A Case of Conscience

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A Case of Conscience
Paperback first edition
Author James Blish
Country United States
Language English
Series After Such Knowledge trilogy
Genre Science fiction
Published 1958 (Ballantine Books)
Media type Print (paperback)
Pages 192
ISBN 0-345-43835-3 (later paperback printing)
OCLC 45074320
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3503.L64 C37 2000
Followed by Doctor Mirabilis
Black Easter
The Day After Judgment

A Case of Conscience is a science fiction novel by American writer James Blish, first published in 1958. It is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race that has no religion yet has a perfect, innate sense of morality, a situation which conflicts with Catholic teaching. The story was originally published as a novella in 1953, and later extended to novel-length, of which the first part is the original novella. The novel is the first part of Blish's thematic After Such Knowledge trilogy: it thus follows Doctor Mirabilis and both Black Easter and The Day After Judgment (two novellas that Blish viewed as together forming the third volume of the trilogy).

Science fiction genre of fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".

James Blish American author

James Benjamin Blish was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is best known for his Cities in Flight novels, and his series of Star Trek novelizations written with his wife, J. A. Lawrence. He is credited with creating the term gas giant to refer to large planetary bodies.

Society of Jesus male religious congregation of the Catholic Church

The Society of Jesus is a scholarly religious congregation of the Catholic Church which originated in sixteenth-century Spain. The members are called Jesuits. The society is engaged in evangelization and apostolic ministry in 112 nations. Jesuits work in education, intellectual research, and cultural pursuits. Jesuits also give retreats, minister in hospitals and parishes, sponsor direct social ministries, and promote ecumenical dialogue.


Few science fiction stories of the time attempted religious themes, and still fewer did this with Catholicism; another exception was Walter M. Miller Jr.'s Hugo Award-winning post-apocalyptic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz .

Walter M. Miller Jr. American fiction writer

Walter Michael Miller Jr. was an American science fiction writer. He is known primarily for A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), the only novel he published in his lifetime. Prior to its publication he was a writer of short stories.

Hugo Award set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year

The Hugo Awards are a set of literary awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year. The awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, and were officially named the Science Fiction Achievement Awards until 1992. Organized and overseen by the World Science Fiction Society, the awards are given each year at the annual World Science Fiction Convention as the central focus of the event. They were first given in 1953, at the 11th World Science Fiction Convention, and have been awarded every year since 1955. Over the years that the award has been given, the categories presented have changed; currently Hugo Awards are given in more than a dozen categories, and include both written and dramatic works of various types.

<i>A Canticle for Leibowitz</i> novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Walter M. Miller Jr., first published in 1959. Set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of the southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the book spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz preserve the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the world is again ready for it.


Part 1

In 2049, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez of Peru, Clerk Regular of the Society of Jesus, is a member of a four-man team of scientists sent to the planet Lithia to determine if it can be opened to human contact. Ruiz-Sanchez is a biologist and biochemist, and he serves as the team doctor. However, as a Jesuit, he has religious concerns as well. The planet is inhabited by a race of intelligent bipedal reptile-like creatures, the Lithians. Ruiz-Sanchez has learned to speak their language to learn about them.

Peru republic in South America

Peru, officially the Republic of Peru, is a country in western South America. It is bordered in the north by Ecuador and Colombia, in the east by Brazil, in the southeast by Bolivia, in the south by Chile, and in the west by the Pacific Ocean. Peru is a megadiverse country with habitats ranging from the arid plains of the Pacific coastal region in the west to the peaks of the Andes mountains vertically extending from the north to the southeast of the country to the tropical Amazon Basin rainforest in the east with the Amazon river.

Reptile class of animals

Reptiles are tetrapod animals in the class Reptilia, comprising today's turtles, crocodilians, snakes, amphisbaenians, lizards, tuatara, and their extinct relatives. The study of these traditional reptile orders, historically combined with that of modern amphibians, is called herpetology.

While on a walking survey of the land, Cleaver, a physicist, has been poisoned by a plant, despite a protective suit, and he suffers badly. Ruiz-Sanchez treats him and leaves to send a message to the others: Michelis, a chemist, and Agronski, a geologist. He is helped by Chtexa, a Lithian whom he has befriended, who then invites him to his house. This is an opportunity which Ruiz-Sanchez cannot decline; no member of the team has been invited into Lithian living places before. The Lithians seem to have an ideal society, a utopia without crime, conflict, ignorance or want. Ruiz-Sanchez is awed.

