Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a biologist and Jesuit priest, is one of four scientists on a mission to evaluate whether the distant planet Lithia should be open to human contact. Lithia’s native inhabitants are an advanced, moral reptilian kangaroo-shaped species. The entire planet lives in peace, with no concept of greed or lust, with one common language, but also no art, literature, or religion. Ruiz-Sanchez spends most of his stay in his lab, but when his physicist colleague gets sick, he leaves to send a message to the other two scientists on Lithia, and subsequently befriends a Lithian, who invites him to dinner. What Ruiz-Sanchez learns that night will forever affect his understanding of the Lithians, and his evaluation of the planet.
A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award in 1959, and for being one of the first serious attempts to address conflicts between science and faith in science fiction, the book ages surprisingly well. In fact, Blish compellingly melds technical science with philosophy and the human condition, posing subtle questions about good and evil through character decisions and story. According to the introduction by Greg Bear, Blish was himself an agnostic, which provides an interesting context for the thoughtful gracious religious Ruiz-Sanchez and his atheist physicist colleague Cleaver, an overtly bigoted man with plans of exploiting Lithia with technology.
The pacing is overall quite fast, and a large plot point can sneak up and pass you by if you’re not paying attention. However, the pace is at the expense of character. In fact, there are a few execution specifics I wish were handled differently, but they do not detract from the big ideas of the novel. There is a surprising amount of action (especially in Part II) that draws you toward an ambiguous conclusion which I find rather brilliant. Each scientist interprets the world and events in drastically different ways, and despite Ruiz-Sanchez being the protagonist, I do not think we are supposed to identify with his viewpoint, at least not entirely. Unique and thought-provoking!
A must-read for fans of first-rate philosophical science fiction!
“Or could it be that the Lithians thought and acted as they did because, not being born of man, and never in effect having left the Garden in which they lived, they did not share the terrible burden of original sin?