A Case of Conscience

A Case of Conscience is a science fiction novel by American writer James Blish, first published in 1958. It is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race that has no religion yet has a perfect, innate sense of morality, a situation which conflicts with Catholic teaching. 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: it thus follows Doctor Mirabilis and both Black Easter and The Day After Judgment (two novellas that Blish viewed as together forming the third volume of the trilogy).

Few science fiction stories of the time attempted religious themes, and still fewer did this with Catholicism; another exception was Walter M. Miller Jr.'s Hugo Award-winning post-apocalyptic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Case of Conscience
Paperback first edition
AuthorJames Blish
CountryUnited States
SeriesAfter Such Knowledge trilogy
GenreScience fiction
Published1958 (Ballantine Books)
Media typePrint (paperback)
ISBN0-345-43835-3 (later paperback printing)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3503.L64 C37 2000
Followed byDoctor Mirabilis
Black Easter
The Day After Judgment 


Part 1

In 2049, 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 and biochemist, and he serves as the team doctor. However, as a Jesuit, he has religious concerns as well. The planet is inhabited by a race of intelligent bipedal reptile-like creatures, the Lithians. Ruiz-Sanchez has learned to speak their language to learn about them.

While on a walking survey of the land, Cleaver, a physicist, has been poisoned by a plant, despite a protective suit, and he suffers badly. 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 whom he has befriended, who then invites him to his house. This is an opportunity which Ruiz-Sanchez cannot decline; no member of the team has been invited into Lithian living places before. The Lithians seem to have an ideal society, a utopia without crime, conflict, ignorance or want. Ruiz-Sanchez is awed.

When the team is reassembled, they compare their observations of 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 he 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 pegmatite (a source of lithium which is rare on Earth) that a factory could be set up to supply Earth with lithium deuteride for nuclear weapons. Michelis is for open trade. Agronski is indifferent.

Ruiz-Sanchez makes a major declaration: he wants maximum quarantine. The information 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. 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.

The team can come to no agreement. Ruiz-Sanchez concludes that Cleaver's intentions will probably prevail and Lithian society will be exterminated. Despite his conclusions about the planet, he has a deep affection for the Lithians.

As the humans board their ship to leave, Chtexa gives Ruiz-Sanchez a gift—a sealed jar containing an egg. It is a son of Chtexa, to be raised on Earth and learn the ways of humans. At this point, the Jesuit solves a riddle which he has been pondering for some time, from Book III of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (pp. 572–3), which proposes a complex case of marital morals, ending with the question "Has he hegemony and shall she submit?" To the Church, neither "Yes" nor "No" is a morally satisfactory answer. Ruiz-Sanchez sees that it is two questions, despite the omission of a comma between the two, so that the answer can be "Yes and No".

Part 2

The egg hatches and grows into the individual Egtverchi. Like all Lithians, he inherits knowledge from his father through his DNA. Earth society is based on 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 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. Pope Hadrian VIII, a logical and technologically aware Norwegian, 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. The priest bows his head in shame that he has overlooked an obvious solution to his own case of conscience while he was absorbed in "a book [Finnegans Wake] which to all intents and purposes might have been dictated by the Adversary himself ... 628 pages of compulsive demoniac chatter." The Pope dismisses Ruiz-Sanchez to purge his own soul and to 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 of 1993" 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 honey bees. Ruiz-Sanchez administers Extreme Unction, despite his almost-faithless state. Egtverchi secretly boards a spaceship to Lithia. Michelis and Ruiz-Sanchez are taken to the Moon, where a new telescope has been assembled, based on "a fundamental twist on the Haertel equations which makes it possible to see around normal space-time, as well as travel around it"[1] so that the instrument presents a view of 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, eliminating Cleaver and Egtverchi, but also Chtexa and all the things Ruiz-Sanchez admired. It is left ambiguous whether the extinction of the Lithians is a result of Ruiz-Sanchez's prayer or Cleaver's error.