Utopia community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities

A Utopia is an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. The opposite of a utopia is a dystopia. One could also say that utopia is a perfect "place" that has been designed so there are no problems.

When the team is reassembled, they compare their observations of the Lithians. Soon they will have to officially pronounce their verdict. Michelis is open-minded and sympathetic to the Lithians. He also has learned their language and some of their customs. Agronski is more insular in his outlook, but he sees no reason to consider the planet dangerous. When Cleaver revives, he reveals that he wants the place exploited, regardless of the Lithians' wishes. He has found enough pegmatite (a source of lithium which is rare on Earth) that a factory could be set up to supply Earth with lithium deuteride for nuclear weapons. Michelis is for open trade. Agronski is indifferent.

Pegmatite Very coarse grained plutonic rock

A pegmatite is an igneous rock, formed underground, with interlocking crystals usually larger than 2.5 cm in size (1 in). Most pegmatites are found in sheets of rock near large masses of igneous rocks called batholiths.

Lithium Chemical element with atomic number 3

Lithium is a chemical element with symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is a soft, silvery-white alkali metal. Under standard conditions, it is the lightest metal and the lightest solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable, and is stored in mineral oil. When cut, it exhibits a metallic luster, but moist air corrodes it quickly to a dull silvery gray, then black tarnish. It never occurs freely in nature, but only in compounds, such as pegmatitic minerals, which were once the main source of lithium. Due to its solubility as an ion, it is present in ocean water and is commonly obtained from brines. Lithium metal is isolated electrolytically from a mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

Ruiz-Sanchez makes a major declaration: he wants maximum quarantine. The information Chtexa revealed to him, added to what he already knew, convinces him that Lithia is nothing less than the work of Satan, a place deliberately constructed to show peace, logic, and understanding in the complete absence of God. Point for point, Ruiz-Sanchez lists the facts about Lithia that directly attack Catholic teaching. Michelis is mystified, but does point out that all the Lithian science he has learned, while perfectly logical, rests on highly questionable assumptions. It is as if it just came from nowhere.

Quarantine Epidemiological intervention to prevent disease transmission

A quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of people; it is 'a restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests', for a certain period of time. This is often used in connection to disease and illness, such as those who may possibly have been exposed to a communicable disease. The term is often erroneously used to mean medical isolation, which is "to separate ill persons who have a communicable disease from those who are healthy". The word comes from an Italian variant of 'quaranta giorni', meaning forty days, the period that all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death plague epidemic. Quarantine can be applied to humans, but also to animals of various kinds, and both as part of border control as well as within a country.

Satan Figure in Abrahamic religions

Satan, also known as the Devil, is an entity in the Abrahamic religions that seduces humans into sin or falsehood. In Christianity and Islam, he is usually seen as either a fallen angel or a jinn, who used to possess great piety and beauty, but rebelled against God, who nevertheless allows him temporary power over the fallen world and a host of demons. In Judaism, Satan is typically regarded as a metaphor for the yetzer hara, or "evil inclination", or as an agent subservient to God.

God Divine entity, supreme being and principal object of faith

In monotheistic thought, God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith. The conceptions of God, as described by theologians, commonly include the attributes of omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (all-present), and as having an eternal and necessary existence. Depending on one's kind of theism, these attributes are used either in way of analogy, or in a literal sense as distinct properties. God is most often held to be incorporeal (immaterial). Incorporeality and corporeality of God are related to conceptions of transcendence and immanence of God, with positions of synthesis such as the "immanent transcendence". Psychoanalyst Carl Jung equated religious ideas of God with transcendental aspects of consciousness in his interpretation.

The team can come to no agreement. Ruiz-Sanchez concludes that Cleaver's intentions will probably prevail and Lithian society will be exterminated. Despite his conclusions about the planet, he has a deep affection for the Lithians.

As the humans board their ship to leave, Chtexa gives Ruiz-Sanchez a gift—a sealed jar containing an egg. It is a son of Chtexa, to be raised on Earth and learn the ways of humans. At this point, the Jesuit solves a riddle which he has been pondering for some time, from Book III of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (pp. 572–3), which proposes a complex case of marital morals, ending with the question "Has he hegemony and shall she submit?" To the Church, neither "Yes" nor "No" is a morally satisfactory answer. Ruiz-Sanchez sees that it is two questions, despite the omission of a comma between the two, so that the answer can be "Yes and No".

Part 2

The egg hatches and grows into the individual Egtverchi. Like all Lithians, he inherits knowledge from his father through his DNA. Earth society is based on the nuclear shelters of the 20th century, with most people living underground. Egtverchi is the proverbial firecracker in an anthill; he upends society and precipitates violence.

Ruiz-Sanchez has to go to Rome to face judgment. His conviction about Lithia is viewed as heresy, since he believes Satan has the power to create a planet. This is close to Manichaeism. He has an audience with the Pope himself to explain his beliefs. Pope Hadrian VIII, a logical and technologically aware Norwegian, points out two things Ruiz-Sanchez missed. First, Lithia could have been a deception, not a creation. And second, Ruiz-Sanchez could have done something about it, namely, perform an exorcism on the whole planet. The priest bows his head in shame that he has overlooked an obvious solution to his own case of conscience while he was absorbed in "a book [Finnegans Wake] which to all intents and purposes might have been dictated by the Adversary himself ... 628 pages of compulsive demoniac chatter." The Pope dismisses Ruiz-Sanchez to purge his own soul and to return to the Church if and when he can.

A violent mass riot breaks out, fomented by Egtverchi and made possible by the psychosis present in many of the citizens as a result of living in the 'shelter state' (an earlier reference to the "Corridor Riots of 1993" indicates that this is not the first time violence has burst out among the buried cities). During the riot, Agronski dies as a result of being stung by one or more genetically modified honey bees. Ruiz-Sanchez administers Extreme Unction, despite his almost-faithless state. Egtverchi secretly boards a spaceship to Lithia. Michelis and Ruiz-Sanchez are taken to the Moon, where a new telescope has been assembled, based on "a fundamental twist on the Haertel equations which makes it possible to see around normal space-time, as well as travel around it" [1] so that the instrument presents a view of Lithia in real-time, bypassing the delay caused by the speed of light. Cleaver is on Lithia, setting up his reactors, but the physicist who invented the telescope technology believes he has found a fault in Cleaver's reasoning. There is a chance that the work will set off a chain reaction in the planet's rocks and destroy it.

As they watch on the screen, Ruiz-Sanchez pronounces an exorcism. The planet explodes, eliminating Cleaver and Egtverchi, but also Chtexa and all the things Ruiz-Sanchez admired. It is left ambiguous whether the extinction of the Lithians is a result of Ruiz-Sanchez's prayer or Cleaver's error.


While faulting the novel for "extreme unevenness", Galaxy reviewer Floyd C. Gale concluded that A Case of Conscience was "a provocative, serious, commendable work" and characterized it as "trailblaz[ing]". [2] Anthony Boucher found Blish's protagonist "a credible and moving figure" and praised the opening segment; however he faulted the later material for "los[ing] focus and impact" and "wander[ing]" to an ending that seems "merely chaotic." [3] In his "Books" column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction , Damon Knight selected Blish's novel as one of the ten best science fiction books of the 1950s. [4] He reviewed the novel as "resonat[ing] with a note of its own. . . . it is complete and perfect." [5]

On the other hand, Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the director of the Vatican Observatory, suggested that this novel was written without much knowledge of Jesuits, saying that "[its] theology isn't only bad theology, it's not Jesuit theology." [6] In a foreword, Blish mentions that he had heard objections the theology, but countered that the theology was that of a future Church rather than the present one, and that in any case he set out to write about "not a body of faith, but a man". He also received, and quoted, the official Church policy on contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life forms. The policy described such life forms as being possibly without immortal souls, or having immortal souls and being "fallen", or having souls and existing in a state of Grace, listing the approach to be taken in each case.

In 2012 the novel was included in the Library of America two-volume boxed set American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe. [7]

Awards and nominations

The novel won a Hugo Award in 1959. The original novella won a Retrospective Hugo Award in 2004.

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  1. Blish 1999, p. 135
  2. "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Magazine , February 1959, pp. 139–140.
  3. "Recommended Reading", F&SF , August 1958, p. 105.
  4. Damon Knight. "Books", F&SF , April 1960, p. 99.
  5. Knight, Damon. "In the Balance", If , December 1958, pp. 108–09.
  6. Cleary, Grayson (November 10, 2015). "Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics". The Atlantic . Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  7. Itzkoff, Dave (July 13, 2012). "Classic Sci-Fi Novels Get Futuristic Enhancements from Library of America". The New York Times. Retrieved January 9, 2013.