conceptual fiction
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Before the publication of James Blish's A Case of Conscience, winner
of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1959, religious themes played a
relatively minor role in science fiction literature.  But over the next decade,
many of the most provocative—and popular, judging by sales—works in
this genre gravitated to issues of spirituality, redemption and, above all,
the concept of the sci-fi messiah.  

At first glance, this was a strange turn of affairs.  
During this same period, American public life
was taking a decidedly secular turn.  A few
months after Blish won his Hugo, candidate
John F. Kennedy allayed the concerns of voters
who were about to elect the first Roman Catholic
president by asserting, in a famous speech to
a religious group in Houston, that "I do not speak
for my church on public matters—and the church
does not speak for me."  Two years later, the
U.S. Supreme Court moved to prohibit prayer in
public schools, and soon after also banned Bible-
reading and other school-sponsored religious

Meanwhile, the religious doctrines no longer
promulgated in the classroom were now
permeating the sci-fi books favored by high
school and college students.  We see them writ large in Walter M. Miller's
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange
Land (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963), Frank Herbert's Dune
(1965), Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left
Hand of Darkness (1969), among others. Each of those novels, with the
exception of
Cat's Cradle, was also awarded the Hugo for best science
fiction novel, and they all remain fan favorites today.  

Yet if these other fictions explored the sociological dimensions of religion
with fervid imagination, Blish's novel remains unsurpassed for its theological
richness. If
Dune or Cat's Cradle forced readers to mull over the essence
of belief systems and their impact on society,
A Case of Conscience
demanded, as its title might imply, a perhaps more troubling reexamination
of right and wrong, and the essence of evil. Blish himself was an agnostic
and a scientist by training—his entry into the literary field came when he
was hired as science editor by the Pfizer pharmaceutical company—but
he left us one of the great novels of religion of modern times.  

Some believers were less than pleased with the end result.  One Roman
Catholic reader responded to
A Case of Conscience by sending Blish
a copy of the the Vatican's teachings on extraterrestrials. Sci-fi author Jo
Walton, for her part, went so far as to enlist a response from a Jesuit
friend, Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is also an astronomer (and owner
of, in Walton's words, the
"world’s coolest rosary"). Consolmagno found
Blish's theology wanting, but optimistically added to his assessment the
Jesuit maxim "Find God in all things"—which apparently includes aliens
from another galaxy.

A Case of Conscience begins with a familiar sci-fi scenario. A group of
four space explorers have settled on a new planet where they encounter
an intelligent life form.  They need to assess the environment of Lithia,
make a preliminary investigation of the dominant species, a large reptile
akin to a talking dinosaur, and make recommendations on the potential
for further settlement or study of the planet, located some 50 light years
away from Earth.

At this stage, however, Blish breaks one of the time-tested rules of sci-fi.
Instead of inserting a dramatic conflict or, at a minimum, a disagreement
between the earthlings and the extraterrestrials, he presents a calm,
peaceful, rational relationship between the two camps.  This is no
War of
the Worlds
; indeed the exact opposite. It’s hardly even a war of the words.
The uncanny fact of the Lithians is how perfect they seem to be—almost
to a boring degree.

"The Lithians had no crime," Blish writes, "no newspapers, no arts that
could be differentiated clearly from their crafts, no political parties, no
public amusements, no nations, no games, no religions, no sports, no
cults, no celebrations." For the visitors from earth this presented a
puzzling enigma. "Surely they didn't spend every waking minute of their
lives exchanging knowledge, making things go, discussing philosophy
or history, or planning for tomorrow!  Or did they?"

Any other author would struggle to find a plot in this simple perfection.
But if the Lithians are a model of concord and agreement, the four visitors
from Earth are rife with discontent, and bitter disagreement over the nature
of the planet and the recommendations they should send back to home base.
The chemist Michelis admires the peacefulness of Lithian society, and
believes that it should studied as a role model for better human institutions.
The physicist Cleaver, in contrast, wants to exploit the natural resources of
Lithia, turn the planet into a production site of lithium-based weapons, forcing
the peaceful residents to serve as workers, or perhaps slave laborers, in
the factories.  

But the biologist on the mission, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, has a
strange, surprising interpretation of the planet. A Jesuit as well as a
scientist, Ruiz-Sanchez is disturbed by the resemblance between Lithia
and the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam. He wonders whether
he has encountered a new world without original sin. And if were so,
"could men bear to live among them?"

The more he learns about the Lithians, the more Ruiz-Sanchez fears that
their apparent perfection is a snare for the human race, a temptation to
embrace a worldview that morals can exist without law, without restriction,
without conscience and without God. "What we have here on Lithia is very
clear indeed," the Jesuit biologist tells his colleagues. "We have—and
now I am prepared to be blunt—a planet and a people propped up by the
Ultimate Enemy. It is a gigantic trap prepared for all of us—for every man
on Earth and off it.  We can do nothing with it but reject it, nothing but say
to it, Retro me, Sathanas. If we compromise with it in any way, we are

The sharp disagreement between the space explorers, however, is the
least of Ruiz-Sanchez's worries.  As he gradually realizes, his interpretation
of the new planet places him in a position of heresy within his own Church
and religious order. By claiming that Satan has creative powers—indeed
has created a whole planet and its inhabitants—the priest has embraced
Manichaeism, a philosophical system strictly forbidden by Catholicism
since the early Middle Ages. The approved theology of Rome insists that
only God has the power to create, and that evil merely represents the
negation of the good.  

Ruiz-Sanchez is summoned to Rome, where he expects a literal Inquisition,
a defrocking and excommunication. But on his journey back home, he
also carries a sealed urn, a gift from a Lithian, which contains a hatched
egg of one of his sons, who will serve as a kind of a stranger in a strange
land when the travelers return to earth. But unlike the interplanetary
messiahs of Heinlein and Herbert, Blish's talking dinosaur, Egtverchi,
proves to be a kind of antichrist.  Soon after he comes to Earth, he gets his
own TV show, and builds a cult following made up half of children and half
of disaffected, violent and occasionally mentally ill adults.  

At this point, Blish’s book takes an intriguing turn, leaving Aquinas behind
and picking up with Marshall McLuhan. Nowadays we are quite familiar
with the notion that revolutions can start by staring into the moving pixels
of a screen, but
A Case of Conscience presented, back in the 1950s, a
prescient sense of how not only our political systems and social intercourse,
but even our inner life, is shaped by our passive reception of screen-
based narratives. When H.G. Wells wanted to present the conquest of
earth back in 1898, he gave the invaders weapons and space ships.  
Sixty years later, James Blish realized that you only needed one alien to
do the job, provided you gave him his own TV show.  

This plot twist is all the more ironic when one considers the final stage
of author James Blish's career. The novelist who pushed science fiction
ahead with
A Case of Conscience devoted most of the final decade,
before his death from lung cancer in 1975, churning out pulp fiction
adaptations of
Star Trek screenplays. Certainly Blish's connection
with this popular TV franchise gave him a financial security and
crossover audience that works such as
A Case of Conscience could
never match. Yet his masterwork remains this early novel, which even
today stands out as a landmark work and a role model for those who
believe science fiction can rise above the formulas of escapist
entertainment. Even Blish's own close association with the great
escapist science fiction franchise of his day—recall that
Star Wars
was still two years in the future at the time of his death, and Trekkies
still reigned supreme at sci-fi gatherings—doesn't detract from that
achievement. Perhaps, oddly enough, it merely reinforces it.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of
love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: August 11, 2014
A Case of Conscience
by James Blish

Essay by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
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Great Books Guide
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
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The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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The Misread City
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True Science Fiction
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