Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish, a Heavy Read

Although some authors would probably hate me for saying this, I really wish that every book would come with a big “nutrition facts” label on its spine or back cover. It would list the book’s genre, the number of times (if any) swear words were used, the number of sexual imagery and/or dialogue occurrences, the frequency of violence, positive/neutral/negative themes, alcohol use, positive/neutral/negative role models, etc. I think such facts would help all consumers make more well-informed decisions about their book consumption. Such a label would be far more helpful than an “explicit content,” “parental advisory,” “R,” “PG-13,” “PG,” or “G” rating. Such a label would have been very helpful for me as I decided whether I should review A Case of Conscience by James Blish. It would have looked something like this:

Numbers for occurrences of profanity, sex, and violence are wildly estimated and may have no relation to reality.

Had I read such a label on NetGalley, where I originally heard about the book (a new edition was recently published), I would not have chosen to review it, purely because of the genre. As it was, I read it anyway, and found some things that I really enjoyed. The things that I didn’t like were, for the most part, attributable more to the genre than the specific author or book.

For one, the world building was awesome. The first part of the book takes place on a planet called Lithia, in an age when interstellar travel is no big deal and Earth’s government sends scouts to planets when they’re discovered to determine if arrangements can be made with the indigenous species for travel, trade, etc. The planet is inhabited by a sentient reptilian species that is wholly peaceful, and wholly without organized religion or even any concept of good or bad. One of the Earthian scouts is both a biologist and a Jesuit priest, and he is both fascinated and repulsed by the Lithians.

Almost the whole first half of the book is a discussion, between him and the three other scouts of various backgrounds, of the morality of the different recommendations each of them plans to make for those arrangements …with the ultimate decision (or lack thereof) having no real bearing on most of the rest of the book. The second half is what happens when they come back to Earth, divided, carrying a Lithian egg from which hatches Egtverchi, a being that throws humans into a frenzy, living as they are in underground shelters all throughout Earth and scared as they are of the creature.

The advantage of literary sci-fi is that any book written in that genre can take pages and pages to describe the world in which it takes place. Conversely, the disadvantage of the genre is that it can take pages and pages to describe that world. It’s fun to use one’s imagination to envision these worlds, but I need the plot in the books I read to move faster than this one did, and indeed than most literary sci-fis, or books written in the 1950’s, do. Those of you enjoy such long-windedness will enjoy this book, both for the world-building and the religious discussion.

But mentioning plot brings me to the main reason I didn’t like this book, and that was that its plot, slow as it was, was ambiguous and inconclusive. It didn’t lead toward an ending that resolved the moral dilemma of the main character, the Jesuit priest. It stopped right before such an ending could have taken place. I hated that.

So, were I to rate Case of Conscience on my 1-to-10-stars scale, I would give it a solid 5…or 4. For its genre and when it was written, it’s a pioneering example of good, hard sci-fi. It did, in fact, win a Hugo award for that reason. But it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Note: In the absence of nutrition facts labels for books, I recommend going to Compass Book Ratings, CommonSenseMedia, and Book Smugglers. All three, along with the product reviews you might find on Amazon, can sometimes give you an idea of the moral content of a book, if the book you’re looking for has been reviewed by them. The last one, Book Smugglers, reviews primarily sci-fi and fantasy, thoroughly and eloquently, and their moral perspective, since it tends to be opposite of mine, helps me to gauge whether such books would be appropriate for me.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of A Case of Conscience from NetGalley in exchange for my review. All opinions stated herein are purely my own.

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