Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Case of Conscience (1959) with a little Anathem on the side

Subgenre: Anthropological, religion

Well, the 2009 Hugo nominations are out, and hopefully at some point, I'll get around to finishing them all, but one nominee is Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which, in a roundabout way, reminded me of this week's novel, James Blish's A Case of Conscience. (Maybe next week I'll get to Stephenson's The Diamond Age and other nominee Neil Gaiman's American Gods).

Anathem and Conscience are both novels focused on the ideas and philosophies of their characters - and both remarkably good books that still come across as sloppy and flawed, but for completely different reasons. Anathem goes for the complete perspective of a world, complete with famously overzealous invented vocabulary - think Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose set in the future - and in my mind succeeds admirably in this, but tells a relatively disappointing story, even in a brilliant setting with likable characters. Conscience is nearly the polar opposite of Anathem in this.

A Case of Conscience's setting is inevitably less well developed - its entire 250-some pages is the length of Anathem's prologue - but actually tosses out some sincere dilemmas. Conscience is an anthropological story at first, and a clear precursor to Speaker for the Dead, trying to discover the secrets of a race of aliens for whom emotion, genetics, and logic are inseparable. The protagonist, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, is both a Jesuit and a biologist, and his religious perspective makes Conscience into something entirely beyond most science fiction novels. I found myself constantly wondering about Ruiz-Sanchez's interpretations, my non-religious expectations interfering with his almost-reasonable logic, and wondering if this was a book where God was part of the science fiction - and the novel makes it quite clear that this ambiguity is intentional.

Where the novel falls down is characterization and attention to detail. Outside of the conflicted Ruiz-Sanchez, most characters are stereotypes, bloodthirsty or idiotic without deeper motivations, which makes some of the novel before the first "reveal" a little awkward. Some of the scientific details seem a little off, too - having the Lithians understand semiconductor physics better than humans, but have no idea of quantum physics, for instance, seems unlikely.


  • Blish, who would later write the Star Trek novel Spock Must Die!, was well aware of how artificial the emotionless alien conceit seems, and performed the single greatest Lampshade Hanging I have ever seen - it's so good, it's a spoiler.
  • Neal Stephenson take note: this is how you write an ending.
  • Speaking of Hugo noms, I have to plug awesome webcomics and graphic novel nominees Girl Genius and Schlock Mercenary.

Hugo-worthy? Naturally. This is the Vertigo of Science Fiction - flawed but essential. No letter grade - I couldn't in good faith grade it an A given its problems, but it belongs next to books like Stranger in a Strange Land, Speaker for the Dead or The Stars My Destination.

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