so i herd u liek mudkips: Notes on James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

Pondering priest, big dinosaur holding a test tube or something.
Never mind the dinosaur holding a test tube, I'm still trying to figure out this bit from Finnegan's Wake.

A Case of Conscience is a weird little book from the 50’s. It’s aged badly. It holds together well in the sense that when I began imagining what would have to be changed for the story to make sense, I had to give it up because the end product would have been unrecognizable.

If you’d like a synopsis, see Wikipedia; for an insightful review of A Case of Conscience I refer you to Jo Walton’s review. If you’d like to read my disjointed, pop-culture-saturated ramblings, click through.

I don’t want to nitpick at the facts, but I just need to get this out of my system:

so i herd u liek mudkips

The aliens, the Lithians, go through a curious life cycle, starting as fish, metamorphosing into something like lungfish or mudskippers, then taking to land as kangaroo-like reptiles. It’s a very crude demonstration of Haeckel’s (discredited) “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny“, which basically says

Yo dawg, I heard you like evolution…so I made your embryonic development parallel your evolutionary history so you can evolve while you evolve

Which proves evolution, or something, which the priest Ruiz-Sanchez says is a problem for the Church, except it wasn’t exactly, even in Blish’s time—in the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis the Pope is cautious, but clearly does not feel that human evolution is necessarily a threat to the Church.

The fully-grown/evolved Lithians basically have a peaceful utopian society out of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Including the “no religion” part, except nothing they do is against Catholic teaching. (Even birth control. Yeah, James Blish totally went there.) Which naturally leads Ruiz-Sanchez to conclude the whole planet is a Satanic creation. Really? Really? Dude.* If you find yourself doing a long-distance exorcism because you believe this planet of peaceful reptile kangaroos is a work of the Devil…oh, Ramon. What, what, what are you doing? Look at your life. LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES.

* (This is incoherent to me as I buy into the whole evil-as-absence-of-good deal, being a bit of an Augustine fan and all.)

Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!

Like I said, A Case of Conscience is from 1958, and it’s set in 2049, which means (à la those anti-nostalgic xkcd strips) we are now closer to the time it was set than the time when it was written. As a result Blish’s future feels more like a weird parallel universe where 1950’s Earth was suddenly gifted with FTL technology but, oddly enough, not computers or cell phones.

The miserable Shelters that the vast majority of people live in are a lot like Common Ground, the subterranean hivelike low-income housing in Walter Mosley’s Futureland. I think Mosley does it much better, but that may be because I’m so far removed from all that Cold War stuff and “criminalize the poor!” seems a more plausible motive than “hide from the bombs!”. At any rate the second quickly becomes the first and it turns out forcing people to live underground drives them (especially the youth) insane. This backfires later on.

Reptilian kangaroo Oprah incites 99% riot

basically sums up the second half of the book. The team goes back to earth with a Lithian egg in a vase and are shocked to find that an alien reared on Earth, completely disconnected from his birth culture, and given a wide and enthusiastic fanbase, is totally screwed up. This seems like a no-brainer to me but this was written in the era of Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments, so let’s give Blish the benefit of the doubt here, eh? Anyway, the calculating Egvertchi gets his devoted audience of basement dwellers to protest en masse and chaos ensues. Hmmm.

The women (and sassy gay friends) men don’t see

There’s a Japanese woman character whose first name, Liu, is a Chinese surname and whose surname is from God knows where, but not Japan, and who is entirely the icky Orientalist China Doll. The word “nubile” is used. She gets relatively little screen time, thank God. In my meta-story she has psi powers, reads Ruiz-Sanchez’s mind as he’s comparing her to a geisha (really), grabs the vase with baby Egvertchi and smashes it over his head. That would cut out most, if not all, of part 2.

While we’re rewriting it, though, I think Cleaver’s unbelievably arrogant deceptiveness in part 1 is a particularly male thing to do—I know it sounds silly but read it and decide for yourself—and an all-female team would be interestingly different. (Yeah, down to Ramona Ruiz-Sanchez. Hey, maybe there’ll be women priests by 2049.)

Yep. Just think, all this could have been avoided if they just had a Sassy Gay Woman Priest. But, like I said before, that would be a different book entirely…

2 thoughts on “so i herd u liek mudkips: Notes on James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

  1. I had the same reaction to Blish’s A Case of Conscience. I still don’t quite get what all the excitement is about – the novel is still held up one of those staple religion-in-sf masterpieces, but I just don’t see it. There has also been a lot of academic scholarship written about it, strangely enough.

    I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters, whose actions seemed completely illogical, and by the second part of the book I was simply bored. Like you said, the reasoning behind the alien planet being created by Satan to disprove Catholicism seemed utterly absurd, as did almost every plot development in the second part of the novel. I like you description of “Reptilian kangaroo Oprah incites 99% riot” – you hit the nail right on the head with that one!

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