More Than Human - A Case of ConscienceThursday, October 21, 2010
As I attempt to convince my 13 year-old granddaughter of the wonders of reading I have been looking through my book shelves for a volume that might just do the trick. I have yet to find it but the exercise points me in the directions of books that have not been lately in my mind. Seeing them brings the excitement I felt when I first read them. One that I found today was A Case of Conscience by James Blish.
I read it not long after it came out in 1958. This science fiction novel is about a Jesuit, Father Ruiz-Sanchez who is sent to, Lithia, a remote planet in another star system. It is in this planet that where his insoluble beliefs and ethics suddenly become in conflict. I have read this novel, at least thrice. It is so good that a few years back (1996) I was startled to find another science fiction novel, The Sparrow, by first time novelist Mary Doria Russell. In it, a Jesuit, Father Emilio Sandoz has flashbacks after an expedition to a planet, Rakhat, in another solar system. There are enough similarities in both books that made me wonder if the latter novel had derived from the other. In a lengthy acknowledgement the author even mentions Dorothy Dunnet (a writer of medieval historical novels) but Blish is not mentioned. It could be just plain coincidence.
In one of the further readings of A Case of Conscience I marked some passages with little plastic stickum tags. These are two that caught my eye:
1. Not that the count was a drone. At last reports, he had been involved in some highly esoteric tampering with the Haertel equations – that description of the space-time continuum which, by swallowing up the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction exactly as Einstein had swallowed Newton (that is, alive) had made interstellar flight possible. Ruiz-Sanchez did not understand a word of it, but, he reflected with amusement, it was doubtless perfectly simple once you understood it. [note by present blogger that all science fiction novels of the 50s had to have something like this with lots of mumbo jumbo to justify faster that light speed ships].
Almost all knowledge, after all, fell into that category. It was either perfectly simple once you understood it, or else it fell apart into fiction. As a Jesuit, even here, fifty light years from Rome – Ruiz-Sanchez knew something about knowledge that Lucien le Comte des Bois-d’Averoigne had forgotten, and that Cleaver would never learn: that all knowledge goes through both [italics by author] stages, the annunciation out of noise into fact, and the disintegration back into noise again. The process involved was the making of increasingly finer distinctions. The outcome was an endless series of theoretical catastrophes.
The residium was faith.
2. A lifetime of meditation over just such cases of conscience had made Ruiz-Sanchez, like most other gifted members of his order, quick to find his way to a decision through all but the most complicated of ethical labyrinths. All Catholics must be devout; but a Jesuit must be in addition, agile.
I cannot but think that More Than Human explores stuff no different, and as challenging in matters of conscience and ethics, from that written by James Blish and Mary Doria Russell. But I also did read More Than Human first and I can only wonder if it will blow me away for the second time.