James Blish, “A Case of Conscience” 1958

James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is an interesting exploration of the question religion in the context of interplanetary relations.  From a monotheistic perspective, in particular, the existence of aliens provides a wonderful intellectual exercise.  If aliens are part of God’s creation, what is their status within creation?  Do they have souls?  For Christians, the question of their salvation would be need to be resolved.  (Especially if churches want to invest resources in missionary activity on other planets.)  A Case of Conscience takes the question in an unexpected way by asking the question: What if a society without a belief in a Christian God achieves Christian outcomes?  For a non-believer it is simple.  Of course, atheists are capable of a good life (even a life approved of by Christians) without knowledge of the Bible.  For a Christian, however, it poses a troubling dilemma.  Where did these values come from, if not from God?


Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, S.J. is part of an expedition to the planet Lithia.  The dominant species on Lithia are reptilian.  Their technology if different than Earthling technology due to the absence of many metals.  The lack of iron, for instance, makes electricity almost impossible due to the inability to innovate electromagnetism.   Most technology is made of wood on Lithia.  Most members of the expedition are interested in the utility of planet for earth.  Ramon’s curiosity on their society, values, religious beliefs, and conception of death makes him unique in the expedition.  Ramon’s main informant is a Lithian named Chtexa.  He learns of their mature and accepting view of morality, the reproduction methods (done without marriage).  He also learns about their harmonious society.  “Their social system works like the most perfect of our physical mechanisms, and it does so without any apparent repression of the individual.  It’s a thoroughly liberal society in terms of guarantees, yet all the same it never even begins to tip over toward the side of total disorganization, toward the kind of Gandhiism that keeps a people tied to the momma-and-popps farm and the roving-brigand distribution system.  It’s in balance, and not in precarious balance either–it’s in perfect chemical equilibrium.” (435)  This horrifies Ramon, and he believes this culture to be the creation of Satan.  Lithia provides a model that suggests perfection in a world without God.  “But now we have, on Lithia, a new demonstration, both the subtlest and at the same time the crudest of all.  It will sway many people who could have been swayed in no other way, and who lack the intelligence or the background to understand that it is a rigged demonstration.  It seems to show us evolution in action on an inarguable scale.  It is supposed to settle the question once and for all, to rule God out of the picture, to snap the chains that have held Peter’s rock together all these many centuries.  Henceforth these is to be no more question; henceforth there is to be no more God, but only phenomenology.” (448)


After a lengthy debate, they could not decide as an expedition whether to open up connections between Earth and Lithia.  They return to Earth and bring with them an egg, which is raised to become an Earth citizen.  Ramon was discipline by the church for the heresy of Manicheanism, because of the suggestion that Satan could have created a world.  Satan could infect a planet (requiring an exorcism) or create a deception but he could not create.  Ramon returns to Lithia and indeed performs an exorcism on the entire planet, which follows with its explosion.  This may, however, have been caused by experiments in fissile material.  While Ramon fears the ramifications Lithia, Clever, another member of the expedition, wanted to use them to make nuclear weapons, even if it meant the destruction of Lithia and its people.

A subplot covers the influence of Egtverchi, Chtexa’s offspring raised on Earth, on the planet’s people.  Egtverchi is a bit like Foyle (or jaunting technology) in The Stars My Destination as the force that broke a people out of a static situation.  The riot that Egtverchi inspires suggests, to some degree, the danger that the Lithia indeed pose.  It seems to me that we would likely find both intense xenophobia and uncritical acceptance of alien beliefs if we ever encounter extraterrestrials.

The main anarchist themes in this work seem to revolve around the potential for a working anarchist utopia.  Lithia lacks governments and moral codes.  They even sustain a scientific and technological society without the rise of a technocracy.  Ramon lists the “Premises” of Lithia:

1. “Reason is always a sufficient guide.”
2. “The self-evident is always the real.”
3. “Good works are an end in themselves.”
4. “Faith is irrelevant to right action.”
5. “Right action can exist without love.”
6. “Peace needs not pass understanding.”
7. “Ethics can exist without evil alternatives.”
8. “Morals can exist without conscience.”
9. “Goodness can exist with God.”

Stated this clearly, we can see how much of our social order (religious or not) rests of faith, fear, guilt, conscience.  Goodness must have a purpose (salvation for Christians, social stability for monogamists and Puritans, industrial progress for Stalinists, efficiency for capitalists and urban designers).  To do good without a greater purpose is truly revolutionary since it attacks these assumptions.  Ramon, as a religious conservative, had rights to fear the Lithia, but so did every capitalist, technocrat, bureaucrat or anyone else who wants to use fear to sustain the system of exploitation that sustains them.

In any case, do not worry.  The Catholic Church has plans if we do find aliens.  And it does not seem exorcisms are in the works yet.

One response to “James Blish, “A Case of Conscience” 1958

  1. Pingback: Black Easter by James Blish (Avon 59568 – 1982) | Vintage (and not so vintage) Paperbacks

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