The Hugo Project: 1959 – A Case of Conscience

14 Jan

Previously on the Hugo ProjectThe Book That Wants to Be a Play.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Our destination this week is the planet Lithia; our guide, a Jesuit priest. Proceed with caution: non-Catholics are advised to done their Reading Glasses and Catholics should make sure their sense of humor is turned on and functioning properly. Please keep all arms, legs, and alien children inside the Popemobile as we continue our trip through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!

A Case of Conscience

James Blish
published as a novella in 1953
expanded and published as a novel in 1958


Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit and a biologist, journeys to the planet Lithia, home of the first intelligent extraterrestrial species man has encountered. They’re intelligent, peaceful, utopian – and Godless. Ruiz-Sanchez knows this apparent paradise can only be a creation of Satan, meant to tempt mankind from the worship of God. Except Church doctrine states that Satan cannot create. Ruiz-Sanchez must choose: accept an unthinkable heresy, or ignore what could very well be the Damnation of an increasingly psychotic human race.


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

Disclaimer the first: I returned this book to the library before writing this review (because I’m super smart like that), so any and all recollections are subject to the gross imperfections of my memory.

Disclaimer the second: I am not, nor have ever been, Catholic. I was raised in the Episcopal church and forced to read St. Augustine’s Confessions (which I threw across the room at least once whilst reading), so I have a decent grounding in Christian theology, but I come at this from the decidedly outsider perspective of a Pagan who tends to treat most of Christianity as a giant thought experiment.* Like Schrodinger’s Cat, except the zombie is the Son of God and not an adorable feline.**

All that aside, I actually really enjoyed this book. I was a bit turned off by all the Catholic-ness at first, but Blish does a good job of presenting one man’s theological struggle without passing judgement – he neither endorses nor condemns Ruiz-Sanchez’s beliefs, just lays them out for the reader’s consideration. And I found Ruiz-Sanchez to be a very likeable person, despite the fact that I disagreed with him on nearly everything. His interpretation of the world is roughly thus:

I’m a scientist, but I don’t believe in evolution; the Earth really is only 6000 years old! The reason we have a fossil record and Recapitulation theory** is because God decided we would be imperfect without them! Because it totally makes sense that a planet needs a fake history and an embryo needs fake evolution in the womb to be perfect! Oh noes, the Lithians go through the process of recapitulation outside of the womb, going from fish to amphibian to lizard! This must all be a construct of the Devil to tempt us away from our true beliefs of God and the fake fossils/evolution!

Question: Why is recapitulation in the womb attributed to God but recapitulation outside the womb attributed to Satan? And again, what kind of logic thinks that a 6000-year-old planet needs a fossil record to be ‘perfect’? Unless it’s there to be some kind of a test of our faith…like the recapitulation-in-the-womb thing…in which case, why isn’t Lithian recapitulation-outside-the-womb another test of our faith created by God? OR, why isn’t the fossil record/recapitulation-in-the-womb created by Satan? Oh, right, doctrine says Satan can’t create. But if Ruiz-Sanchez is willing to accept that Satan created Lithia, doesn’t that me that Satan could have had a hand in the creation of the fossil record (and, by extension, the Earth)? OH NOES I BROKE CATHOLOCISM.

And it goes on from there. I’m mocking, a lot, but it is pretty interesting to watch the development of Ruiz-Sanchez’s interpretation of events. Even if you do spend most of the book thinking, “You idiot, you’ve got it all backwards.”

There’s plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle Christian cosmology thrown in there, too; the Lithians have a Tree of Knowledge Message Tree which allows them to communicate across the whole planet, and they’re frequently referred to as ‘snakes.’ Because, you know, they’re reptiles. And also sent by the devil to tempt us away from Godliness. Of course, as a Pagan I say: Snakes! Symbolic of knowledge! Knowledge is good! Maybe we can learn something from the Lithians! Then again, I’ve spent the last decade of my life on the opposite side of the room from Godliness, so clearly Father Ruiz-Sanchez and I aren’t going to see eye-to-eye on this one.

There’s quite a bit more I’d like to say, but I don’t want to spoil the whole book. The character of Egtverchi is wonderful and tragic, and perhaps the single most obvious example of where Ruiz-Sanchez gets things completely, entirely, wholly, 100% bass-ackwards. Poor little baby snake…

Look, just go read the book. It’s not long, it reads as surprisingly modern, and it really is worth it. If a Pagan is recommending a book on Catholic dogma, that has to be a sign that there’s something interesting going on here.

The Social Equality Review:

Race: Ruiz-Sanchez is Peruvian! His race is never explicitly described, but from some of his thoughts on his heritage we can assume he is mestizo. And the only significant female character is Japanese. So, you know, progress, at least as far as the 1950s are concerned. Pretty much everyone else is some kind of European, but at least Blish does seem to make an effort to include a diversity of Europeans (the pope is Norwegian, if I remember correctly) so it’s not just a bunch of Americans/Brits.

Gender/Sexuality: There’s a grand total of one major female character, and she’s not that major. And she’s continually referred to as a ‘girl’ despite being the world’s leading expert in some fancy field of biology. She even gets married and is still the ‘girl.’ Because even chicks with brains who are thinking about having babies of their own are really just children. Sigh. Her husband does make dinner sometimes, if I remember correctly. There are a few references to things which might be considered polyamory or polyandry, but these are done in the context of a hedonistic and drug-addled wealthy upper-class, so not points there.

Disabled/Other-abled: Well, 90% of the planet seems to be suffering from some sort of mental illness or other. Then again, the government forces everybody to live in concrete enclaves underground, so no doubt everybody’s hormone levels are completely out of whack. An entire planet with a hulked-out version of S.A.D.

Like I said, definitely recommended. It’s food for thought, if nothing else. And I’m kind of in love with Lithia and the Lithians. And they have awesome names like Chtexa and Egtverchi.

OVERALL RANKING: 9 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).


*See THP: Schrödinger’s Reading Glasses for more.


***Which isn’t generally considered to be a real thing by the biology community these days, but for the sake of the novel, we’ll pretend that it does actually happen.

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Posted by on 14.1.2013 in Books, Spirituality/Paganism


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