Covering A Case of Conscience
Alien beings, as SF writers present them, come in every variety of shape, substance, size, and color but, from at least one Christian's point of view, there can only be three essentially different types. In his Foreward to A Case of Conscience (1958), James Blish quotes the Catholic theologian Gerald Heard on the matter:
If there are many planets inhabited by sentient creatures, as most astronomers (including Jesuits), now suspect, then `each one of such planets (solar or non-solar)' must fall into one of three categories:
`(a) Inhabited by sentient creatures, but without souls; so to be treated with compassion but extra-evangelically.
`(b) Inhabited by sentient creatures with fallen souls, through an original but not inevitable ancestral sin; so to be evangelized with urgent missionary charity.
`(c) Inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen, who therefore
`(1) inhabit an unfallen, sinless paradisal world;
`(2) who therefore we must contact not to propagandize, but in order that we may learn from them the conditions (about which we can only speculate) of creatures living in perpetual grace, endowed with all the virtues in perfection, and both immortal and in complete happiness for always possessed of and with the knowledge of God.' (0:7-8)1
As one might expect, SF writers have not been much concerned with these distinctions.
There is, however, a story by Ray Bradbury entitled "In This Sign," or alternatively "The Fire Balloons" (1951), in which a priest encounters sinless Martians (Heard's category c). Earth, of course, is a category b world and one from which the rest of the sentient universe needs to be protected, according to the unfallen inhabitants of Malacandra (Mars) and Perelandra (Venus) in C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943). Accordingly, Earth, the Silent Planet, exists in a state of quarantine. Blish's Jesuit biologist from Peru, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, comes around to advocating much the same kind of policy for Lithia, the enigmatic world described in A Case of Conscience, but for very different reasons. In fact, Lithia, he believes, belongs to a fourth category that Catholic doctrine has failed to take into account.
1. All That Is the Case? Ruiz-Sanchez is one of four investigators on Lithia in the year 2049, charged with deciding "whether or not the planet would be suitable as a port of call for Earth, without risk of damage either to Earthmen or to Lithians" (1:18). The Lithians are 12 feet tall, reptilian, kangaroo-like beings, skilled in ceramics, who apparently pose no threat. They seem to lead dull, well-regulated lives. They "had no crime, no newspapers, no house-to-house communications systems, no arts that could be differentiated clearly from their crafts, no political parties, no public-amusements, no nations, no games, no sports, no cults, no celebrations" (2:22). Their language apparently lacks metaphors but not, it would appear (and this is curious), a word for "evil," and, like many utopian societies, they do without "poetry or other creative arts" (4:44). Like Thomas More's Utopians and Swift's Honyhnhums, they seem to have arrived at a virtually ideal social order on the basis of reason alone. In Ruiz-Sanchez's words, they are "A Christian people, lacking nothing but the specific proper names and the symbolic appurtenances of Christianity" (8:79). Lithia itself, a humid planet, with three heavily forested continents and five oceans, would appear to be something of a paradise.
The first four chapters of Book One of the novel are given over to bringing the four investigators together. Ruiz-Sanchez and Paul Cleaver, a physicist, are based in Xoredeshch Sfath, capital of the large southern continent, while D. Michelis, a chemist, and Martin Agronski, a geologist, are based "at Xoredeshch Gton on the north-east continent" (2:27).
Communication across the planet is made possible by an extraordinary natural phenomenon, the Message Tree. With its roots in a "buried crystalline cliff" (2:29) underlying Xoredeshch Sfath, the tree provides Lithia with a natural radio system. Cleaver, we are told, had the job of communicating with Michelis and Agronski, presumably via the Message Tree, but because Cleaver has been temporarily incapacitated as a result of being poisoned by an encounter with the spine of a plant, Ruiz-Sanchez, with the aid of a Lithian named Chexta, makes use of the Message Tree to summon the other two investigators to join himself and Cleaver so that a decision may be reached about Lithia. But the other Earthmen, it turns out, are no longer at Xoredeshch Gton to receive the message. Apparently Cleaver had not been communicating with them and so Michelis and Agronski had decided to travel to Xoredeshch Sfath and find out what has been going on.
Ruiz-Sanchez returns to the jug-like dwelling in which he and Cleaver have been living to find that Michelis and Agronski have already arrived. In the next four chapters, the four investigators discuss their reactions to Lithia and their recommendations as to its status in relation to Earth. In the course of the discussion it emerges that Cleaver deliberately failed to communicate with Michelis and Agronski. He explains that for his own reasons he wanted each couple to think the worst about what was happening to the other presumably at the hands of the Lithians. A negative assessment of Lithia would, in Cleaver's somewhat befuddled mind, abet his plans for using the enormous supplies of lithium on the planet to stockpile fusion bombs: "All we need to do is to turn in a triple-E Unfavourable on the planet, to shut off any use of Lithia as a way station or any other kind of general base for a whole century. At the same time, we can report separately to the U.N. Review Committee exactly what we have in Lithia: a triple A arsenal for the whole of Earth, for the whole commonwealth of planets we control!" (6:64-65). (The destructive basis for Cleaver's overtly allegorical name is now apparent as something beyond his attempt to cleave Ruiz-Sanchez from Michelis and Agronski.) Agronski, who speaks next, appears to agree with Cleaver. Michelis, on the other hand, deplores Cleaver's ideas and argues that communication with the Lithians would be desirable because Earth could learn something from their well-nigh perfect social system.
Ruiz-Sanchez shocks the assembly be agreeing with Cleaver "that Lithia should be reported triple-E Unfavourable" with the addition that it be given a permanent X-One "quarantine label" (8:76). It seems that information received from Chexta after their meeting at the Message Tree has convinced RuizSanchez that Lithia is a set-up, a trap engineered by Satan himself—in spite of the fact (which is not mentioned in the original novella version of Book One) that this conclusion involves him in the Manichaean heresy, the belief that Satan, like God, has creative power. Chexta had explained to RuizSanchez the eugenically progressive Lithian life-cycle which "our ancestors" (4:46) (Lithian or demonic? the reader might wonder given the vague reference) engineered so that emotional and rational considerations coincide. The recapitulation process that the human embryo goes through from "one celled animal" to "a simple metazoan" to fishlike, amphibian and reptilian forms to the baby at birth, occurs in Lithians "outside the bodies of their mothers" (8:83-84):
The Lithian female lays her eggs in her abdominal pouch, the eggs are fertilized, and then she goes to the sea to give birth to her children. What she bears is not a miniature of the marvellously evolved reptile which is the adult Lithian; far from it: instead, she hatches a fish, rather like a lamprey. The fish lives in the sea a while, and then develops rudimentary lungs and comes to live along the shore lines. Once it's stranded on the flats by the tides, the lungfish's pectoral fins become simple legs, and it squirms away through the mud, changing into an amphibian and learning to endure the rigours of living away from the sea. Gradually their limbs become stronger, and better set on their bodies, and they become the big froglike things we sometimes see down the hill, leaping in the moonlight, trying to get away from the crocodiles.
