subject: theology. Specifically, what happens when an alien encounter poses a near-unsolvable philosophical conundrum?
It's a bold theme, one not tackled before (back in 1958), and sadly not tackled again. SF master James Blish approaches the situation as to make for a thought-provoking read, even if, ultimately, the reasoning behind it is wonky.
The plot in outline: a contact team from Earth discovers a planet of sentient lizard-like beings. Ruiz-Sanchez, exobiologist and Jesuit priest, faces a personal crisis when he discovers the Lithians are creatures of pure reason, without any form of faith or belief. Ruiz-Sanchez's solution leads him down the path of an ancient heresy.
Such an outline might lead you to believe that A Case of Conscience devolves into melodrama with a stake-burning or two. But quite the contrary, the characters act logically and cerebrally, with stoic resignation.
The book comes in two parts, the first being the alien contact and conundrum described above, and the second, the effects on human society when the team brings back a Lithian to Earth. The second part delves more into the social structure of a world repressed into the grip of nuclear paranoia.
Of the two, the latter seems more plodding and heavyhanded, but is an essential counterpart to the first as it develops the situation into its explosive conclusion. It also provides the solution to Ruiz-Sanchez's dilemma.
For the real Vatican's views on extraterrestrials, listen to a podcast on the International Year of Astronomy.
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