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A Case of Conscience  
Cover of first edition.
Author James Blish
Country United States
Language English
Series After Such Knowledge trilogy
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Ballantine Books
Publication date 1958
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 192 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-345-43835-3 (later paperback printing)
OCLC Number 45074320
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 21
LC Classification PS3503.L64 C37 2000
Followed by Black Easter / The Day After Judgment

A Case of Conscience is a science fiction novel by James Blish, first published in 1958. It is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race that has no religion; they are completely without any concept of God, an afterlife, or the idea of sin; and the species evolves through several forms through the course of its life cycle. The story was originally published as a novella in 1953, and later extended to novel-length, of which the first part is the original novella. The novel is the first part of Blish's thematic "After Such Knowledge" trilogy, followed by Black Easter  / The Day After Judgment and Dr Mirabilis.

The story is unusual in several respects. Few science fiction stories of the time attempted religious themes, and still fewer did this with Catholicism. Some of the first part is taken up with the Jesuit's attempt to solve a puzzle, a long description of scandalous intrigue between various pseudonymous characters. As he is about to leave for Earth, he realizes the puzzle is soluble. The puzzle is contained within the pages of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce.

Many reacted negatively to the story, but surprisingly few educated Catholics were among them. One even sent James Blish a copy of the actual Church guidelines for dealing with extraterrestrials.[1] These are not detailed, but merely suggest overall strategy based on whether the beings have souls or not, and if they have them, whether they are fallen like humans, or exist in a state of grace.




Part 1

Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez of Peru, Clerk Regular of the Society of Jesus, is a member of a four-man team of scientists sent to the planet Lithia to determine if it can be opened to human contact. Ruiz-Sanchez is a biologist, biochemist, and the team doctor. However, as a Jesuit, he has religious concerns as well. The planet is inhabited by a race of intelligent bipedal reptilian-like creatures, the Lithians. Ruiz-Sanchez has learned to speak their language, the better to get to know them.

While on a walking survey of the land, Cleaver, a physicist, has been poisoned by a plant, despite a protective suit, and is in bad shape. Ruiz-Sanchez treats him and leaves to send a message to the others, Michelis, a chemist, and Agronski, a geologist. He is helped by Chtexa, a Lithian who he has befriended, who then invites him to his house. This is an incredible opportunity, which Ruiz-Sanchez cannot pass up. No member of the team has been invited into the Lithian living places before. The Lithians seem to have an ideal society, a Utopia without crime, conflict, ignorance or want. Ruiz-Sanchez is more than a little in awe of them.

When the team is reassembled, they compare notes on the Lithians. Soon they will have to officially pronounce their verdict. Michelis is open-minded and sympathetic to the Lithians. He also has learned their language and some of their customs. Agronski is more insular in his outlook, but sees no reason to consider the planet dangerous. When Cleaver revives, he reveals that he wants the place exploited, regardless of the Lithians' wishes. He has found enough of the element lithium, comparatively rare on terrestrial planets, that a tritium factory could be set up to supply Earth with nuclear weapons. Michelis is for open trade. Agronski is indifferent.

Then Ruiz-Sanchez drops his bombshell - he wants maximum quarantine. The things Chtexa revealed to him, added to what he already knew, convinces him that Lithia is nothing less than the work of Satan, a place deliberately constructed to show peace, logic, and understanding in the complete absence of God or any other deity. Point for point, Ruiz-Sanchez lists the facts about Lithia that directly attack Catholic teaching. Michelis is mystified, but does point out that all the Lithian science he has learned, while perfectly logical, rests on highly questionable assumptions. It is as if it just came from nowhere.

In the end, the team can come to no agreement. Ruiz-Sanchez concludes that Cleaver will probably get his way, and Lithian society will be wiped out. Despite his conclusions about the planet, he has deep affection for the Lithians themselves.

As the humans board their ship to leave, Chtexa gives Ruiz-Sanchez a gift - a sealed jar containing an egg. It is Chtexa's son, to be raised on Earth and learn the ways of humans. Ruiz-Sanchez handles it as if it were a bomb.

Part 2

The egg hatches and grows into the individual Egtverchi. Like all Lithians, he inherits knowledge from Chtexa through his DNA. Earth society is based around the nuclear shelters of the 20th century, with most people living underground. Egtverchi is the proverbial firecracker in an anthill—he upends society and precipitates violence.

Ruiz-Sanchez has to go to Rome to face judgment. His conviction about Lithia is viewed as heresy, since he now believes Satan has the power to create a planet. This is close to Manichaeism. He has an audience with the Pope himself to explain his beliefs. The Pope, a logical and technologically-aware Norwegian ruling under the name Hadrian VIII, points out two things Ruiz-Sanchez missed. First, Lithia could have been a deception, not a creation. And second, Ruiz-Sanchez could have done something about it, namely perform an exorcism on the whole planet. He dismisses Ruiz-Sanchez to purge his own soul, and return to the Church if and when he can.

A violent mass riot breaks out, fomented by Egtverchi and made possible by the psychosis present in many of the citizens as a result of living in the 'shelter state' (an earlier reference to the corridor riots indicates that this is not the first time violence has burst out among the buried cities). During the riot, Agronski dies as a result of being stung by one or more genetically-modified honeybees. Ruiz-Sanchez administers extreme unction, despite his almost-faithless state. Egtverchi stows away on a ship to Lithia.

Michelis and Ruiz-Sanchez are taken to the Moon, where a new telescope has been set up. This scope is used in conjunction with a form of the Haertel overdrive to view Lithia in real-time, bypassing the delay caused by the speed of light. Cleaver is on Lithia setting up his reactors, but the physicist who invented the telescope technology believes he has found a fault in Cleaver's reasoning. There is a chance that the work will set off a chain reaction in the planet's rocks and destroy it.

As they watch on the screen, Ruiz-Sanchez pronounces an exorcism. The planet explodes, taking Cleaver, Egtverchi, but also Chtexa and all the things Ruiz-Sanchez admired. It is left unclear whether the extinction of the Lithians is a result of Ruiz-Sanchez's prayer or Cleaver's erroneous calculations.

Awards and nominations

The novel won a Hugo Award in 1959. The original novella won a Retrospective Hugo Award in 2004.


  1. ^ Blish 1999, p.8.
  • Blish, James (1999). A Case of Conscience. Great Britain: Millennium. ISBN 1-85798-924-4. 
  • Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. p. 28. ISBN 0-911682-20-1. 

External links

Preceded by
The Big Time
by Fritz Leiber
Hugo Award for Best Novel
Succeeded by
Starship Troopers
by Robert A. Heinlein


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