16 June

You know that poem about how the U.K shipping forecast becomes a comforting litany for people who know nothing about the weather at sea, but who still listen to it before they go to sleep every night? ("Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer - Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.")

The titles of juvenile science fiction novels have a similar effect on me. I think there was a time when late-golden-age science fiction writers could make some money writing kid-friendly stories. The Church Hill Junior School library had a number of those books in uniform editions. So I could recite the fly leaves by heart. 

A Life For The Stars. Mission to the Heart Stars. Citizen of the Galaxy. Have Space-Suit, Will Travel. 

The had pointy art-deco spaceships and comic book aliens on the covers: but what was inside was often stodgy and a little bit…educational. I assumed for a long time that that was what science fiction was like. Dull, serious and disappointing. Then in 1976 George Lucas etc. etc. etc. 

I thought of this recently because I decided it was about time I read a science fiction novel and downloaded James Blish’s “Case of Conscience”. Being able to make books magically appear on my portable computer is approximately three times more science-fictiony than anything which Miss Beale ever stuck an “SF” sticker on the spine of. 

James Blish was one of the names on the juvenile sci-fi fly-leaf, but I only know him from the Star Trek short stories (which I bought but didn’t read) and the Citiies in Flight saga, which is about as close to unreadable as anything I have ever read. The single good joke, that the cities which fly around the universe and help out on other planets are referred to as “oakies” is not enough to hang a five volume trilogy on. I think I once read Spock Must Die which said some clever things about transporters and opened the floodgates for professional Star Trek fan fiction. 

Case of Conscience is very much my kind of thing: it’s dealing seriously with Lewisian conundrums about how Christians would deal with the discovery of extraterrestrial life-forms, and may actually be intended as a rebuttal of Perelandra. One of the characters uses Lewis’s invented word, hnau to describe a creature capable of making moral choices. 

It’s an odd book. Is all old-time hard-science fiction like this? It seemed to conform to Isaac Asimov’s rule — endorsed by Prof. Lewis — that proper SF can only be about ideas: any human interest or subplot is against the rules. Blish says in the introduction that he is writing about a man, and not a body of doctrine, but he is interested in the main character, Father Ramon, only in so far as he illustrates a theological dilemma. Blish wasn’t a catholic, or, so far as I know, an anything, but he either knows an awful lot about Catholic teaching or else is very good at faking it convincingly. This is equally true of the science, of which there is an awful lot. We are supposed to care about whether, 400 years in the future, a lay-man would be permitted to administer the last rites; but also about whether gamma globulin specific backed up with antipyretics is the right thing to give to someone who has been stung by an alien pineapple. 

Books about writing often warn young writers — particularly young writers who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons — to beware of World-Building. It is perfectly okay as a hobby, but your job as a writer is to tell a story, and your reader probably isn’t as interested in alien languages as you are. Get too intersted in a world-building and you will turn into J.R.R. Tolkien and produce the best loved work of the 20th century, and you wouldn’t want that, would you? 

But it seems to me that hard science a la Blish is much more purely an exercise in world creation than the Lord of the Rings ever was. The Jesuit hero and a team of humans with conveniently differing religious and scientific outlooks are examining a planet called Lithia, with a view to recommending to the authorities back on earth whether it should be colonised, exploited or ignored. (They are not real big on the Prime Directive.) They spend a lot of time explaining the ecology of the planet to each other. It is very convincing and quite interesting but “tell don’t show” seems to be the over-arching rule. There isn’t much metal on the planet; so although the Lithians are very advanced in some respects, they’ve never really got the hang of electricity or space-craft. Their dwellings tend to be moulded out of ceramics. And they have a very surprising and strange life-cycle; which Father Ramon only gradually gets the hang of. When everyone gets back to earth we find out that “the shelter race” has replaced “the arms race”: nearly everyone is now so scared of nuclear war that nearly all of them live underground nearly all the time. This doesn’t seem to make much difference to anything in the story: it is just there. 

But that is the point. The object isn’t to tell a story: the object is to say “Here is an imaginary future earth; here is an imaginary alien planet; here they are interacting with one another.” I enjoyed the exposition but I didn’t feel that I could actually see the Lithians, in the way we can arguably see Great Chthulu or Tars Tarkas. It all seemed very abstract.

The central logical or religious paradox is very interesting indeed. Blish uses Catholicism as Asimov uses the Three Laws of Robotics: as a logical system to test and try and break. Ramon is clearly very committed to Catholic teaching and discipline, but the book is quite uninterested in the internal life of a person of faith. 

The Catholic Church teaches, not illogically, that if we ever encounter aliens then they could be a: sentient, but without souls; b: sentient with fallen souls ; or c: sentient with un-fallen souls. We would either ignore them; gently evangelize them; or try to learn from them, depending which of the three they turned out to be. But the Lithians don’t fall into any of the three categories. They appear to be completely without sin, living in something approaching an ideally happy state, but with no knowledge or comprehension of the idea of God. According to Ramon’s faith, this is impossible: so he concludes that they must be creations of Satan. But this is also impossible, because Satan can’t create anything. 

There doesn’t seem to be any narrative way forward from this very interesting debating point: and not a lot happens in the second half of the book. (I was not surprised to find out that the novel was expanded from a short story: it is in retrospect quite easy to see the join.) The Pope’s proposed solution to the dilemma is quite interesting; and the final resolution is reasonably clever, although it is massively contrived and doesn’t really solve anything.

Blish wrote some other theologically themed SF and I should probably give it a look. It was probably quite good for me to read something so relentlessly cerebral and indeed to counter-balance my liking for ray guns and dragons with some actual science fiction.

After reading quite a number of the “SF” section of the school library, I came to the conclusion that space-books were actually quite dull and not really for me. After reading this one I think that I was probably mostly right.


NickPheas said...

If looking for similar then you could try The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

Mike Taylor said...

I to o thought of The Sparrow. Fascinating, yes, but also emotionally powerful.

Louise H said...

There isn't a great deal of Golden Age SF that I'd go back to with pleasure these days though I read a huge amount as a teen. Every so often I pick up a second hand book that I remember being thrilled by forty years ago but I seldom finish it. The only older SF authors I've actively hunted out books by recently are Lloyd Biggle Jr and Christopher Priest, both of whom are rather somewhat later than Blish. There are plenty of novels from the 50s to 70s that I like, just not generally SF ones. (I believe much of it has to do with the prominent editors of the time and what they thought an SF story ought to contain.)

Mike Taylor said...

Louise H., not even Childhood's End?

Louise H said...

I'm wondering now if I've ever actually read Childhoods End? I 've read all his short stories and all the 2001+ novels and I've failed to read Rendezvous with Rama at least four times but if it was one that my father didn't have a copy of I may have missed it,

Mike Taylor said...

Well, for what it's worth I found Childhood's End interesting, surprising and moving, which is a rare combination. Rather the best Clarke's novels for my money. (C. S. Lewis was also a fan, if that influences you.)