“‘Animals have no souls,’ said Descartes, throwing a cat out the window to prove, if not his point, at least his faith in it.”
I’ve tended to think of James Blish (1921-1975) as a Star Trek hack most of my life. I knew he was a smart guy; I knew that his “Okie” series and A Case of Conscience were well respected. Hell, I’m even a Star Trek fan. But, without reading any of his work except a couple of short stories, I had no respect for him. Then David Pringle’s list made me sit down with one of his novels.
ACoC is divided into two parts. Generally, the first is considered the better of the two halves, and I will agree that it is the stronger narrative. But the second half has its merits too. I suppose it is much like the other great sf novel about Catholicism: A Canticle for Leibowitz (# 30 on the list). That book also has mismatching narrative limbs.
The first half of ACoC focuses on Jesuit priest and scientist Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez. RS is one of the more interesting characters I’ve ever read. While Blish is critical of religion, he’s evenhanded with the good Father. RS is part of a four-man team of scientists on a planet called Lithia. They’ve been sent there to determine whether the planet would make a good way station–balancing out the needs and wants of both Earthlings and the Lithians themselves. The native inhabitants are quite interesting. They’re twelve-feet-tall reptiles that resemble a dinosaur with a kangaroo pouch (in the case of the females). They’re intelligent and industrious, and they live in a harmonious society with no crime, war, or religion. And that last point is the real bugger.
When it comes down to the vote on Lithia’s future, the four men couldn’t be further apart. One believes Lithia to be an absolute cultural gem that should be kept open and in active dialogue with Earth. Another feels that it should be turned into an armory and weapons-making factory. A third is indecisive and almost apathetic about the responsibility of his decision. And then there’s Ruiz-Sanchez. RS has had the deepest contact with the culture up to this point. He’s thoroughly studied the environment of Lithia. He’s mastered the language. And he’s made friends with a Lithian named Chtexa. But RS can’t wrap his mind around the idea of a society without god, particularly a rational, well-functioning one. He decides that the planet itself, as well as its inhabitants, must be the creation of the Devil. And while this suggests a Manichean heresy (strict theology purports the Devil has no creative abilities such as God has), he accepts it as the only possibility and votes for the planet to be permanently quarantined. Before he leaves, however, Chtexa gives him a present: a fertilized Lithian egg.
The second half of the novel follows the disastrous earthly development of Egtverchi, Chtexa’s son. Egtverchi is neither fish nor fowl on Earth–a problem most twelve-foot, sentient reptiles face. He’s also quite paranoid about war, which is a theme running throughout the novel. As I mentioned before, Cleaver (one of the scientists on Lithia) has the hawkish idea to develop munitions on Lithia, all for the armament against an enemy that doesn’t exist. Most of society lives in underground, shelter communities because of some sort of nuclear fallout. And there is a growing dissatisfaction on the part of the have-nots of society. Egtverchi does his best to fan the flames of tension. While this section of the novel meanders at times, it’s worth waiting out the anti-Hollywood ending. There are also some small gems of social criticism along the way, such as the concept of “planned obsolescence”: a series of built-in flaws that every product contains, in order to insure that it has an ephemeral existence that propels the public’s consuming habits. Or, a party ride that shuttles passengers through a series of hallucinogenic scenes, ending with a trip through the furnace doors of Belsen, only to be blasted with “mind-cleansing oxygen” on the other side. What fun!