While faulting the novel for "extreme unevenness", Galaxy reviewer Floyd C. Gale concluded that A Case of Conscience was "a provocative, serious, commendable work" and characterized it as "trailblaz[ing]".[2] Anthony Boucher found Blish's protagonist "a credible and moving figure" and praised the opening segment; however he faulted the later material for "los[ing] focus and impact" and "wander[ing]" to an ending that seems "merely chaotic."[3] In his "Books" column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Damon Knight selected Blish's novel as one of the ten best science fiction books of the 1950s.[4] He reviewed the novel as "resonat[ing] with a note of its own. . . . it is complete and perfect."[5]

On the other hand, Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the director of the Vatican Observatory, suggested that this novel was written without much knowledge of Jesuits, saying that "[its] theology isn't only bad theology, it's not Jesuit theology."[6] In a foreword, Blish mentions that he had heard objections the theology, but countered that the theology was that of a future Church rather than the present one, and that in any case he set out to write about "not a body of faith, but a man". He also received, and quoted, the official Church policy on contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life forms. The policy described such life forms as being possibly without immortal souls, or having immortal souls and being "fallen", or having souls and existing in a state of Grace, listing the approach to be taken in each case.

In 2012 the novel was included in the Library of America two-volume boxed set American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe.[7]

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. 135
  2. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Magazine, February 1959, pp. 139–140.
  3. ^ "Recommended Reading", F&SF, August 1958, p. 105.
  4. ^ Damon Knight. "Books", F&SF, April 1960, p. 99.
  5. ^ Knight, Damon. "In the Balance", If, December 1958, pp. 108–09.
  6. ^ Cleary, Grayson (November 10, 2015). "Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics". The Atlantic. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  7. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (July 13, 2012). "Classic Sci-Fi Novels Get Futuristic Enhancements from Library of America". The New York Times. Retrieved January 9, 2013.


  • 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

17th World Science Fiction Convention

The 17th World Science Fiction Convention, also known as Detention, was held September 4–7, 1959, at the Pick Fort Shelby Hotel in Detroit, Michigan, United States.

The chairmen were Roger Sims and Fred Prophet. The guests of honor were Poul Anderson (pro) and John Berry (fan). The toastmaster was Isaac Asimov "...with the assistance of Robert Bloch". Total attendance was 371.

1958 in literature

This article is a summary of the literary events and publications of 1958.

1959 in literature

This article presents lists of the literary events and publications in 1959.

62nd World Science Fiction Convention

The 62nd World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) was Noreascon 4, which was held in Boston, Massachusetts, from September 2–6, 2004. The venues for the 62nd Worldcon were Hynes Convention Center, Sheraton Boston Hotel and Boston Marriott Copley Place. The convention was organized by Massachusetts Convention Fandom, Inc., and the organizing committee was chaired by Deb Geisler.

The convention had 7485 members, of whom 6008 actually attended the convention.

All Seated on the Ground

All Seated on the Ground is a science fiction novella by Connie Willis, originally published in the December 2007 issue of American magazine Asimov's Science Fiction and as a standalone volume from Subterranean Press. It won the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novella.

Black Easter

Black Easter is a fantasy novel by American writer James Blish, in which an arms dealer hires a black magician to unleash all the demons of Hell on Earth for a single day. It was first published in 1968. The sequel is The Day After Judgment. Together, those two novellas form the third part of the thematic After Such Knowledge trilogy (the title is from a line of T. S. Eliot's Gerontion: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?") with A Case of Conscience and Doctor Mirabilis. Blish has stated that it was only after completing Black Easter that he realized that the works formed a trilogy.A shorter version of Black Easter was serialized as Faust Aleph-Null in If magazine, August–October 1967; the book edition retains the phrase as its subtitle. Black Easter and its sequel were later published as a single volume under the title Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (1980); a 1990 edition from Baen Books was renamed The Devil's Day.

James Blish

James Benjamin Blish (23 May 1921 – 30 July 1975) was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is best known for his Cities in Flight novels, and his series of Star Trek novelizations written with his wife, J. A. Lawrence. He is credited with creating the term gas giant to refer to large planetary bodies.

Blish was a member of the Futurians. His first published stories appeared in Super Science Stories and Amazing Stories.

Blish wrote literary criticism of science fiction using the pen-name William Atheling Jr. His other pen names included: Donald Laverty, John MacDougal, and Arthur Lloyd Merlyn.

John Ley

John Ley (4 February 1583 – 16 May 1662) was an English clergyman and member of the Westminster Assembly.

Lost Dorsai

Lost Dorsai is a science fiction novella by American writer Gordon R. Dickson. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1981 and was also nominated for the Nebula Award in 1980.

