Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (Series, #4)
A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet. Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest. Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet. The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate. While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth. Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.
This is the third book from the collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley, which I will review as a whole at a future date. I was surprised that a book that is fourth in its series was included in the collection. Upon investigation, I discovered that this series isn’t surrounding a certain set of events or characters but instead is multiple books around a similar theme. The theme for the series is each book deals with some aspect of the price of knowledge. So each book works as a standalone as well. There is also some disagreement as to precisely what book is what number in the series. I have chosen to use the number used by GoodReads. I had previously read a scifi book with a Jesuit priest scientist visiting a newly found planet (The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, review) and loved it, so I was excited to see a similar idea executed differently. Unfortunately, I found that this book lacked the nuance and subtlety that made The Sparrow such a lovely read.
Ruiz-Sanchez is a rather two-dimensional character who quickly turns into a bumbling priest trope. Very little attention is paid to his credentials as a scientist within the story, so instead of coming to know Ruiz-Sanchez the scientist, the man, and the priest, we only know him in his priest role. This prevents a connection or even a basic understanding of his rather bizarre concerns. Whereas in The Sparrow, the priest wonders how a new planet can be covered by salvation and has a meaningful crisis of faith, in A Case of Conscience, the priest is just busy seeing demons and Satan and the Anti-Christ everywhere in such a bizarre, unbelievable manner that he may as well be holding an end of the world sign on a street corner. It’s almost impossible to connect with him on this level unless the reader also has a tendency to see illusions of Satan and the end of the world everywhere they look.
The plot is fascinating, although it does jump around a lot. Essentially there’s the part on Lithia, which primarily consists of discourse between the scientists. Then there’s the development of the Lithian child into an adult who doesn’t fit anywhere, since he lacked the social training on Lithia and also is a reptilian humanoid on planet Earth. He then starts to incite rebellion among the youth. Meanwhile, Ruiz-Sanchez is told by the Pope that he committed an act of heresy and he must re-win favor by stopping the Anti-Christ aka the Lithian on Earth. All of the settings are fascinating, and the plot is certainly fast-paced. However, the plot is so far-fetched that it is difficult to properly suspend disbelief for it.
The settings are the strength of the book. Lithia is well-imagined, with uniqueness from Earth in everything from technology to how the Lithians handle child-rearing. The tech involves trees since they lack minerals, and the child-rearing is non-existent. The Lithians are simply birthed then allowed to develop on the planet, similar to turtles on Earth. Earth’s setting is interestingly imagined as well. The fear of nuclear weapons has driven humans to live underground for generations with only the elite living above ground, and the UN working hard to keep it that way. It’s a fun mix of alternate alien civilization and dystopia.
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences. It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created. However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars