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Monday, January 4, 2010

A Case of Conscience

I finished A Case of Conscience by James Blish quite a while ago, but I delayed writing this because I wanted to consult with Beadbrother to make sure I understood certain aspects of Catholic theology correctly (he's a priest). I had heard about this book through the late, lamented Dirda on Books chat run by Washington Post Book Editor Michael Dirda, and I bought it for Beadbrother thinking he would like it. A year or so ago I asked if he would lend it to me; he agreed to, said he found the book OK, and gave it to me. Only . . . he doesn't remember any of this -- not reading the book, not receiving or lending it, not having it, not even the cover or the title. A bit of a mystery, that. But he was able to confirm my theological assumptions were right.

So, the book. It is about humans, including a Catholic priest, who discover a planet with a sentient, technologically advanced race called the Lithians. The secular scientists of the expedition are mostly preoccupied with the technology and natural resources of the planet, but the priest, Father Ramon, is troubled by what he finds. The Lithians are a seemingly perfect, almost Edenic, race who have never experienced any crime, greed, ambition, pride, or any other sin. They have no need for governments or law, because everyone always does the right thing, the necessary thing to keep their civilization functioning. But they also have no concept of religion or spirituality or faith, no art of any kind, not even a sense of good or evil. They do "good" because that's what they do, but there is no reasoning, no greater concept behind it (I'm not sure I'm explaining this properly). As a result, they seem to have a perfectly moral society without any morals at all, without any involvement from God -- a heresy in the eyes of the Church, because all good ultimately, necessarily, stems from God. Given Father Ramon's unshakeable faith in God, the only explanation he has for this is that all of Lithia is in fact a creation of Satan, to test humans and to make them question whether God is necessary. The problem (according to the book) is that believing Satan could create anything is a heresy itself, Manichaeism. Father Ramon struggles to resolve this conflict, while at the same time deciding what should be done about the Lithians (and whether the Church will have any say at all in the matter given secular interests in the planet).

Blish came up with an unusual subject for a book, created a fascinating race in the Lithians, and handled Father Ramon's faith respectfully. Unfortunately, the book ultimately does not work, both in its theology and in its style. For one thing, it is soon apparent that Blish was not actually a Catholic himself. Father Ramon spends most of the book convinced that he will be defrocked and condemned to hell because the only explanation he can come up with regard to Lithia is heretical; his own faith in God and his desire to be true to Him, his struggle to understand what is going on and reconcile it with his beliefs, do not matter. This sort of thing shows up sometimes when non-Catholics write about Catholicism -- this idea that the slightest slip-up means automatic condemnation, no excuses or explanations, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Catholicism is by no means a religion for wussies, but all too often people forget that forgiveness and mercy are just as important concepts as sin. I have trouble believing that a genuinely faithful priest who is simply trying to make sense of a major theological issue the best he can is doomed for eternity. Especially since the whole thing is hilariously resolved in a five minute interview with the Pope, where the Pope asks Father Ramon if it occurred to him that a non-heretical explanation of Lithia is that it is an illusion constructed by Satan (the father of lies). Father Ramon is floored by such an obvious solution, I laughed out loud, and the scene shows that Father Ramon was not actually a heretic, but a man with incomplete information who was glad to find an orthodox explanation.

Moreover, the theology in the book is itself suspect. For one thing, believing that Satan can create something is not the same thing as the heresy of Manichaeism, which is (as I understand it) in part the belief that evil is a positive source or thing in its own right, rather than the absence of good, which implies (again, I think) that Satan and God are equals. Nor is the belief that Satan can create itself a heresy or otherwise forbidden. In fact, it rather quickly falls apart when one looks at the semantics, because illusions, long considered to be Satan's "specialty," have to be created, just like anything else. (I suppose one could argue that the creation God did is very different from the "creation" we and/or Satan does, which from a physics point of view is really just transformation of matter to energy or vice versa [but then that could be how Lithia was created]; or one could focus on the difference between creating something physical and creating something intangible, but that is way beyond the scope of this review or my expertise.)

Finally, the writing itself was not great. The book is in two parts, with two very different tones (which makes sense, given they were written separately). The first part is really just a series of speeches by the members of the scientific team on Lithia as they describe their impressions. The concepts (scientific and theological) are well thought out, but section feels like one long info dump (and I'm one of those weirdos who actually likes to read exposition). I think Blish could have conveyed a lot of the same information by allowing the readers to follow the members as they traveled and observed and ran experiments, rather than just giving us their speeches after the fact. The second part of the book, which focuses on a Lithian child raised on Earth, is more traditional, but it also suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. Several characters in both parts spend a great deal of time talking about how disturbed and troubled they are by Lithia and what it represents, but with the exception of Father Ramon we never get a clear picture of why they are so disturbed, of what is affecting them so deeply and how. And although we understand why Father Ramon is so upset (it's the point of the book), the language Blish uses to explain it is a little too abstract, too passive, too something, so it creates distance between the Father and the readers, making it harder to really feel for him.

In general, the characters are not fully developed. We spend a lot of time in Father Ramon's head, but we don't learn too much about him aside from his experiences with Lithia and the doubts and problems it creates. This can be forgiven, given that the point of the book is a theological/philosophical exercise. But the other characters are even thinner. Two members of the expedition (Michelis and Agronski, don't ask me which is which) are only there to serve as sounding boards for Father Ramon and Carver, the antagonist of the first part. One falls in love with the scientist who raises the baby Lithian (or so we are told, we certainly don't see it), and the other goes insane (again, we get nothing but a throwaway line that he may have had latent schizophrenia). Carver, however, is the worst, rapidly crossing the line from ordinary, everyday villainy into cartoonish supervillainy.

It's a shame, because despite these flaws I spent a great deal of time thinking about the questions this book raised, both during and after. It's an interesting, if deeply flawed, work.

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