Many of them do get away. They carry their habit of leaping with them into the jungle, and there they change once again, into the small, kangaroolike reptiles we've all seen, fleeing from us among the trees—the things we called the `hoppers'. The last change is circulatory—from the sauropsid blood system... to the pteropsid system....Eventually, they emerge, fully grown, from the jungles, and take their places among the folk of the cities as young Lithians, ready for education. (8:84-85)
Ruiz-Sanchez believes, not altogether logically, that this concrete evidence of evolution in action was designed by Satan to confirm the understanding of Darwinists intent on denying the existence of God. Likewise, the evidence that a well-nigh perfect society is possible without religion would undermine belief in the existence of God and thereby abet Satan's cause. This casuistical reasoning, combined with the fact that the Lithian moral code—based as it is on "a set of axioms"—"is completely irrational" (8:82), has led Ruiz-Sanchez (poised between two explosive doctrines: Darwinism and Satanic creativity) to his own irrational conclusion. For Ruiz-Sanchez, in fact, as for Cleaver, Lithia is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a utopian surface disguising an amazingly destructive potential.2
A coda-like Chapter IX concludes Book One. The vote on Lithia results in a tie. Until "higher echelons on Earth" arrive at some final decision, Lithia will be a "Proscripted area pending further study" (9:89). As the members of the commission prepare to depart, Chexta arrives bearing the gift he had originally considered offering in Chapter V, before discovering that the time was inappropriate (5:56-57). It is a beautiful vase containing "a fertilized, living egg of our species," his own child, in fact. The undercurrent of irrationality that I have drawn attention to culminates here; Ruiz-Sanchez accepts the gift, taking it "in trembling hands as though he expected it to explode" (9:92) and carries it aboard the ship which is to transport the commissioners to Earth. If Ruiz-Sanchez truly believes that Lithia is a construction of the devil, then it is only rational, a.matter of common sense, to conclude that any Lithian gift might be something of a Trojan horse. But then again, Ruiz-Sanchez has gone beyond, if not discarded, the directions of mere reason in making his recommendation regarding Lithia.
When Blish published the novella "A Case of Conscience" in IF Worlds of Science Fiction in September 1953 he had no intention of carrying the story beyond what now appears as Book One of the novel version. There were, however, plans for the novella to appear as part of a "Twayne Triplet" (Twayne being the publisher) entitled Lithia. In fact, "A Case of Conscience" was originally commisssioned for this common-setting collection by Fletcher Pratt—which, according to Brian Stableford, was why Blish wrote so uncommercial a story.3 A letter in the Bodleian Library Blish Papers from one "Doc Clark" suggests that he was to be one of the contributors to this volume and that he first dreamed up a planet named Lithia: "you've taken my goddamned `Lithia,' built to order for space opera, and have made a story on an intellectual level approaching that of Everest."4 "Doc Clark" must be John D(rury) Clark, the physical chemist who had a hand in The Petrified Planet (1952), one of the two Twayne triplets edited anonymously by Fletcher Pratt which actually did appear. As an introduction, Clark provides a scientific description of the two worlds which figure in the three stories that follow (by Fletcher Pratt, H. Beam Piper, and Judith Merril): the silicone planet Uller and the fluorine planet Niflheim. Lithia, presumably, was to be the lithium planet. The Lithia triplet never appeared but in the meantime the magazine version of Blish's story had received praise not only within the SF community but from the respected literary critic Gilbert Highet in a letter to Blish dated 2 June 1954. Influenced by this response, Ian Ballantine, who had founded Ballantine Books in 1952, commissioned an extended version of the story and, in a letter to his agent, Frederik Pohl, Blish speaks in characteristically explosive (or is it inflationary?) terms of "blowing it up into a novel."
Around the same time Blish received a request from William Harlan Shaw of the Speech Department, Hardin-Simmon's University, Abilene, Texas. Shaw wanted to make a dramatic adaptation of the novella. In a letter dated 2 December 1955, Blish gave his permission but expressed doubt about the project. He believed his story to be "so static, so purely a seminar between conflicting philosophies" as to be "too dull for dramatization." He continues, "at one point in the yarn [3:35-38] I felt forced to resort to dramatic form to give an illusion of something happening besides a Socratic dialogue; it would never have occurred to me that the technique might be stood on its head." Nevertheless, the adaptation was made and a tape of the same is among the material deposited in the Bodleian. One might expect from the view expressed in the letter to Shaw that, in extending the novella, Blish would attempt to introduce the kind of action he thought to be missing from the extant material. And this does turn out to be the case.
During the first half of 1957 Blish set about writing Book Two of A Case of Conscience and making minor revisions and insertions in the novella which became Book One. An exchange of letters between Blish and Pohl during this period indicates something of Blish's plans for the continuation, his respect for Pohl's opinions, and the impact of Pohl's suggestions on the final novel. Blish seems to have had some doubt about the commercial appropriateness of his title but, in a letter dated 12 January 1957, Pohl suggests retaining the original title. Nevertheless, the question pops up four months later. "Do we need a new title for the book as a whole?" asks Blish in a letter dated 10 May 1957. That Blish himself approved of his original title would seem to be apparent from his expression of gratitude, in a letter dated 18 June 1957, that "Ian [Ballantine] is willing to allow a title like the present one which doesn't suggest sf."
In an important letter dated 23 February 1957, Pohl refers to the story as "the first reasonably thoughtful account of what the Catholic Church will be a few hundred years from now." He suggests, and the idea is taken up by Blish, that Ruiz-Sanchez's hurry to get back to Earth in Book One should be motivated by the desire to be there during the coming Holy Year, the occasion, as we learn in Blish's insert, of the "proclaiming the great pardon only once every half century" (1:18). Such an event could be used, Pohl goes on, to justify a trip to Rome by Ruiz-Sanchez in Book Two. As will appear when I resume my summary of the action, this does come to pass. At the same time Pohl stresses the need to carry over the "sense of wonder," brilliantly evoked by such images as the Message Tree into the second part of the story; the terrestrial setting should not delimit the invention of exotic detail. The letter concludes with the following revealing piece of information: "What you originally told me of your plan—that the priest imagined the planet to be Hell at the end of the first portion, but discovered it to be Eden at the end of the second—sounded and still sounds just right." It would appear from this that Blish changed his mind about the degree to which such judgments would be ambiguous. As the novel now stands, it is by no means clear that Ruiz-Sanchez finally realizes that Lithia is Eden; but it may be that enough of Blish's original intention (if Pohl is stating it correctly) survives in the present novel to encourage a number of overly dogmatic commentaries.
Blish's second thoughts, if that is what they were, appear in a letter to Pohl dated 6 March 1957. He claims that the "ambiguity of opinion" is "the original story's chief virtue in my eyes." He also speaks of introducing the idea of a shelter economy on Earth, a move towards living underground as a way of surviving nuclear attack. The idea, he notes, crops up in "last month's Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" and had been touched on in his story "To Play the Piper" (1956). References to the "Shelter economy" (2:24) in Book One were subsequently inserted. "Some of my best thoughts," he concludes, "are afterthoughts, although it's a tendency I'm trying to train out of myself."
Five more letters followed. On 14 March 1957, Pohl writes to tell Blish that he is sending him a copy of A Pilgrim's Guide to Rome, which "has a chapter on Holy Years." By this time Blish had decided upon the conclusion of his story because Pohl comments that the device of having exorcism work through a simultaneous physical event is comparable to the argument that God works through antibiotics to cure the sick, an analogy that Blish uses (18:198). Blish worked very hard on Book Two. In a letter dated 11 June 1957, he refers to writing three drafts of Chapter XI prior to complaining, "I am writing this book on Jack Daniels instead of beer, and the damage to my pocketbook is phenomenal." And in a letter dated 18 June 1957 (referred to above in connection with Ballantine's approval of Blish's title), he claims, "the job of continuing the original story without spoiling it is one of the toughest I've ever tackled."
