Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Case of Conscience and Category Failure

It’s a monstrous thing to let the fate of an entire people hang on a piece of religious or political casuistry – itself covering for fear of the Other.

But as our history suggests, it’s also a very human response.

Exploring this theme in a science-fiction setting is the great merit of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience – a mannered novella from the 50’s subsequently padded out to a full-length work.

The premise is a unique one. Ramon Ruis-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist/priest surveys a new planet, Lithia, which shows disturbing parallels with the Biblical Eden. Considering its native, peaceful sentient reptile species, he comes to the conclusion that they lack original sin. These Lithians, like their entire world, are a snare of the devil and need to be quarantined.

There then follows a “Four Angry Men” debate between the survey team’s members – the Jesuit being joined by the Imperialist, the Liberal and the Pragmatist – to decide the fate of the planet.

The implications of their decision and subsequent actions – which I will gloss over in the interests of avoiding spoilers - are then worked out in the expanded but inessential second half of the book.

A Case of Conscience itself demands a leap of faith – that scientists in space, never mind Jesuit scientists in space, would not be competent to study another culture without resorting to misapplied theology. Significantly, there are no social scientists on this mission from the hard-science 1950's. 

That aside, it is an excellent demonstration of our tendency to explain away any novelty by reference to what we already understand. Each proposal by the survey team members to shun, exploit or embrace Lithia is a straw man with a purpose; they all reduce the complexity of an alien culture down to a single view-point based on preconcieved ideas and categories.

The first 87 pages are vital, thoughtful if a little dated reading. The rest is an unnecessary coda.

No comments:

Post a Comment