A Case of Conscience Makes a Case for Science

How much does the "science" in "science fiction" matter, really? Let's mull that over while we consider A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, the Hugo-winning novel from 1959.

There is a long-standing debate about how important science is to science fiction. Basically, the argument goes: If your technology is indistinguishable from magic — if it's all midi-chlorians and red matter that serve the plot but that are no more realistic than Polyjuice Potions or palantírs — then you're not really writing science fiction at all, just fantasy dressed up in lasers and robots.

And I tend to agree with that sentiment, at least when I've got my nitpicky copy editor green eyeshade on and I'm trying to be vewy, vewy caweful with my words. When I don't have the eyeshade on, of course — which is usually, since wearing it interferes with my beer helmet — I'm much less exacting and willing to welcome everyone from the X-Men to the Ghostbusters to the party, and probably even Taylor Lautner, because I'm hoping he'll bring his girlfriend. I guess I've always thought that was the best way to handle the problem: to admit that, yes, technically speaking, "science fiction" has a very specific meaning, and much of what we apply the term to doesn't actually meet that meaning's criteria; but also to acknowledge that for practical purposes, a lot of us who like stories about terraforming Mars like stories about dragons, too.

A Case of Conscience got me thinking about this some more, because this book is just packed with science, a lot of it the real kind. It runs the whole gamut of disciplines, from biology to geology to chemistry to physics to astronomy, and nearly all the crucial plot points hang on one of those. You've got:

  • an alien planet that's valuable to Earthlings because of its massive reserves of lithium and tritium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons;
  • its native species, which are suspected of being creatures of Satan by a Jesuit priest because even though they're peaceful and good-natured, their science fundamentally doesn't add up;
  • and a climax that hinges on a couple of technological breakdowns.

A Case of Conscience Makes a Case for Science

And at first, I was going to suggest that the story could be told just as easily without any such level of veracity at all — that you could substitute dilithium or thiotimoline for the real elements, briefly explain how they work, etc., etc., and provide the reader with an entertainment that was more or less as thought-provoking as the real book is. Because despite all the science in A Case of Conscience, it's also very clearly an allegory, a piece of literature with a message, and the bulk of its second half reads like a cross between V and K-PAX and Network. So, I wondered, why all the scientific accuracy? Just for purposes of pedantry? The same way some of us* have to imagine our wives dead of a tragic** illness before we fantasize about delivering a pizza to Taylor Lautner's girlfriend?

But the more I thought about it, and especially the second and third plot points mentioned above, the more I realized that no, you couldn't tell this story without the science. At least not without doing ten times more work to concoct something a hundred times less believable.

James Blish not only trained as a scientist, but also worked as a science editor for a major corporation until he could earn enough of a livelihood from his fiction. And although a career background in science is certainly something a lot of SF writers have possessed, I have to say I'm especially impressed with how he managed to weave so many disparate aspects of it into a very neatly packaged story — one that takes its characters off into all different directions and still manages to resolve every thread at the end — in A Case of Conscience. This was an odd little book, one I'm not sure I liked, exactly, for the reasons I tend to like books — the characters, to a one, are pretty frickin' annoying, and a bit too visibly robotic in the service of the plot — but one that I suspect will linger with me much, much longer than any of the Hugo winners that came before it.

*Some of you, I mean, not me.

**Also painless.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein, from 1960.

Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found here.