Pohl had questioned the "truncated tetrahedron" in this sentence: "As he lRuiz-Sanchez] looked dazedly out of the window into the dripping darkness, a familiar, sculpturesque head and shoulders [Chexta'sl moved into the truncated tetrahedron of yellow light being cast out through the fine glass into the rain" (5:54). Blish explains in the 18 June letter that the image was intended to be metaphorical of Ruiz-Sanchez's truncated apartness from the other three members of the team of investigators, the untruncated corners of the tetrahedron, and refused to change it. Beyond inferring the presence of a triangular window. it is extremely unlikely that even the most perspicacious reader would understand the image in the way that Blish decoded it—the word "truncated" would seem to be suggested by the head and shoulders of Chexta—and Pohl was right to be bothered by the matter. But the sentence clearly indicates that Blish's ambitions as a writer went far beyond those of the average writer of pulp SF. If one pauses to examine the sentence carefully, it is apparent that Blish's intended meaning is embedded in the choice of word and syntax. The parallel between "he looked dazedly out" and the "yellow light being cast out" does connect Ruiz-Sanchez with the "truncated tetrahedron." And the pun on "cast out" might well lead a reflective reader to consider the kind of concerns which might cause a Jesuit to feel alienated from the purely secular considerations of his companions.
Indeed, the very words "cast out" evoke the religious problem with which Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling. Did not God cast out the rebellious angels from Heaven? It would seem that Blish's practice here is eminently justifiable on artistic grounds, but the introduction of the technical word "tetrahedron" is indicative of what is almost a stylistic tic. Repeatedly, mind-numbing terms like "spectrosigmin" (1:11), "hygroscopic" (1:14), "pteropsid" (1:18), "sigmoid" (2:19), "monotreme," "halogen" (2:21), "affine" (2:23), "phloem" (2:25), "fossae" (2:26) and "anaphylactic" (2:30) (to confine my examples to chapters I and II) are dropped into otherwise straightforward sentences. Of course, one expects to find outré scientific terms in a genre called "science fiction" and, to a degree, Blish's procedure here is at one with the genre's overall task of suggesting and perhaps assimilating the unknown and alien. But Blish might reasonably be charged with overusing the device. Whatever doubts Pohl might have had about the "truncated tetrahedron," he wrote cannily on 12 July 1957, "I expect great things of this book."
Along with Pohl's reactions, Blish had a reader's report from Ian Ballantine. Ballantine urged Blish to ensure that Ruiz-Sanchez be made sympathetic to the lay reader. Amidst other matters of detail, he directed that Ruiz-Sanchez's fainting spell before Agronski following his discovery of the Lithian reproductive cycle be reconsidered. Blish complied.5 Ballantine seems to have been particularly bothered by the possibility that most of the book's dim-witted readers would not know enough about Catholicism to make sense of the story and suggested that certain matters of doctrine might be made clear in the context of a monastery scene which might be inserted into Book Two. But Blish refused to go along with this idea. As he explained in a letter to Pohl, he believed that any such monastery scene would come across as blatant padding.
Book Two, in its final tightly-plotted form, repeats the 4:4:1 chapter structure of Book One, and, as one might expect, literally grows out of the egg proffered at the end of that book. The Lithian infant turns out to be a male named Egtverchi. Chapters X to XIII deal with Eglg]tverchi's coming out, his hatching from the egg, and his introduction to human society. Fear of nuclear destruction has led to that society's living in underground cities and hence the terms "Shelter economy" (2:24) and "corridor life" (12:136). During the process of maturation and "physical recapitulation outside the body" (10:99) (the business is explained for the third time), Egtverchi is placed in the charge of "the U.N. laboratory chief" (10:98), a young woman named Liu Meld. After introducing Michelis to Liu Meld, who will shortly become his wife, Ruiz-Sanchez tells him that he shall be going to Rome. "I expect to be tried there for heresy" (10:106), he explains in one of Blish's characteristic chapter-closing shock lines. With Egtverchi's maturation into a highly intelligent alien comes the problem of deciding whether he should be admitted to free citizenship.
The matter is decided in Egtverchi's favor and Chapter XII, the lengthiest set-piece in the book, is devoted to his "coming-out party" in the many-storeyed "underground mansion of Lucien le Compte des Bois-d'Averoigne" (12:117), a scientist mentioned in Book One and of whom we shall hear more.6 At the time, however, as for most of the time in fact, only his wife, the countess, is in residence. While the mode of Book One is predominantly visionary, the mode of Book Two is predominantly satiric, and that tone is clearly established in the colorful description of the decadent sex-and-drugs party scene which is choreographed by Aristide, the countess's enterprising caterer. In a detail notable for its prescience, we learn that amongst the early comers was "Senator Sharon, waggling her oversize eyebrows in wholesome cheeriness at the remaining guests, ostentatiously refusing drinks, secure in the knowledge that her good friend Aristide had provided for her below five strong young men no one of whom she had ever seen before" (12:119). Something of the "sense of wonder" that Pohl had called for comes across in the countess's coiffure: "the mobiles in the little caves Stefano had contrived in her hair spun placidly or blinked their diamond eyes" (12:120). One of the guests is the alienated and rapidly becoming intoxicated Agronski, whom Aristide has efficiently removed from the proceedings long before Egtverchi's very belated arrival. (In the following chapter, perhaps in response to the bafflement expressed in Ballantine's report at Agronski's "retreat," space is devoted to the development of his schiziod feelings of ennui and meaninglessness.)
Egtverchi's unique position in relation to Earth society and the public response to "His wry and awry comments" in "his first interview on 3-V" make him a media personality. Before long he becomes "a sponsored news commentator" with "a lunatic following" (12:132). Very much like the central character in the film Network (1976)—and the word "network" is actually used (15:160)—Egtverchi becomes a figure of enormous influence. He uses his program to express "his disrespect for all established institutions and customs" and urges his audience to write anonymous letters of complaint to his sponsors: "Just make the message pungent. If you hate that powdered concrete they call a knish mix, write and tell them so....If you loathe me, tell the Bifalcos [Bridget Bifalco World Kitchens is Egtverchi's major sponsor] that, too, and make sure you're spitting mad about it" (15:158-59). (The parallel with "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore" is obvious.7) Egtverchi promises to "read the five messages I think in the worst possible taste on my broadcast next week" (15:159). Given that Earth's communication system is the nearest parallel to the Message Tree which is so central to Lithian life, it is hardly surprising that Egtverchi turns out to be so adept a broadcaster. Eventually he becomes powerful enough to instigate mass rioting in the streets. What Ruiz-Sanchez tries to convince himself is only "Armageddon in 3-V" (14:154) becomes reality.
But that is in the future. Chapters XIV to XVII deal with RuizSanchez's visit to Rome, prompted by its being a Holy Year (it is now 2050) and the problem of Lithia, and his and the Michelises' reaction both to developments on Lithia and Egtverchi's disturbing career. On the train to Rome he rereads an airletter from Michelis who describes what he knows of Egtverchi's outrageous behavior in searching out all the scandalous goings-on at his coming-out party and the subsequent publicity which has ruined the countess. Egtverchi, Ruiz-Sanchez realizes, is a displaced person, "a wolf child" (14:148) like the one which founded Rome, "the sanest major capital on the planet," in a country "the least thoroughly entombed" of "all the Shelter nations" (14:149). Ruiz-Sanchez's own affinity for Rome is suggested by his Christian name, which is an anagram of "Roman." He believes that he has been commanded to appear before the Holy Father to defend himself against the charge of holding heretical Manichaean views regarding Lithia. As it turns out, the Norwegian Pope Hadrian VIII (Blish undoubtedly knew about Frederick Rolfe's autobiographical wish-fulfilment fantasy, Hadrian the Seventh ) has something else in mind.8 The Pope believes that Lithia was not created by the devil but is rather possessed by the devil. He convinces Ruiz-Sanchez that what is required is an act of exorcism. The Pope, it is implied, agrees with Ruiz-Sanchez "that the world stood on the brink of Armageddon" (17:182).