Nightwings (novella)

"Nightwings" is a science fiction novella by Robert Silverberg. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1969 and was also nominated for the Nebula Award in 1968. It won the Prix Apollo Award in 1976. "Nightwings" is the first in a trilogy of novellas, the next two being "Perris Way" (1968) and "To Jorslem" (1969). These three works were later collected into a single fixup in three sections, also titled Nightwings. According to Silverberg's introductions, the changes required to turn the three shorter works into a novel were relatively minor.

Palimpsest (novella)

Palimpsest is a 2009 science fiction novella by Charles Stross, exploring the conjunction of time travel and deep time. Originally published in Stross's 2009 collection Wireless, it won the 2010 Hugo Award for best novella.Subterranean Press has announced that they will be reprinting the novella separately in 2011.

Planetary romance

Planetary romance is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy in which the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. Some planetary romances take place against the background of a future culture where travel between worlds by spaceship is commonplace; others, particularly the earliest examples of the genre, do not, and invoke flying carpets, astral projection, or other methods of getting between planets. In either case, it is the planetside adventures which are the focus of the story, not the mode of travel.The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction mentions two caveats as to the usage of the term. First, while the setting may be in an alien world, its nature is of little relevance to the plot, as is the case of James Blish's A Case of Conscience. Second, hard science fiction tales are excluded from this category, where an alien planet, while being a critical component of the plot, is just a background for a primarily scientific endeavor, such as Hal Clement' s Mission of Gravity, possibly with embellishments.

A significant precursor of the genre is Edwin L. Arnold's Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905).In Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985), editor and critic David Pringle named Bradley and Anne McCaffrey two "leading practitioners nowadays" for the planetary romance type of science fiction.There is a significant overlap of the genre with that of sword and planet.

Puritan casuistry

Puritan casuistry is a genre of British religious literature, in the general area of moral theology, and recognised as founded about 1600. The work A Case of Conscience (1592) of William Perkins is considered foundational for the genre. So-called "case divinity" has been described as fundamental to Puritan culture. The underlying theological trend is said to be visible in George Gifford: evidence from life accentuated as "proof of election", to be obtained reflectively, and matching "biblically promised effects".In line with the tenets of Reformed theology, the assurance of salvation could produce dilemmas on a spiritual level, and Puritan casuistry in part was a response to the need to address these issues as practical problems. Perkins, Richard Greenham, William Ames and Joseph Alleine were noted as authors who wrote in this area. From Ames, it was considered that reprobation can almost never know itself. More accurately, the issue is election, and the assurance of it, and Perkins addressed it as a preoccupation.Otherwise, the content of "Puritan casuistry" is still somewhat contested by scholars, because the element of casuistry is apparently lower than would be expected, if it were simply the casuistry of Puritanism. One explanation lies in a transformed, Protestant, meaning of "casuistry", as the "sifting of the conscience". Some of the content of confession is therefore implied, and so of devotional life. In terms of genre, devotional literature can be closer to the mark, than moral literature. It has been argued by a Jesuit author that "casuistry" here is a misnomer, and "practical divinity" more accurate.

Souls (story)

Souls is an award-winning 1982 science fiction novella by Joanna Russ. It was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in January 1982, and subsequently republished in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year 12, in Russ's 1984 collection Extra(ordinary) People, as well as in the first volume of the Isaac Asimov/Martin H. Greenberg-edited anthology The New Hugo Winners, and in 1989 as half of a Tor Double Novel (with "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.).

The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland

The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland is a compilation of previously uncollected stories by Frank O'Connor from 1981. The stories were selected by O'Connor's widow, Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy, and the Cork writer David Marcus. The collection includes:


There is a Lone House

The Miracle (no relation to "The Miracle" from The Common Chord)

May Night

The Flowering Trees

The Storyteller

Mac's Masterpiece

The Climber


Last Post

The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland

Uncle Pat

The Adventuress

The Landlady


What Girls Are For


A Case of Conscience

The Call


The Grip of the Geraghtys

The Queen of Air and Darkness (novella)

"The Queen of Air and Darkness" is a science fiction novella by American writer Poul Anderson, set in his History of Rustum fictional universe. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 1972, and the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1971.

The Saturn Game

"The Saturn Game" is a science fiction novella by American writer Poul Anderson.

The Sparrow (novel)

The Sparrow (1996) is the first novel by author Mary Doria Russell.

It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis and the British Science Fiction Association Award. It was followed by a sequel, Children of God, in 1998. The title refers to Gospel of Matthew 10:29–31, which relates that not even a sparrow falls to the earth without God's knowledge thereof.

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