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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705

The social concerns, which are central to dozens, perhaps hundreds of science fiction works of the period, are actually secondary to Blish's main purpose in A Case of Conscience. Their role is merely to provide supporting evidence. What Blish is really interested in, and this was to become the theme...

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The social concerns, which are central to dozens, perhaps hundreds of science fiction works of the period, are actually secondary to Blish's main purpose in A Case of Conscience. Their role is merely to provide supporting evidence. What Blish is really interested in, and this was to become the theme of much of his major fiction in the years to come, was the problem of evil and, more specifically, the relationship between evil and secular knowledge. Blish was a trained scientist and a technocrat by inclination, but, over the years, he became increasingly dubious of the value of scientific research. In the Cities in Flight series technology made possible the salvation of humanity. In A Case of Conscience, however, it is very definitely a double-edged sword.

It is secular knowledge, after all, which created nuclear weapons and gave humanity the ability to destroy itself. In Blish's novel, technology is responsible for the hellish conditions of the Shelter society on Earth and it is also responsible for human presence on Lithia, a presence which will lead directly to Lithia's destruction while indirectly doing enormous damage to the Earth as well. Historically religion has had little place in science fiction; most writers have either ignored it or kept it carefully stored on the shelf reserved for such conventional pieties as motherhood and apple pie. Blish is one of the few science fiction writers to introduce it into the foreground of a work. Ruiz-Sanchez, the protagonist of A Case of Conscience, was appointed to the Lithian Commission as a biologist, but he is also a Jesuit priest and Lithia quickly becomes for him not merely a study in scientific development, but something much more basic. The Lithians, he realizes, have a moral philosophy which is virtually identical to that of Christianity and follow those moral beliefs to perfection but, paradoxically, they lack any religious belief whatsoever. Lithia, at first glance, seems Edenic, a planet lacking in original sin. Soon, however, Ruiz-Sanchez begins to develop doubts and comes to a much darker conclusion.

The Lithians are not good because they choose to be. Despite their highly developed civilization and engaging personalities, their propensity for right action appears to be written on the gene, innate. In short, Ruiz-Sanchez decides, their apparent morality is a sham and they are little more than automatons. If one lives in a universe where one cannot help seeing the supernatural as underpinning everything, as Ruiz-Sanchez does, only one conclusion is possible: Lithia is a trap, designed by Satan, to ensnare humanity. It is, to put Ruiz-Sanchez's dilemma in current terms, something very close to what fundamentalist Christianity sees as the trap of secular humanism, the belief that humanity can achieve greatness without divine aid.

Blish never allows Ruiz-Sanchez to discover for certain the truth behind Lithia. The priest is censured by the pope for falling into the heresy of Manicheanism, the belief that Satan is capable of creativity. Egtverchi, the reptile like Lithian brought back to Earth in an embryonic state, who is called Snake by a number of characters in the book, may specifically be "the" Snake in the garden. His being awarded citizenship on Earth (largely at the recommendation of Michaelis, the Commission member most clearly aligned with the secular humanist viewpoint), and his development into a popular 3-V demagogue, lead directly to what may be the complete collapse of Shelter society. Conversely, however, Lithia might be Eden and humanity may itself be the snake sent to destroy paradise. At the end of the novel, just as Ruiz-Sanchez pronounces the rite of exorcism over Lithia, the planet blows up due to an out of control nuclear experiment conducted by Earthmen. Blish, again, leaves it entirely up in the air as to whether the nuclear accident was a result of the exorcism, and hence proof of Satan's presence in Lithian society, or a result of the Earth scientists' own hubris, and hence, perhaps, proof of Satan's presence in human society.

Blish's novel was written thirty years ago and, in its science, plotting, and character development, the book does show its age, but few more thematically challenging genre novels have ever been written. A Case of Conscience remains an important milestone of modern science fiction.

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