From this point of view, Lithia is an illusion, an hallucination, much like a poltergeist. It might be recalled that when the Lithians are first mentioned it is in connection with their drugs. Ruiz-Sanchez tells the sick Cleaver, "I don't doubt that the Lithians have at least a hundred different drugs we'll be able to use eventually" (1:12). Lithium, in fact, best known as a treatment for manic-depression, does provide the basis for a number of medical drugs— including the oxide "lithia water," a Victorian remedy for gout and rheumatism; and lithium bromide, which may be used as a sedative and hypnotic. (Of course, drugs, like nuclear power, that other by-product of lithium, have both positive and negative applications.)
Meanwhile, in their Manhattan apartment building, Michelis tells Liu that Egtverchi is using his television appearances to whip up a mob as "an elaborate act of revenge" against them for doing such a bad job of parenting. Liu weeps and it would appear from Ballantine's report that Blish originally had Michelis weeping too. Ballantine (as ever opposed to anything overly demonstrative) thought that a bit too much and suggested substituting something like "a long deep sigh." Instead, as a chime announces the presence of a visitor, Blish has Michelis looking up "with bitter resignation" (15:159). The visitor is the UN Committee chairman come to discuss the Egtverchi problem. To make matters worse, it appears that the UN have favored Cleaver's recommendations regarding Lithia and have decided to use it as "a laboratory for the study of fusion power storage" (15:163). Cleaver has been put in charge and is already back on Lithia.
When Ruiz-Sanchez returns to New York and catches up on events, he suggests to Michelis that Egtverchi might be dissuaded from his destructive course if given the chance to speak to his father, Chexta. And, as it happens, the genius philosopher-mathematician Count d'Averoigne, whose name has cropped up repeatedly in the narrative, is at work on a "new circumcontinuum radio" (17:171) which just might be able to hook into the Message Tree. The communication takes place at D'Averoigne's Canadian retreat but with no positive results. Chexta believes his son is ill (illness is, it should be noted, an important metaphor throughout the novel) and explains that Cleaver and his associates have set about demolishing the forests of Lithia and are in the process of cutting down—cleaving—the Message Tree. Clearly, Cleaver is doing for Lithia what Egtverchi is doing for Earth. Egtverchi refuses what Chexta calls the command of "the Law of the Whole" (17:179) that he return to Lithia. Back in New York, Egtverchi makes a final broadcast and stirs up the riot which will ensure the "collapse of the Shelter state" (17:184).
The concluding Chapter XVII is, as one might expect, apocalyptic in character. "The beast Chaos roared on unslaked for three days" (18:184). Ruiz-Sanchez narrowly escapes death at the hands of the mob, which includes Agronski. Egtverchi, on the run, is on the way to Lithia having smuggled himself "aboard the vessel that was shipping the final installment of equipment to Cleaver" and, as it happens, carrying a pilot model of the circumcontinuum radio whereby the captain communicates the discovery of Egtverchi to the count. Ruiz-Sanchez, along with Michelis and Liu Meld (who seems not to have adopted her husband's surname), is directed by the UN to come to the Moon, to D'Averoigne's observatory. Ruiz-Sanchez speculates that Egtverchi's impact "on the stable society of Lithia would be explosive" (18:194), but what finally blows the planet up—a planet described by Ruiz-Sanchez as "a time bomb" (11:114)—cannot be unambiguously determined. With the count's amazing new telescope, it is possible to observe Lithia at the present moment as the count explains that he has brought Ruiz-Sanchez, Michelis, and Meld to the Moon as witnesses—he expects that, as a result of a fault in "the reasoning on which Dr. Cleaver based the experiment he has programmed for today," Lithia will be destroyed by a nuclear explosion if the experiment goes ahead in defiance of the warning message he sent "on the CirCon, to be tape-recorded on the ship that landed yesterday" (18:197). Ruiz-Sanchez realizes that his moment has come; he goes through the liturgy of exorcism. And Lithia explodes; but not before the reader is reminded, as Frederik Pohl had suggested in one of his letters, of everything that has been destroyed:
Slowly, slowly, it all melted away: the chirruping forests, Chexta's porcelain house, the barking lungfish, the single silver moon, the great beating heart of Blood Lake, the city of the potters, the flying quid [typo for "squid"?], the Lithian crocodile and his winding track, the tall noble reasoning creatures and the mystery and beauty around them. Suddenly the whole of Lithia began to swell, like a balloon—(18:200).
A fault causes the telescope screen to go blank at this point (D'Averoigne's equations are no more perfect than Cleaver's?). And a similar blankness must thwart any attempt to determine whether the event almost witnessed should be understood in purely materialist terms, or as God's working through material means, or as the straight exorcising of a demonic hallucination. What evidence remains includes the preliminary report on Lithia by Michelis and Ruiz-Sanchez in The Journal of Interstellar Research which is presented as an Appendix.9
A Case of Conscience was favorably reviewed and won the Hugo it so richly deserved. However, an account of the original novella which Blish himself published in the fanzine Skyhook for Autumn 1953 under his Atheling pseudonym was moderately critical. And in a 1964 update he considered Book Two unsatisfactory because of there being "too much material there to escape an effect of breathlessness as the novel draws to a close."10 This effect is largely created by the contrast with the long drawn-out party scene of Chapter XII. As it happens, the book was most enthusiastically received not in America but in England, where it was published in hardcover by Faber & Faber in 1959. Bernard Bergonzi extolled its merits at length in a BBC Third Programme radio broadcast (23 April 1959). But in spite of this success Blish was unable to secure hardcover publication in America. In their letter of rejection dated 7 July 1959, Putnam's explains that they could not see a market for a book which marries SF and the serious novel!
2. The Case for Catholicism? Somewhat surprisingly, given Blish's statement in his Foreword that "The author...is an agnostic" (0:7), two of the more extensive commentaries on A Case of Conscience argue for an unambiguously Christian reading. According to a lengthy review by Don D'Ammassa (pseudonym of Henry Bitman), Blish agrees with Pope Hadrian's view that Lithia was not created by the devil but possessed by him.11 D'Ammassa argues that Egtverchi's self-awareness contradicts Ruiz-Sanchez's interpretation; if Ruiz-Sanchez were correct, he claims, the Lithians should have no selfawareness. Ruiz-Sanchez, D'Ammassa claims, fell into the sin of heresy because he gave way to the temptation of knowledge in Chapter II. In order to find out more about Lithian life, Ruiz-Sanchez accepts Chexta's invitation to stay the night at his house when he should have returned to look after the sick Cleaver. There is a case of conscience here and Ruiz-Sanchez does allude to "the vast, tragic riddle of original sin" (2:30) and maybe Ruiz-Sanchez does make the wrong decision; but D'Ammassa's judgment is much too unequivocal. The reading of A Case of Conscience which he suggests is but one pole of a spectrum of possibilities allowed for by Blish's text.
