Religion may be one of the most difficult topics to tackle, especially in a SF novel. If an author chooses to espouse one religion over another, inevitably that author would invite a host of criticisms, ranging from how could s/he present something that is, in the minds of many, little more than superstitious gibberish as being something credible and worthy of consideration. However, if that same author were to endorse the opinion that religion is indeed a simple matter suitable only for children who are not ready to outgrow Santa Claus and Jesus the Christ, there would be criticisms that the author missed opportunities to explore the complex relationships people have with received and developed faith in divine entities and in the ethical laws designed to govern their behavior.
American SF author James Blish, although not a religious person himself, was keenly aware of the thematic possibilities that could be mined from exploring the connections and rifts that could take place when an individual's religious beliefs collided with political and social matters. Blish wrote four novels that dealt with these issues: Black Easter, The Day After Judgment, Doctor Mirabilis. and A Case of Conscience. It is A Case of Conscience (1958), the 1959 Hugo winner for Best Novel, that has received the most publicity, in large part due to the nature of the conflicts found within this relatively short novel (which is actually a 1953 novella that had a second part grafted to it, with mixed results).
The story begins with a Peruvian Jesuit, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, puzzling out a solution to what he terms a "diabolically complex" problem:
...Magravius threatens to have Anita molested by Sulla, an orthodox savage (and leader of a band of twelve mercenaries, the Sullivani), who desires to procure Felicia for Gregorius, Leo Vitellius and Macdugalius, four excavators, if she will not yield to him and also deceive Honuphrius by rendering conjugal duty when demanded. Anita who claims to have discovered incestuous temptations from Jeremias and Eugenius -Although Ruiz-Sanchez is interrupted before he reveals too much, this problem involving the hierarchy of ethical dilemmas ties in neatly to a very real situation that Ruiz-Sanchez has to confront. Recently, first contact was established with a sentient, non-humanoid race on the planet of Lithia. Lithia presents two major problems for Ruiz-Sanchez and for his cohorts (which for the majority of the novel are relegated to being 2D ciphers of characters): For Ruiz-Sanchez, the apparent evidence that the Lithians do not lie, cheat, or steal, that they by virtually all interpretations of Church Law live the perfect Christian life without being exposed at all, or even understand the theological concept of religion (much less Original Sin), provokes a major internal debate about how to treat these self-aware beings. For the others, Lithia is an energy goldmine, a source for cheap energy that unfortunately can only be extracted via the destruction of the planet.
These conflicts are explored throughout the two parts of the novel in varying degrees of narrative success. Ruiz-Sanchez's interactions with a Lithian traveler to Earth, Chtexa, reveals the depths of Ruiz-Sanchez's conflict: here is a decent, honest being, yet this being cannot be one of God's children because Chtexa has no concept of Good and Evil; he just acts in accordance to his nature and despite that nature being utopic for the Jesuit, it conflicts with everything he has been taught and believes about Original Sin. Ruiz-Sanchez, in his attempt to rationalize this conflict, begins to wander dangerously close to the Manichean (or Dualist) heresy. For the latter sections of Part I, this conflict within Ruiz-Sanchez is clear, present, and dominates much of the discussion. However, by Part II, this has taken a back seat to the arguments about whether or not the planet of Lithia ought to be exploited for its resources, living and sentient beings there be damned, as well as exploring how the infant Lithian, Egtverchi, copes with life on a Earth where its denizens were driven underground over a century before due to the threat of nuclear attack.
As noted above, Part II was grafted onto the first part five years after the fact. Although the conflict over the exploitation of Lithia is better developed in this section, the other elements introduced in the first part are relegated to lesser roles. Blish's attempt to develop a plausible underground society fails to convince the reader, especially those who grew up after the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s and early 1960s. Although there were some promising scenes showing the juxtaposition of Egtverchi among the humans of this Shelter society, for the most part these do not strengthen (and in some instances, they reduce) the impact caused from considering the ethical conflicts that Ruiz-Sanchez has between what he believes and what he experiences from interacting with the Lithians.
The eventual decision regarding whether or not to let the lifeforms of Lithia live and the planet and its star be spared from destruction follows a seemingly inevitable course. Blish missed an opportunity in making this decision more intriguing and compelling due to his lack of character development among those who were with Ruiz-Sanchez on the original mission to Lithia. It is a shame, because these questions regarding ethics and religion could have been developed to the point where they rivaled that of Walter Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz for power of expression. It is in these key areas of characterization and thematic tightness where Blish's story falters and while A Case of Conscience is still a powerful, relevant story over fifty years after its release, its flaws are noticeable and they do weaken reader appreciation for this story.
Is A Case of Conscience worthy of the title of "Masterwork?" For the most part, yes. In the 1950s, this story was much more complex in its thematic conundrums than the vast majority of its contemporaries. Blish's prose is good and while he was not quite the stylist of some of the New Wave SF writers that followed in the 1960s, his treatment of ethical and religious concerns, despite the flaws noted above, were ahead of its time. Despite dated references to nuclear fallout shelters and to the looming threat of Communism, this novel reads well in 2010. For those readers willing to consider the central issues in play here, A Case of Conscience would make for an entertaining read and might spark a few thoughts afterward. If that is all that this novel does for a reader today, then it is worthy of such a title as "Masterwork."