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The Hugo Award Novels, 5: 1959, A Case of Conscience

Posted 06-07-2009 at 01:15 PM by chexmix
Updated 06-17-2009 at 01:18 PM by chexmix

After visiting again with The Demolished Man, I knew that I was at least as excited about re-reading novels I'd already hit as I was about reading ones I knew nothing about. Case in point, the Hugo Winner for 1959, James Blish's A Case of Conscience.

I know that I read this as a teenager. I can even remember the cover of the paperback: Father Ramon Ruiz Sanchez looking contemplative, standing next to one of the dinosaur-like "Lithians" who holds a small vase. That's really about ALL I remember about A Case of Conscience.

Re-reading it, I think I understood why. Blish is almost impossibly subtle and refined, here, and when one is a thrill-seeking teen reading science fiction, subtlety and refinement tend not to be high on the list. I knew Blish was capable of gosh-wow: his Cities in Flight series was one of the SERIOUS high points of my sf reading arc. But in A Case of Conscience he is after something much more difficult.

Because this is a science fiction novel that takes religion as one of its centerpieces. And it does so in a manner that does honor both to religion, and science, and ultimately to writing itself. For Blish -- as I had not truly recalled -- is a very elegant writer indeed. His characters, especially the Jesuit Sanchez and the transplanted Lithian Egtverchi, are pleasingly alive and conflicted.

To sum up the plot without spoiling it for anyone (I hope): Father Sanchez is one of a group of four Earth scientists spending time on the planet Lithia to determine whether or not it should be "opened" for more sustained human contact. During his time on Lithia he interacts enough with the 12-foot tall, bipedal, intelligent lizards who inhabit the planet to become convinced that, not only do they live by reason alone, but that the entire planet is an illusion created by the Devil.

Now, before you roll your eyes and call "Next!" let me explain that I am a hardcore atheist ... and I found this novel fascinating. You have to read it to believe how well Blish (who after all is best known to most of us for those Star Trek treatments) not only pulls it off but makes you care deeply.

But my 16 year old self probably rolled his eyes and called "Next!" You may not wish to do so. This fine novel makes me feel as though, by 1959, the Hugos had really found their way.
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