An orthodox religious reading of the novel is, of course, encouraged by the prevalence of Christian allusions and imagery. Like most things in the novel, this area of interpretative interest is clearly signalled in Chapter I. The chapter opens with Cleaver slamming a door "with a sound like a clap of doom" (1:9). The allusion here is to the Apocalypse and to the responsibility, in a naturalistic reading, which Cleaver bears for the destruction of Lithia. It is Cleaver who first refers to Lithians as "the Snakes" who "would be jabbing me full of antibiotics" (1:12). Snakes, of course, more usually inject poison; and, thus, he suggests indirectly that the Lithians have poisoned him, albeit by means of "one of the spines" of "a plant that looked a little like a pineapple" (1:11). The brief reference to the Lithian "radio network" which is "zeroed on...a tree" (1:16) introduces the Message Tree, which will be more fully described in the following chapter. This central feature of Lithian life is clearly equivalent to the biblical tree of the forbidden knowledge of good and evil. It hardly seems accidental that Cleaver has been struck down by something like an apple, "a plant... like a pineapple" (1:11). For Ruiz-Sanchez, Lithia is "a biologist's paradise" (1:13), something like Eden, but for Cleaver the place is more like Hell. Cleaver's position would appear to be corroborated by "the myriad insects [read "flies" or ''devils''?] of Lithia" (1:17) and the absence of birds (read "angels"?), and by the final sentence of Chapter I, where the gaslight evokes images of both snakes and the fires of Hell: "Then he [Ruiz-Sanchez] arose and left the room to the softly hissing flames" (1:19). It seems appropriate, therefore, that at the beginning of Chapter III, which centers on failures of understanding, Agronski and Cleaver exchange a series of "Where," "What," and "How" the hells (2:31, 32), followed by Agronski's "There's a hell of a lot we don't know about Lithia, that's for damn sure" and Michelis's "There's a hell of a lot we don't know about central Brazil...." (2:36).
Biblical associations are maintained throughout the book. Jo Allen Bradham, in what is to date the most detailed explication of these matters, elucidates the religious implications of the setting of the Message Tree. It is located, as the biblical phraseology has it, "at the mouth of the valley of the River Sfath" (2:23). "Sfath," Bradham suggests, derives from the Elizabethan expletives "God's faith" or " 'Sfaith." He goes on: "The valley itself leads to Blood Lake (in English), which may suggest the Red Sea, thus emphasizing the Old Testament allusion in the setting of Lithia. Or, and more importantly, Blood Lake probably foreshadows the destruction and death which science and faith, working together, finally bring to Lithia." 12 Bradham does not mention the "serpentine folds" (2:23) of the valley on its way to the lake because he is intent on building up an unambiguous picture of Lithia as an unfallen world.
In terms of Bradham's interpretation, Chexta is an unambiguously godlike being. As a metallurgist, he is the alchemical god "who refines for use."13 The "truncated tetrahedron of yellow light" (5:54), into which Chexta's head and shoulders move, provides him with a halo. And it is, of course, not without religious significance that the Lithians are a race of potters who become fishes in the first stage of their maturation cycle. In this context, Chexta's gift of Egtverchi, his only begotten son, corresponds to God's offering up his son, Christ, for the salvation of man. But Bradham omits to note that on the one occasion that Egtverchi is described in the biblical phrase as a "begotten son," the father is assumed by Ruiz-Sanchez to be not God but "the Adversary" (11:116), Satan. When Cleaver observes of the gift that "The Snake couldn't have made a bigger thing of it if he'd been handing you his own head on a platter" (9:92), the allusion is, as Bradham notes, to Christ's herald, John the Baptist. Elsewhere, Egtverchi is spoken of as having "made that crossing from animal to automaton which had caused all the trouble eastward of Eden in 4004 B.C." (11:109)—a line which Bradham bewilderingly quotes as evidence that Egtverchi is the second Adam. Somewhat later, Egtverchi is equated with one of Earth's "deranged and misplaced messiahs" (18:194). What Bradham totally fails to allow for is the very real possibility that these references might well herald a diabolic inversion of the coming of Christ. Certainly there is nothing very saintly about Egtverchi's equivalent of Christ's 12 disciples, the "ten nearly identical young men in uniforms of black and lizard green with silver piping, their arms folded, their expressions stern, their eyes straight ahead" (12:130), who accompany Egtverchi to his coming-out party.
That party in the many-levelled underground mansion (developed from what was once a trolley-car storage center) is clearly intended as an analogue of Dante's Hell (spiced with elements which might derive from The Satyricon). Ian Ballantine, in his report on Blish's manuscript, had admitted himself baffled by the whole chapter. Presumably he could not understand why Blish had treated the party at such length. It does seem likely, however, that Blish intended the party scene to establish an image of Earth as hell by way of contrast with the extended presentation in Book One of Lithia as an image (albeit possibly a false one) of Eden or Paradise. The three trains which convey the party guests from one level to another, commuting between a variety of illicit pleasures, are appropriately called serpentines. At a late stage of the party, the countess identifies Egtverchi as a "lousy snake-scaled demon" (12:138). The drugs which are being taken on the premises might remind an attentive reader that drugs (of unspecified properties) have been mentioned as a notable feature of Lithian society.
It is Bradham's argument that the horrors which ensue are the result of Ruiz-Sanchez's failure to understand that Egtverchi is a Christ figure. Religion, in the form of Ruiz-Sanchez, is as blind as science, in the form of Cleaver, to the truth. Far from being opposed characters, embodiments of good and evil, Ruiz-Sanchez and Cleaver are actually very much alike. At least such is the case which Bradham makes:
While Cleaver is lying poisoned, Ruiz-Sanchez is said to be `poisoned-tired' [5:51]; thus, imagery likens the priest to the sick scientist. Similarly, when Cleaver participates in the discussion, `he looks almost ecclesiastical' with his hands folded `quietly in the lap of his robe' (p. 60). Since the earlier scene between Ruiz-Sanchez and Chexta established that the robe is the characteristic and identifying feature of the priest, the use of the religious terms ecclesiastical and robe likens physicist to priest.14
Bradham is surely right in insisting that Cleaver's sickness makes manifest a more general human sickness and one which Ruiz-Sanchez shares. But is that sickness not simply metaphorical of man's fallen state? And can it be unequivocally asserted that the Lithians exist in an unfallen state? RuizSanchez's sickness may well betray itself in allusions to his defective eyesight, his fears of blindness, and his night-time excursion to the Message Tree. But may not these details be simply indicative of that clouded vision which is simply part and parcel of the human condition?
While D'Ammassa locates Ruiz-Sanchez's crucial error as the abandonment of the sick Cleaver in favor of gaining knowledge about the Lithians, for Bradham his crucial fault has to do with his obsession with Finnegans Wake and his pretensions towards being a literary critic. Certainly, the repeated references to Ruiz-Sanchez's interest in the meaning of a particularly complicated passage in Finnegans Wake require some kind of explanation.15 It was one of the aspects of A Case of Conscience that Ian Ballantine took exception to, and Blish did cut some of the Finnegans Wake material.16 There is, of course, the very obvious analogy between a book which the Catholic Church has placed on "the Index Expurgatorius" (l:9) and the placing of Lithia on a planetary "Index Expurgatorius," making it a "Proscripted area pending further study" (9:89). The Finnegans Wake passage in question, with its references to rape, procurement, deception, incest, and debauchery, does have everything to do with the fallen human condition. And the ease in law which the passage presents is vaguely analogous to the ease of conscience which Ruiz-Sanchez is attempting to unravel. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on interpreting a passage in a book serves as a reminder of literary reflexivity, a reminder that to unravel Ruiz-Sanchez's ease of conscience is actually to interpret a book. At the same time, there is an additional, and to my mind more important, reason for the introduction of this Joyce material, but that must await the development of my argument.
