Study and Discussion Questions for A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Blish's 1959 novel, first published as a novella in 1953 in IF Worlds of Science Fiction, is the first work in what Blish called his After Such Knowledge trilogy: A Case of Conscience (1958), Dr. Mirabilis (1965), and Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgment (1971). Although the latter two novels were published separately and three years apart, Blish considered them a single novel--hence the label, "trilogy," for the group of novels. While the novels are not linked by specific content or by characters, according to Blish, they form a trilogy because they collectively address what he considers one of the oldest problems of philosophy: "Is the desire for knowledge, let alone the acquisition and misuse of it, a misuse of the mind and perhaps even actively evil?" In A Case of Conscience, however, Blish emphasizes the crisis of conscience that confronts Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez when he comes to believe that the planet, Lithia, and its inhabitants are the creation of Satan, thereby commiting the sin of Manichaeism. The seemingly utopian society of Lithia, then, seems to Ruiz-Sanchez to be populated by the soulless creations of Satan and their crime free, fundamentally moral, and violence free existence seems governed entirely by reason without the need for faith or a belief in the divine. For more details on Manichaeism and for a commentary on these issues in Blish's novel, follow these links: Manichaeism in the Catholic Encyclopedia and "Covering A Case of Conscience," David Ketterer's article in Science Fiction Studies.

As you read the novel, note that while Blish investigates Manichaeism as central to the philosophical concept of the problem of evil, he establishes his work as hard science fiction by drawing on his own courses of study, first as an undergraduate microbiology major at Rutgers and as a microbiology laboratory technician in the Army from 1942-45, and then as a graduate zoology major at Columbia University in 1945-46.  In 1946, Blish abandoned his pursuit of the zoology Ph.D. to work full-time as a writer, having initiated a successful career with the publication of "Emergency Refueling" [1940] in Super Science Stories.  His Earthman, Come Home [serialized in 1950-53] was selected for inclusion in Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume II B; that novella initiated his Okie series of novels and stories that were collected in the single volume, Cities in Flight [1970].  Later in his career, Blish made a good living through the writing of Star Trek novels, including the very popular original adult Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die [1970] as well as many novelizations of existing Star Trek episodes. He won a Hugo for A Case of Conscience in 1959, a novel in which he paid homage to one of his favorite writers, James Joyce, as can be seen in that work's opening pages.

While reading the opening chapters of A Case of Conscience, consider the following issues:

  1. The novel in its opening chapters is focalized entirely through Ruiz-Sanchez and Paul Cleaver. We experience the perspectives of Agronski, Michelis, and the alien Chtexa exclusively through dialogue and description, never entering these characters' thoughts. What is the effect of limiting our access to the thoughts of Cleaver and Ruiz-Sanchez? How does this approach help to establish one of the central conflicts of the novel? 

  2. What specific character traits are assigned to Paul Cleaver in the opening chapters? Do these traits establish him as a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? What details could you cite to support your conclusion? At the opening of the novel, what is his position relative to the decision they have to make regarding Earth's continued contact with Lithia?

  3. What traits are assigned to Ruiz-Sanchez? How does the novel that he is reading in the opening pages, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, initiate our understanding of the crisis of conscience that will confront him? What is his opening position regarding the Lithia Review Commission's impending decision about Lithia?

  4. The opening chapters, and especially chapter four, introduce us to details of Lithian society and biology. These details are considered by some readers to be one of the strengths of Blish's Hugo Award winning novel, especially as they drawn on his training in biology and zoology. What aspects of Lithian society and biology both establish credibility or plausibility and prepare us for Ruiz-Sanchez's developing conflict of conscience? For help with the nature of the planet and its society, see the seven page appendix to the novel, where Blish describes the planet and its inhabitants.