A Case of Conscience Essay - Critical Essays

James Blish


A Case of Conscience compares favorably with other novels of apocalyptic science fiction, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), and with other novels treating conflict between science and religion, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). For the most part it avoids the sentimental, stilted narrative voice that often blemishes science fiction with a cosmic reach, and the machinery of its tight plot does not dissipate the “double truth” of its theme.

It is much to the credit of James Blish’s novel that it does not attempt to downplay the very real conflict between the scientific and religious worldviews. Instead, it thematizes that conflict in the attractively human-scale figure of Ruiz. Ruiz underlines the novel’s title by constantly being attuned to the promptings of conscience, no matter how inconvenient, and constantly aware of his mental life, whether it is driven by reason or by emotion. He is mortified when the pope shows him that his lapse into heresy was the result of an unscientific failure to consider alternative hypotheses. He is annoyed by his chronic sinusitis. He is bemused when he finds himself, a professed celibate, having vaguely lustful thoughts about the nubile and modest Liu Meid. He is aware of his own worldly satisfaction when he proves to be correct in his predictions. At once a minister of religion and a practicing scientist, Ruiz knows that apparently contrary propositions can be said to be true—the sick child is saved by prayer, and she is saved by an antibiotic. Lithia is destroyed by an exorcist, and the planet is destroyed in a massive industrial accident.

A blemish on the novel is the caricature of the amoral scientist in the form of Paul Cleaver, who comes across as a pasteboard villain, cursing, angry, and violent for no particular reason. His assertion of scientific and technological arrogance is too much like the vulgarity of the real estate developer who wants to build a shopping center in the last piece of wetland. He is thus in stark contrast to the complex and tormented Ruiz. The severe contrast can make the novel seem less ambiguous than it is. Few writers, however, can resist the urge to indulge in the luxury of a comical villain, and despite this fault Blish’s novel improves with each rereading.