from the science fiction of
James Blish
(1921 – 1975)

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A Case of Conscience


Science Fiction

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A Case of Conscience

Copyright © 1958 by James Blish

Beginning published in abridged form as “A Case of Conscience”, copyright 1953 by Quinn Publishing Co., Inc.

Book One I

“The infinite mutability of life forms, and the cunning inherent in each of them. . . . It’s all amazing, and quite delightful.”

“Why shouldn’t that be sufficient?” Cleaver said. “Why do you have to have the God bit too? It doesn’t make sense.”

“On the contrary, it’s what gives everything else meaning,” Ruiz-Sanchez said. “Belief and science aren’t mutually exclusive—quite the contrary. But if you place scientific standards first, and exclude belief, admit nothing that’s not proven, then what you have is a series of empty gestures. For me, biology is an act of religion, because I know that all creatures are God’s—each new planet, with all its manifestations, is an affirmation of God’s power.”


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 [...] that all knowledge goes through both 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 residuum was faith.




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.


He wondered what he had just said to the court. It had been conclusive, damning, good enough to be used when he awoke; but he could not remember a word of it. All that remained of it was a sensation, almost the taste of the words, but nothing of their substance.


The Lithians did not know God. They did things rightly, and thought righteously, because it was reasonable and efficient and natural to do and think that way. They seemed to need nothing else.

Did they never have night thoughts? Was it possible that there could exist in the universe a reasoning being of a high order, which was never for an instant paralyzed by the sudden question, the terror of seeing through to the meaninglessness of action, the blindness of knowledge, the barrenness of having been born at all? “Only upon this firm foundation of unyielding despair,” a famous atheist once had written, “may the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”



“A machine exists, but only a living thing, like a tree, progresses along a line of changing equilibriums. When that progress stops, the entity is dead.”

The electric clocks elsewhere in his hacienda outside Lima all should have been capable of performing silently, accurately, and in less space—but the considerations which had gone into the making of them had been commercial as well as purely technical. As a result, most of them operated with a thin, asthmatic whir, or groaned softly but dismally at irregular hours. All of them were “streamlined,” oversize and ugly. None of them kept good time, and several of them, since they were powered by constant-speed motors driving very simple gearboxes, could not be adjusted, but had been sent out of the factory with built-in, ineluctable inaccuracies.

The wooden cuckoo clock, meanwhile, ticked evenly away. A quail emerged from one of two wooden doors every quarter of an hour and let you know about it, and on the hour first the quail came out, then the cuckoo, and there was a soft bell that rang just ahead of each cuckoo call. Midnight and noon were not just times of the day for that clock; they were productions. It was accurate to a minute a month, all for the price of running up the three weights which drove it, each night before bedtime.

The clock’s maker had been dead before Ruiz-Sanchez was born. In contrast, the priest would probably buy and jettison at least a dozen cheap electric clocks in the course of one lifetime, as their makers had intended he should; they were linearly descended from “planned obsolescence,” the craze for waste which had hit the Americas during the last half of the previous century.





“It is very elegant,” Ruiz-Sanchez said dispiritedly. “He who would damn us often gives us gracefulness. It is not the same thing as Grace.”

Book Two XII [...] he was spending most of his time at one of the most potent of Aristide’s punches, with the glum determination of a non-drinker who believes that he can perfect his poise by poisoning his timidity.



“I have been exploring this notion of parenthood,” Egtverchi was saying. “I know who my father is, of course—it is a knowledge we are born with—but the concept that goes with the word is quite unlike anything you have here on Earth. Your concept is a tremendous network of inconsistencies.”

“In what way?” the countess said, not very much interested.

“Why, it seems to be based on a reverence for the young, and an extremely patient and protective attitude toward their physical and mental welfare. Yet you make them live in these huge caves, utterly out of contact with the natural world, and you teach them to be afraid of death—which of course makes them a little insane, because there is nothing anybody can do about death. It is like teaching them to be afraid of the second law of thermodynamics, just because living matter sets that law aside for a very brief period.”


But if it was possible that the dogma of the infertility of Satan was wrong, then it was possible that the dogma of Papal infallibility was wrong. After all, it was a recent invention; quite a few Popes in history had got along without it.

Heresies, Ruiz-Sanchez thought—not for the first time—come in snarls. It is impossible to pull free one thread; tug at one, and the whole mass begins to roll down upon you.



text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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