Bradham attempts, I believe mistakenly, to make precise correspondences between the characters mentioned in the Joyee passage and the Lithian situation, but it is his overall evaluation of Ruiz-Sanchez's response to Joyce which is particularly misleading.17 The issue in the Joyee ease, "Has he hegemony and shall she submit" (an issue that cannot be reformulated to cover that in A Case of Conscience without considerable licence), amounts, according to Ruiz-Sanchez, to not one question but two. Only the absence of a comma in the quoted sentence obscures this fact and the correct answers, "Yes, and No" (5:53). Bradham comments as follows:
For all his years of study, Ruiz-Sanchez concludes that the central problem of Finnegans Wake is where to put one comma. A man who reaches that kind of conclusion about a work including all time and exploring the implications of the Fall could hardly be expected to separate the major from the nonessential in the ease of Lithia. The satiric reduction of RuizSanchez is probably more fierce and conclusive in this revelation of literary judgment that at any other point. Having missed the case in literature, he misses it in life.18
Blish, like Ruiz-Sanchez, was a devoted student of Finnegans Wake. Joyce, as Blish well knew, was just the kind of writer who might hinge matters of extraordinary consequence on a detail of typography. The opposition which Bradham posits here between life and a sterile academicism simply does not apply. There is no reason to suppose that Blish would not applaud both Ruiz-Sanchez's interest in Finnegans Wake and this example of his interpretative acuteness. (After all, it seems most unlikely that Blish would have Ruiz-Sanchez advance a new and ingenious interpretation of a crux in Finnegans Wake which Blish himself did not endorse.) Ruiz-Sanchez's answer is as ambiguous as Joyce's question, with or without the comma. "Yes, and No" might be interpreted as two straight answers to two straight questions or an ambiguously phrased answer to an ambiguously phrased question. After all, Joyce did not include a comma in his question.
Similarly ambiguous is the interpretation which Ruiz-Sanchez finally arrives at in A Case of Conscience: "Suppose, just suppose, that Lithia were Eden, and that the Earth-bred Lithian who had just returned there were the Serpent foredained for it?" (18:199). Bradham answers this with an unequivocal yes, and no. The attentive reader cannot be so certain. Ruiz-Sanchez's hypothesis simply takes its place with other possibilities. I have said enough, I think, to indicate that the biblical allusions in A Case of Conscience serve the overall effect of ambiguity, which Blish himself saw as responsible for the book's success.
3. The Suit-Case of Conscience? Like the Christian imagery, like almost everything else in the novel, what might modishly be termed its "deep structure" is clearly signalled in Chapter I. At the very beginning of that chapter, while Ruiz-Sanchez is preoccupied with "the case" proposed by what we subsequently discover to be a passage from Finnegans Wake, Cleaver is struggling with quite another problem—how to free himself from "his jungle suit" (1:9). An internal mental puzzle is counterpointed with an external physical one. To what extent, it might be wondered" are the two struggles interchangeable? To what degree, the suspicion might insert itself, is the case of conscience not an inner manifestation of the voice of God but a societal overlay, metaphorically speaking a protective outer garment? This suspicion is strongly reinforced by Ruiz-Sanchez's reminding himself, towards the end of the chapter, "that to the inner life, the body was only a garment" (1:18), that is to say, a garment like the one Cleaver, with Ruiz-Sanchez's help, was having such difficulty removing. Is conscience a removable garment?19 Or alternatively, is the body the garment of conscience, a case, a container for conscience? The equation between the jungle suit and conscience is made explicit by the parallel reflections which conclude Chapter I:
And conscience, like creation, cannot be hurried. It cannot even be scheduled. He looked down at the still-imperfect jungle suit [one of the zipper teeth has been affected by Lithian fungi] with a troubled face until he heard Cleaver moan. (1:19)
How perfect a creation, it might be asked, is conscience? Exactly what is the case of conscience?
Ruiz-Sanchez comes to see that the meaning of the Finnegans Wake passage hangs on a comma. The meaning of A Case of Conscience would seem to hang on a pun, another "writer's joke" (5:53). "Case" in the title means something equivalent to "situation" or "issue." The issue at hand, to adapt the title of Blish's first critical book, is one involving the issue of conscience. Virtually whenever the word "case" crops up in the narrative (some ten times) this is the meaning implied. Much the same meaning ("situation" mutated to "condition") applies when one speaks of a "medical case" and, although the term is not used in relation to the poisoned Cleaver, that is what he is. (Subsequently, Chexta considers Egtverchi to be sick, a case for treatment, and Ruiz-Sanchez comes to see that the potential destruction of Lithia is analogous to the medical case where God effects a cure through "a shot of spectrosigmin or some similar drug" [18:198]—this is but one of the ways in which Blish unifies his novel, tying its end to its beginning.) The word "case" is also used in a legal sense to mean "argument" or "evidence," the sense in which I am making a case in this article. In Chapters VI to VIII the four investigators put their differing cases for exploiting, valuing, or shunning Lithia. This meaning of the word "case" is, then, implied by the novel even if the word itself is not actually used in that sense. "Case," as I have already implied, can also mean "container" or "covering," and it is this denotation of the word which provides the key to the novel's meaning. The word "case" is used once in the novel in this sense and, as one might expect, this usage occurs in Chapter I. Many of the "insects of Lithia" make "wing-case buzzes" like the "insects of Earth" (1:17-18).20 The reference is to what the OED describes as "each of the structures (modified fore-wings) which cover the functional wings in certain insects."
SF is full of, indeed largely characterized by, containers—spacesuits, spaceships, domed cities, hollow worlds, artificial satellites, and the like—but in A Case of Conscience, the sense of case as container provides not only a way of unifying the major elements in Blish's plot but a way of conceptualizing the central ambiguities with which he is concerned. After all, the existence of something called conscience is debatable in exactly the same terms as the questions that Ruiz-Sanchez chooses to ask of the Lithians—are they fallen or unfallen beings? do they constitute a Satanic trap?—are debatable. Both matters depend upon the assumption that God exists and that the universe serves a transcendental purpose. If conscience does not represent some kind of inner reality, inner truth, if, on the other hand, it is simply a protective covering, an aspect of man's anthropomorphic conditioning, then the mind-set with which Ruiz-Sanchez approaches Lithia is totally inappropriate, totally irrelevant. The various containers of one kind or another and the images of containment which permeate the novel all serve to illustrate its central ambiguities. To what extent do containers (including conscience, if it is one) protect and screen the contained from the external truth of reality? Are conscience and truth something contained within man? The Christian references and images discussed above may simply be an inappropriate overlay, a type of covering or casing. Indeed the same may be true of language itself. Ultimately, of course, the matter of containers and coverings relates to the question of appearance and reality. Does the covering, the appearance, cover up and mask the truth?
A novel, of course, is a kind of container and it should be noted that, in a very particular sense, A Case of Conscience is set up (like Lithia perhaps) as a self-contained experiment—or a trap (like Lithia perhaps). Somewhat startlingly, in view of the issue being confronted, there are no references to other alien civilizations for purposes of comparison. But equally there are no references to the Lithians as the first alien civilization contacted. The reader is, however, left with the implication that other aliens have been encountered and that they must have fallen into one or other of Gerald Heard's first two categories: they were assumed to either lack souls or to be possessed, like us, of fallen ones. But by eliminating any direct allusion to this matter Blish might be said to have skewed the evidence by not presenting all that is the case. Any containing document, be it novel or treatise, may be vitiated (or corroborated) by what it excludes.
