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Book Review: A Case of Conscience, by James Blish

For me, a fundamental feature of sci-fi literature, and arguably one of the reasons it’s suffering so badly in today’s market despite the relative popularity of the genre as a whole, is that it rarely works best at novel length.  With a few exceptions, SF – which often relies on grand ideas above all else – doesn’t produce great airport books.  There’s an argument that says the short story is its ideal form, but whether or not that’s true, it’s a fact that many of the field’s masterpieces are simply too short to be commercially viable if released alone.   Given that the short story collection, which once upon a time was the backbone of genre literature, seems to be rapidly becoming extinct, it’s no wonder that science fiction is suffering.

By a roundabout route, this brings us to James Blish’s A Case of Conscience – which began life as a novella and was subsequently expanded into a novel.  The original novella followed Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist assigned as one of a party of four earthmen to the planet of Lithia, with the mission of deciding whether it can be usefully exploited by Earth.  At the start of the story, Ruiz-Sanchez is thrown into turmoil by the realisation that Lithia is uncannily like the biblical Eden, with its dominant species living free of crime, violence or even any notion of sin. 

The novella deals with Ruiz-Sanchez’ attempts to unravel the theological conundrum posed by Lithia, and is – despite some thin characterisation and the non-existent plot – a miniature masterpiece purely by virtue of its unusual and intelligent take on the old staple of interstellar colonisation.  But it’s also a very self-contained story with little scope, you’d think, for expansion.  What Blish actually did was to leave the original novella intact, call it part one, and add a part two, continuing the story from the point where Ruiz-Sanchez and his party return to earth with an infant Lithian in tow. 

And, put bluntly, the second part isn’t really a patch on the first.  It has the exact same problems – characters with little to differentiate them and a lack of story depth – but it’s also messy and rambling, with a background of interesting but half-formed ideas that doesn’t seem to fit with what’s come before.  It’s not terrible by any means – this being Blish, it’s at least well-written, and littered with promising concepts – but it’s certainly disappointing, adding little to the impact of the first section and feeling like something thrown together from too many disparate parts. 

Going back to my earlier comments – A Case of Conscience is a very good novella, but you’d be pushed to find it in that form, or to pay a reasonable price for it.  And as a novel it’s difficult to recommend.  There’s no doubt that Blish was an immensely talented writer, but there are much better introductions to his work to be had.