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Hugo My Way – 1959 – A Case of Conscience by James Blish #BookReview

A space-traveling Jesuit priest confronts a moral but godless alien race in this Hugo Award–winning novel by the author of the Cities in Flight saga.

Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a dedicated man, a Jesuit priest who is also a scientist, and a scientist who is also a human being. He doesn’t feel any genuine conflicts in his belief system—until he is sent to Lithia.

The reptilian inhabitants of this distant world appear to be admirable in every way. Untroubled by greed or lust, they live in peace. But they have no concept of God, no literature, and no art. They rely purely on cold reason. But something darker lies beneath the surface: Do the Lithians pose a hidden threat? The answers that unfold could affect the fate of two worlds. Will Ruiz-Sanchez, a priest driven by his deeply human understanding of good and evil, do the right thing when confronted by a race that is alien to its core?

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia lauds A Case of Conscience as “one of the first serious attempts to deal with religion [in science fiction], and [it] remains one of the most sophisticated. It is generally regarded as an SF classic.” Readers of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, or Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz will find this award-winning novel a gripping, compelling exploration of some of the most intractable and important questions faced by the human species. Includes an introduction by Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author Greg Bear.

Book cover for A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Title: A Case of Conscience | Author: James Blish | Publisher: Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy | Pub. Date originally 1959 | Pages: 257 | ASIN: B01N63YQEX | Genre: Sci-Fi| Language: English | Source: Purchased | Starred Review

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This time I promise, for real, the Hugos have grown up. In 1959 we had an award for the best novel the year before, in ’59, and the year after. Momentum seems to be building! And this year there was a list of nominees considered, which keeps up into 1960. So the process is also maturing. Good signs, good signs. Though for full disclosure I’ll say that I really haven’t looked past ’60 yet, so its possible they dropped the ball again. But I’m optimistic.

The nominees considered in addition to the winner were The Enemy Stars, by Poul Anderson, Who?, by Algis Budrys, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein, and Immortality, Inc., by Robert Scheckley. Seems like a fine list of nominees and while there are a few others that would have fit well on that slate there were no embarrassing omissions.

From the invaluable Informal History of the Hugos, I learned two interesting facts to share before moving on to our best novel winner. No winners were selected for the categories of Best SF or Fantasy Movie (despite having The Fly in theaters), and Best New Author, despite both categories having nominees. The awards are not “legendary” but simply “best”. It seems to me that if you have two or more candidates at least one of them must be best. Second, Brian W. Aldiss had the highest vote total for Best New Author and, in my opinion, certainly should have one. However, Paul Ash was nominated along with Pauline Ashwell, and one wonders if that single person would have won if the committee had totaled up their vote.

A Case of Conscience is a terrific book. This is what an award winner should read like in my opinion. It has space and aliens and science-fiction. It has interesting characters. And it has at its core a struggle with religion and philosophy. Much of the discussion around theology is too focused on Catholicism and fairly dated. But the premise develops naturally, bursts onto the scene, and then moves forward quickly.

The first part of the story takes place on the alien planet and involves four men who are charged with determining if humans should be allowed to visit the planet and under what conditions. The locals are the first sentient aliens that humans have discovered, and with that in mind, the idea of sending a team of four men seems a bit quaint. That is where we are though. Much of this first act takes place in a single building and in my mind read much like a play, where I could imagine how the stage would be set. The four make their arguments based on science, politics, and theology, but end up with a split decision. Eventually, the ship arrives to take them back to Earth and one of them decides to accept a gift. A token of friendship. A sealed vase with precious and invaluable cargo. What could possibly go wrong?

The rest of the story plays out with what could possibly go wrong. Much of it reminded me of Stranger in a Strange Land, dealing with an intelligent being growing to maturity without any contact with their own kind, and then being immersed in largely an alien society. But the comparison between the two doesn’t hold up much more than that.

Will humanity survive the experience? Will an insane and immoral alien lead a group of deplorable humans to overthrow society and tear it all down? Or is there a truly bad outcome?

No spoilers, I recommend you read it for yourself. This is my favorite Hugo Best Novel so far because it was well written and a premise that I have literally not read before, though I assume its been covered outside of my reading sphere. Like many of the genre books of the age it is not long and moves at a brisk pace.

You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.

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