Sunday, January 28, 2007

Review of “A Case of Conscience” novel by James Blish

A Jesuit biologist in charge of evaluating the potential of a planet inhabited by tall reptilian aliens finds that the planet’s fate may be a moral question more so than a scientific one. The book is divided into two main sections, a shorter part in the beginning detailing the last few days of four scientists on the new planet and the second part focusing on Earth in the succeeding months.

The Good:
Blish starts his novel with a fairly heavy dose of hard science (backed by an appendix at well) which seems fairly impressive for the 1950’s and only occasionally dated. The future earth Blish depicts is well-insinuated, hinging on his conception of a “shelter war” which amounts to a defense-based next step to the Cold War. Additionally the blend of science and religion in the protagonist is deeply interesting, leading the man to make some surprising decisions on questions where the right answer is left ultimately (and smartly) ambiguous. Plenty of food for thought is cooked up by Blish and he wisely lets the reader come to their own conclusions in fascinating ending.

The Bad:
Blish never really manages to delve into the psychology of the protagonist deeply enough and thus he misses the opportunity to explore the central core of his own themes. Just when the reader would most like to get into the Jesuit’s head, Blish pulls back and shifts into a more vague macroscopic tone that focuses on larger world events and a far less interesting fish-out-of-water story. One can’t help but think that a more literary author would have given key attention to the characterization and internal perspective of what is certainly a compelling sketch of man and his science-vs-religion dilemma.
Another noticeable problem is the way that the hard-science dries up about 80 pages in, switching to a more mundane and vague style that does little to inform or entertain. Questionable, too, is the central premise that a mere four scientists who don’t even get along and immediately divide up would be sent to single-handedly determine the fate of an entire planet and the intelligent life-forms on it. No ambassadors, diplomats, linguists, military advisors, psychologists, survivalists, exploration teams, surveyor teams, construction crews or support staff are sent…

Grade: C+

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