Containers or coverings in the novel, and all the symbolic ambiguities that go along with them, take such forms as jugs, vases, eggs, boxes, crates, shelters, and suits. As I have noted, the novel opens with Cleaver slamming a door, thereby sealing the room which contains both himself and Ruiz-Sanchez. After Cleaver's "last crate" is aboard the starship, Book One ends with the line, "The air lock door slammed" (9:93). Book Two concludes with Count d'Averoigne's proposal "that we suit up and go outside." One form of covering will be put on while another (the observatory) will be discarded. This duplicity is nicely conterpointed by the fact that a book which began with a door closing and a man getting out of a suit ends with the prospect of a door opening and people getting into suits—and the reference to an achieved time when Ruiz-Sanchez "could see again" (18:201). The physical and temporal imagery here leaves the reader neatly poised betwixt and between, both inside and outside.
As befits a race of potters, it is not surprising that the Lithian dwellings are likened to "jugs" (2:22). "Except for the window," Ruiz-Sanchez and Cleaver's sleeping quarters "strongly resembled the inside of a jug" (1:13). The "vaulted chamber" "burned out in the base of the Message Tree" was "like an egg stood on its large end" (2:25). We soon learn about Lithians being born from eggs and come to appreciate Ruiz-Sanchez' contention that "This whole planet is one huge womb" (8:84). The "small vase, sealed at the top" (9:91), which Chexta describes as "the finest container yet to come out of Xoredeshch Gton" and presents to Ruiz-Sanchez, contains what Chexta describes as "our other gift," "a fertilized, living egg of our species" (9:92).
When the jug/vase image next crops up it is in a context that recalls Ruiz-Sanchez's statement that "to the inner life, the body was only a garment" (1:18). It is used to describe an apocalypse of nihilism, the way that Agronski feels when all meaning, all reality, appear to have drained from his world: "Inside the thin shell of unwilling self-consciousness, it was as empty as an upended jug" (13:144). This is the line which concludes Chapter XIII and thus the image is emphasized. Characteristically, Blish ends chapters or sections with statements that register some degree of shock. The loss of soul which Agronski experiences may explain Egtverchi's conduct. The only explanation we are given has something to do with the climactic moment in his maturation which is one of alienation, of expulsion from Eden, as he makes the switch from "animal to automaton." "The multiple doors from sense to soul had closed; suddenly, the world was an abstract" (11:109). (It might be noted, incidentally, that if this reference to Egtverchi's "soul" is taken literally, and not viewed as a minor inconsistency on Blish's part like the earlier reference to "evil" [4:44], then Ruiz-Sanchez's view of Lithia as a demonic creation is inaccurate; but then Blish goes on to refer to Egtverchi's "animal soul" [11:109] which is something quite apart from the Christian conception of a spiritual human soul.) On learning that Agronski has become "a fan of Egtverchi's," Ruiz-Sanchez offers a comment that recalls the jug metaphor: "There's so little meaning in Agronski's life as it is, it won't take Egtverchi long to cut him off from any contact with reality at all. That is what evil does—it empties you" (17:172).
On Earth, the container or casing image mainly takes the form of references to the "Shelter economy" and "Shelter cities" (2:24). Just as conscience may be a protective coating applied to society to discourage threat from within so the submerged buildings are designed to protect society from external nuclear threats. There is, of course, something very prison-like about this form of protection, and thus it is highly appropriate that the pleasure enclosures that Egtverchi insists on breaking into during the countess's party are called "cells" and "private Hells" (14:146). A UN man subsequently puts the case for containers which are simultaneously protective and imprisoning when he says, "We mean to put Mr. Egtverchi in a cage for the rest of his life—a soundproof cage" (17:183), at the same time telling Ruiz-Sanchez, "as far as I'm concerned you've been closed out of this case entirely. If you try to force your way back in you'll get burned" (17:184).
As things turn out, Egtverchi finds himself not in a cage exactly but stowed away in a crate in a ship on its way to Lithia. The reader might recall then another crate, "Cleaver's last crate" (9:93), which casts a shadow at the end of Book One as it is hoist aboard another starship. The final action in the novel occurs in "the cave of" (18:199) the Count d'Averoigne's observatory which is situated "approximately in the centre" (18:195) of a crater on the Moon.
Count d'Averoigne appears to be everywhere in the novel and he has the last words in the novel: the proposal, described significantly as a misdirecting maneuver, that the company suit up and go outside to look for the Lithia nova (which will not be visible for another 50 years). It seems likely that this count speaks for Blish, all the more so since he appears to be one of those second thoughts Blish claimed he was trying to train himself out of. The passage devoted to the count in Book One (2:23-24) was an interpolation made in the course of writing Book Two. We learn in Book Two that the count, "a lapsed Catholic" (18:197), is the absentee husband of the countess who gives the decadent party and that he is the inventor of the principle which enables the atoms within the Michelises' 3-V set to become (when the set is off) a "reproduction of Paul Klee's `Caprice in February' " (15:155), a painting "made almost wholly of detached angles and glyphs like the symbols of mathematics"—this "oasis of dryness" (15:156) offsetting the luxuriant foliage within the Michelises' apartment is indicative of Blish's own artistic concern with the mathematics underlying reality. But the most telling bit of information is given when the count is first introduced as "the current doyen of Earthly affine theory" (2:23), who, and this detail bespeaks Blish's sympathy for the man, can trace his ancestry "back into thirteenth-century England, to the author of Lucien Wycham His Boke of Magick" (2:24). As a scientist this man hides behind a veil; he signs his papers "H.O. Petard" (2:23). The "H." we later learn stands for "Henri" (18:197), but anyone familiar with Hamlet (or indeed with idiomatic English) will translate the name as "Hoist Own Petard" and recall the lines:
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own peter. (Hamlet, III. iv. 206-07)
A "peter" or "petard" is a case filled with explosive which was generally used for blowing in doors. The appropriateness of the word to a novel full of containers and closed doors, and culminating with an explosion, is readily apparent.
The most obvious example of someone in the novel hoist by his own petard is, of course, Cleaver. It would appear that his plans for Lithia and his way of trapping raw nuclear power by means of "the `magnetic bottle' dodge" (15:164) go tragically awry. But the grief which strikes Ruiz-Sanchez at the end of the novel indicates that he too, if much less melodramatically, has been hoist by his own petard. Perhaps Lithia really was a kind of Eden and his casuistry has played a part in destroying it. Certainly a number of innocent human beings who were assisting Cleaver have been killed. At the same time, from a reader's point of view, any attempt to unequivocally resolve matters one way or the other is to be hoist by one's own petard.
But the count's choice of a pseudonym surely relates to Ruiz-Sanchez's reflections on the nature of knowledge, reflections he is prompted towards by thinking of the count:
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 lightyears from Rome—Ruiz-Sanchez knew something about knowledge that Lucien le Compte des Bois-d'Averoigne had forgotten, and that Cleaver would never learn: 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. (2:24-25)
I would suggest that Ruiz-Sanchez is here doing the count an injustice. Count d'Averoigne chose the name H.O. Petard because he wanted to suggest that reason, knowledge itself, was hoist by its own petard. After all, even today, since the publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), with its presentation of the history of science as a succession or displacement of "paradigms" (or "philosophical apocalypses," in my terms 21), the idea is somewhat commonplace.
