I just finished reading one of the classics of science fiction writing – A Case of Conscience by James Blish, published 1958. I had not read any Blish before, and had this book recommended to me in a job interview. But that’s a different story.
A Case of Conscience first really made me think about a major question in science fiction, really consciously think about it, and I wanted to share that revelatory thought with you here. I am definitely going to dip into spoilers here, so if you are working through sci-fi classics on your own, maybe check out the book on Amazon here. Otherwise… here we go!
Too Good to be True
Let me set the scene. Our main character is a Jesuit Biologist. He and a few other scientists have been charged with exploring a new planet and reporting back on it to humanity (I did mention it was science fiction, right?). It takes a while for Blish to reveal quite what is significant about this planet, however.
This is the first inhabited planet that humanity has found in the cosmos.
So the group ends up on two sides in terms of the planet. One, seeing the resources abundant on the planet (especially hydrogen for making warheads… I mentioned it was written in the Cold War era, right?), wants to have the planet made into a weapons arsenal – preparing humanity for the day when it finds a planet with more hostile aliens on it.
Okay, so far, I’m following along, none of this has made me do too much extra thinking. I’ve pared down almost half the book, here, so I’ve simplified a bit… Blish paints an excellent picture of how the planet is different, and gets us firmly thinking both in terms of science, and morality, through the mind of our Jesuit Priest.
So there were two sides to the argument about the planet – and the Father has a religious side. He believes that the aliens they have encountered are worth considering. But not as a need to save them – he believes that they were made by Satan. He has evidence:
Look at the premises, Mike. One: Reason is always a sufficient guide. Two: The self-evident is always the real. Three: Good works are an end in themselves. Four: Faith is irrelevant to right action. Five: Right action can exist without love. Six: Peace need not pass understanding. Seven: Ethics can exist without evil alternatives. Eight: Morals can exist without conscience. Nine: Goodness can exist without God. Ten — but do I really need to go on? We have heard all these propositions before, and we know What proposes them.
- A Case of Conscience, James Blish, page 96.
And, while these Jesuit thoughts are not necessarily something I am used to, the underlying problem the Father has is something that did make me think hard. The problem with the thought that Satan created the aliens is that for him to do so, he would have to have the power to create – and not just to influence and distract.
So his conclusion is a heresy called Manichaeanism, and the plot continues as his conclusions about evil coming from the aliens seems to come true, while his conclusion about their creation is questioned by none other than the Pope, and in the end, well, Blish leaves it open to us to decide whether we feel it is religion or science which concludes our tale.
Science Fiction and Religion
So on to my thoughts from the book. Would a world with intelligent life that did not worship our creator disprove said creator? Regardless of faith. I am realizing that answer might be yes. The Father thought that he had found an untainted Garden, before Original Sin – or a mock-up to distract us, to remove faith from people. They had found aliens who did not know about religion.
But what impacted me more deeply was just his underlying premise or assumption. Not only that God creates – but that only God creates. This made me think about a lot of things. For the Father in the book, it made him think that if God did not make them, it had to be Satan.
My mind went to a different place – all of science fiction, really. Aliens are a common part of science fiction – but you know what isn’t? Religion.
Some stories seem not to touch on religion at all, and there are aliens, and I guess that this discovery did away with faith. Like maybe Star Trek, there’s aliens, and I don’t remember them talking much at all about any of the old Earth religions. Gone with the discovery of the aliens.
Though the Klingons did still have Shakespeare.
There are other stories where we are out exploring the universe, and don’t seem to have found aliens. In those stories, we do still have religions – I’m thinking Dune, or Firefly.
Like with our Science Fiction Today posts, it’s a topic that the future has a chance to prove one way or the other in a way that the present does not now. So what do authors do with it as they consider the future? I want to spend more time with these topics, so expect to see more of my thoughts to come as we consider Science Fiction and Religion.