SFX Book Club: A Case of Conscience


In the wake of the recent historic referendum on Scottish independence, we thought it only appropriate to consult a Scottish SF writer about a pivotal science fictional decision. So, without further ado (but with thanks to our good friends at SFX), here is the award-winning Ken MacLeod on James Blish‘s classic A Case of Conscience . . .


A Case of Conscience is a book in two parts, and a study in ambiguity. Much that happens in it can be interpreted in two opposing ways. Its villain is called Cleaver. Its readers divide too: some find it fascinating, others find it boring. It won a Hugo.

Two sciences underlie its fiction: biology and theology. They’re united in the hero: Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit and the biologist of a four-man team exploring Lithia. This extra-solar planet is inhabited by intelligent aliens. Their life-cycle seems to embody evidence for evolution – not a problem for Ruiz-Sanchez, whose Church has (in this fiction) amusingly ruled that the Earth was created with a fossil record already in place.

The Lithians aren’t just rational – they’re rationalist, having no supernatural beliefs. But they follow a moral code identical to that of Christianity. You might think Ruiz-Sanchez would be delighted by this. Instead, he’s disturbed.

In Catholic theology, a world without sin and without God just doesn’t compute. The pages in which this argument is spelled out are the heart of the book. The only explanation Ruiz-Sanchez can think of is that Lithia is a set-up by the Devil. But to believe that the  Devil can create is itself a heresy. Ruiz-Sanchez is caught in a dilemma. His anguish worsens as he accepts his parting gift from the Lithians: a fertilised Lithian egg. Part one (and the original 1953 novella, later expanded to novel length) ends with the slam of an airlock door.

Back on Earth, the arms race has given way to the Shelter Race, with most citizens living underground. Real power is no longer with governments but with bodies such as the New York Target Area Authority. Rome is still above ground. Ruiz-Sanchez pleads with the Pope, who gives him no easy answer. The neuroses of the Shelter State are diabolically exploited by the entity that hatches from the Lithian egg. In our age of reality TV and online demagogy, much of this rings true. The ending shows, elegantly and ambiguously, how Ruiz-Sanchez solves his problem. The solution is final.

A Case of Conscience is – like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (published in 1959) – a flawed book too provoking to ignore, which has provoked replies and echoes down the years. Harry Harrison’s short, sharp “The Streets of Ashkelon” (1962) is a sceptic’s take on a similar situation; likewise Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” (1958). Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (1986) ties a different knot of theology and xenobiology. My own “A Case of Consilience” (2005) puts a Presbyterian minister in a different theological quicksand.

The agnostic Blish continued his explorations of religious themes in the novels he later grouped with A Case of Conscience as After Such Knowledge: Doctor Mirabilis (1964), Black Easter (1968), and The Day After Judgement (1971). The first shows an eerie modernity in the ideas of the thirteenth century friar Roger Bacon; the latter two, black magic in a universe from which God has absented himself. All are intriguing reads. In his Cities in Flight series, Blish ends the universe in 4004 AD – a nod to Bishop Ussher, who dated its creation to 4004 BC. The latter date concludes Blish’s And All the Stars a Stage, in science fiction’s only successful use of that particular surprise ending.

Why do unbelievers read and write stories that take religion seriously and sympathetically? We share the world with our religious neighbours, and it’s salutary to see it through their eyes. A subject that has occupied some of the sharpest human intellects of  the past two millennia is a mine of ideas.

Theology can be seen as an exercise in world-building. The Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages took it to the edge of atheism, boldly speculating on such matters as the freedom of God. Is God free to give us a false revelation? William of Ockham, he
of the Razor, said yes.

Science fiction is often seen as hostile to religion – and, like science, it seldom is. It’s hostile to fundamentalism, but not to faith. Fundamentalism demands that we cover our eyes. Faith asks us to look at the universe in a different light.


A Case of Conscience is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of James Blish’s work via his Author page on the SF Gateway website, and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This piece was written by Ken MacLeod and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Ken MacLeod’s latest novel is the acclaimed SF conspiracy thriller, Descent, which is available in hardback and as an eBook. Ken MacLeod blogs at The Early Days of a Better Nation, tweets as @amendlocke, and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.