If Ruiz-Sanchez is hoist by his own petard regarding the count, does he similarly underestimate Cleaver? In his poison-induced delirium, Cleaver dreams of a series of plans including a culminating and somewhat perplexing one "for detonating Lithia in one single mighty fusion of all its lightweight atoms into one single atom of cleaverium, the element of which the monobloc had been made, whose cardinal number was Aleph-Null...."22 (3:35). Most immediately, of course, this vision prefigures the novel's conclusion. But the name given to the monobloc substance, "cleaverium," suggests the extent to which Cleaver's knowledge of the universe is a projection of his own being. (At work here is much the same kind of anthropomorphic thinking [but minus the material basis] which names a planet Lithia and its inhabitants Lithians because lithium ore, with its explosive potential, is a significant part of the planet's make up.) When Lithia does finally explode, it appears "to swell, like a balloon—" (18:200). (Blish, it will be recalled, spoke of "blowing [his novella] up into a novel.") This last image of a container in the novel is of a container (containing nothing) which is about to rupture. The balloons of human knowledge similarly rupture and explode precisely because, whatever forms it may take, the "cleaverium" (the discriminatory cleaving) at their centers is repeatedly discovered not to exist. Not just the residuum, but all was faith.
But how likely is it, a skeptical reader might ask, that James Blish (a writer of SF after all) would have subscribed to this radical subversion of scientific knowledge? And how likely is it that James Blish (a simple writer of SF after all) would consciously intend and exploit the word "case" in the duplicitous manner I have described? Is it sufficient to respond that the equation of knowledge and faith and the somersaulting concept of "case" are concordant with. and therefore are aspects (thematic and technical) of, Blish's ambiguous intent, an intent for which we have documentary evidence? Perhaps. But the kind of ambiguity at which my analysis has arrived is of an extreme and totalizing nature. It surely goes way beyond what appears to be Blish's stated intent: his wish to leave the reader with an apparently finite number of equally plausible (?) alternative explanations.
What is at issue here is the relationship between authorial ambiguity and what is now understood as the "deconstructive" play of language; the one matter supposedly being within an author's control, the other being beyond it. The word "case" participates in a complex and totalizing "economy" of ideas and meanings, an "economy" which Blish and his readers may be assumed to have unconsciously internalized. The concept of the "container" and the "contained" "touches on" both strategies of metaphorical similarity and metonymical contiguity and hence on the nature of meaning and understanding generally. The fact that, in Chapter I, Blish counterpoints an internal mental problem with an external physical problem may then be interpreted with equal "validity" as evidence of authorial intent or as evidence for the manner in which an "economy" of ideas and language has its way with an author. Given the current state of critical theory, a reader may choose to exclusively privilege one source of control over the other or may choose to assume that at some indeterminate point an ambiguous state for which the author is responsible is overtaken by an encompassing ambiguity which inheres in the "abyss" of language. Even a state of total ambiguity allows, it would seem, for a statement of the case in terms of an apparently finite number of equally plausible (?) alternative explanations.
1. All parenthetical page references are to James Blish, A Case of Conscience (London: Arrow Books, 1972; rpt. 1975, 1979).
2. Ruiz-Sanchez's faulty reasoning in the context of the problematic nature of knowledge generally is the subject of Robert Reilly's "The Discerning Conscience," Extrapolation, 18 (May 1977):176-80. Blish, Reilly argues, explores the limitations of three types of knowledge: religious knowledge (based on faith and exemplified by Ruiz-Sanchez and Pope Hadrian), scientific knowledge (based upon reason and exemplified chiefly by Michelis, Agronski, Cleaver, and Chexta), and literary knowledge (based upon imagination and represented by the contest between Finnegans Wake and The Divine Comedy).
3. Brian M. Stableford, A Clash of Symbols: The Triumph of James Blish (San Bernardino, CA: 1979), p. 14.
4. All the material quoted from personal communications to and from James Blish, throughout this essay, is taken from the original documents. These may be located amongst the Blish Papers in the New Bodleian Library under the catalogue heading "A Case of Conscience: Correspondence File."
5. As originally published, the relevant sentence reads as follows: "In the last analysis it was the incessant barking of the lungfish which caused RuizSanchez to faint when Agronski opened the door for him." See IF Worlds of Science Fiction, 2 (September 1953):28. Blish changed "faint" to "stumble" (p. 48).
6. Averoigne, it might be noted, is the fabulous, vampire-curst land in medieval France which provides one of Clark Ashton Smith's Lost Worlds (1944) settings; Gaspard du Nord of Averoigne is mentioned as the translator of The Book of Eibon in the Smith story "Ubbo-Sathla" (1933).
7. This refrain is iniated by the disillusioned protagonist of Network (1976), a Howard Gottfried/Paddy Chayofsky production, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet.
8. Grace Eckley suggests that Blish may also be picking up on James Joyce's satire, in Finnegans Wake, on Hadrian IV, the only English pope; he gave England control of Ireland. See Grace Eckley, "Finnegans Wake in the Work of James Blish," Extrapolation, 20 (Winter 1978):306. The Emperor Hadrian of Rome may also be a relevant association.
9. Blish's Appendix may have provided a model for the notes on "The Gethenian Calendar and Clock" which Ursula K. Le Guin appends to The Left Hand of Darkness (NY: Ace, 1969), pp. 284-86.
10. William Atheling, Jr., "Cathedrals in Space," reprinted in The Issue at Hand (Chicago: Advent Press, 1964), p. 59.
11. Delap's Fantasy and Science Fiction Review, 1 (September 1975):21-22.
12. Jo Allen Bradham, "The Case in James Blish's A Case of Conscience," Extrapolation, 16 (December 1974):68.
13. Ibid., p. 67.
14. Ibid., p. 74.
15. For an exploration of some of the possibilities, see Grace Eckley, "Finnegans Wake in the Work of James Blish," loc. cit., pp. 338-40. In this article (pp. 306, 334) she also suggests a couple of connections between A Case of Conscience and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Egtverchi's Satanic non serviam when he declares himself a citizen of no country, she compares with Stephen Dedalus's act of renunciation. Blish may have derived his title from the moment when Stephen watches "a young professor of mental science discussing on the landing a case of conscience with his class." See James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; NY: Viking Press, 1964), 5:192 and (for further references to the same phrase) 5:238, 253.
16. He cut a paragraph in between what are successive paragraphs in the novel, the one ending with "any member of it," the other beginning with "Yes, it added up" (5:52).
17. Bradham, op. cit., pp. 74-77.
18. Ibid., pp. 76-77.
19. Blish may have derived this metaphor from the satire upon clothes and fashion in Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704); "is not religion a cloak; honesty a pair of shoes worn out in the dirt; self-love a surtout; vanity a shirt; and conscience a pair of breeches; which, though a cover for lewdness as well as nastiness, is easily slips down for the service of both?" See Jonathan Swift, "Gulliver's Travels" and Other Writings, ed. Louis A. Landa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 283. It should be noted that Swift's work generally and A Tale of a Tub in particular figure conspicuously in Joyce's Finnegans Wake. See Mackie L. Jarell, "Swiftiana in Finnegans Wake," ELH, 26 (June 1959):271-94; and Arthur T. Broes, "Swift's Work in Finnegans Wake,"English Studies in Canada, 5 (Summer 1979):167-86. Broes notes a large number of allusions to Swift's clothing metaphor (pp. 174-76). If Blish did not know of the relevant episode in A Tale of a Tub as a result of his general reading, it is extremely likely that his deep interest in Finnegans Wake would have led him to it. (I am indebted to Robert M. Philmus for this suggestion.)
20. The word "case" was a second-thought insertion clarifying "wingbuzzes" of the original novella. See IF Worlds of Science Fiction, op. cit., p. 10.
21. See David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (NY, 1974), passim.
22. "Aleph-Null" may be an allusion to A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A (1948) and its sequel The Players of Null-A (1956). Null-A refers to non-Aristotelian and non-Newtonian systems of thought and is related to the science" of General Semantics.
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