Jan 1, 2021

Biology by Blish

If, September 1953

What will it be today? A desert world? A jungle world? A terrestrial planet completely without iron? And for a trained biologist like James Blish (born in 1921), there is a another critical choice to be made: who shall this planet's people resemble? Cats? Reptiles? Apes with four fingers rather than five? And most importantly, what is the role of these aliens in the universe-spanning struggle between Good and Evil™?

I was first introduced to the science fiction of Blish when I read "Surface Tension". I love the idea of artificial lifeforms that are much smaller than usual, but in the hands of Blish, microscopic people as a plot element feels more like a fantasy gimmick than something rooted in imaginary science. Oh, well. To honor Blish 100 years after his birth, I recently read his novella A Case of Conscience which was published by Blish in 1953.

Back cover

The story takes place on the planet Lithia, a jungle world with egg-laying "reptilian people" who have "marsupial-like pouches" and where there is "next to no iron". Four members of a Commission from Earth must investigate the planet and vote yes or no on the question of allowing Earthlings to routinely visit Lithia.

Paul Cleaver (a physicist and the "communications officer" for the team) gets sick (biotoxin from a plant thorn) while searching the jungle for pegmatites, apparently as part of his dream that the planet's lithium deposits could be used for tritium production. ⚛

Cleaver claims to understand how the Lithians can power intercontinental jet aircraft with static electricity; it is made possible by their advanced understanding of solid-state physics. However, the Lithians know nothing about radioactivity or nuclear physics.

information dump
Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, S. J. (Society of Jesus), a "Jesuit biologist" from Peru, hates the idea of turning this world into a tritium production site.

The Lithians use a piezoelectric system (based on a wind-blown tree pushing underground crystals) for a global communications network. Really? Ramon repeatedly tells us that the Lithians themselves are "impossible".

wrap-around cover by Ken Fagg

interior art by Ed Emshwiller
The other two Commission members are Agronski (a geologist) and Mike Michelis (a chemist). Agronski likes the idea of using all the lithium on Lithia to make tritium. Michelis thinks that is a stupid idea and could never be cost-effective. However, Michelis believes that Lithia should be opened up for contact with Earthlings.

Readers are told that for Father Ramon, on his first exoplanet mission, 40 light-years from Rome, his "essential business" is determining if the Lithians have "qualms of conscience". Blish implies that the Lithians live happily within a utopian post-scarcity economy. In a roundabout way, I think Blish is also trying to tell us that Father Ramon wants to know if the Lithians have souls and if these happy aliens are Evil™. Poor Father Ramon can't understand how the Lithians all behave so nicely without having a religion, so they must be the work of the devil. Umm... okay.

is Lithia a world without sin?
Father Ramon speculates that since Lithia never had an ice age, the Lithian's are still in their "garden of Eden" and are without "original sin" and so it might be impossible for humans to get along with them.

Father Ramon meets a native named Chtexa (a "metalist") and lucky for readers, Ramon understands the native language and we get instant translations of all that is said by Chtexa. Blish assures us that the Lithians are great astronomers and experts in solid-state physics, but they have never bothered to examine a meteorite. Given the suggestion by Father Ramon to scientifically study a few meteorites from the Lithian museums, Chtexa has quickly discovered their metal content. Riiiiight....  A Case of Conscience is full of such hard-to-swallow, throw-away ideas.

Ultimately, the Commission is split (2 votes to 2 votes) and the matter of opening up Lithia to travelers from Earth will have to be taken up by big wigs back on Earth. The four Commission members pack their bags to return home. However, Chtexa has a parting gift for Ramon.

What would the Lithian's provide as a gift in a jar for Father Ramon to take back to Earth? Answer: an egg that will hatch into a baby Lithian. Newly-hatched baby Lithians have a body form something like an Earthly lungfish. 
Intelligent Design
Blish makes a big deal out of the fact that the baby lungfish grow into several additional intermediate forms that live in the swamps and jungles as wild creatures before becoming the adult Lithians who live in cities. The Lithians need no schools (or religion) because the little ones learn everything they need to know in the wild. Could such odd biology only arise by Intelligent Design? 
Blish seemed to take seriously the idea that all living organisms pass through (recapitulate) evolutionarily more ancient body forms during embryological development. The Lithians just do their recapitualations to a super-sized degree.

lithium-ion batteries
I like the idea that among all the exoplanets of the universe, there might be a few worlds where, due to random circumstances and local conditions, a species might evolve that seems perfect by human ethical standards and which might completely lack self-destructiveness. Over the course of a billion years, such a species might perfect itself through genetic engineering so as to match its environment. Sadly, Blish was writing just when the nature of genes was being revealed, so his story involves no genetic engineering.
look who showed up
In any case, I doubt that travelers from Earth would react to such a world as Lithia in the way Blish depicted for poor Father Ramon. Because the Lithians have no religion, he calls for a complete quarantine on human contact with the Lithians. However, Ramon happily takes the Lithian egg back to Earth and lets it hatch. Gee, maybe that bold act contains the makings of a sequel...

art by Darrell K. Sweet
Writing in the early 1950s, it seems inevitable that Blish would have put tritium and nuclear fusion at the center of his story. Just 30 years later, chemists figured out how to start making practical lithium batteries. Along with changes in technology that could not be anticipated by Blish, there have been continuing changes in the position of the Catholic church with respect to evolution. 
Do all the changes to Earthly culture since 1953 make A Case of Conscience irrelevant to readers in 2021? No; most people remain blishfully unaware of the importance of iron in biology. However, the story, as constructed by Blish, strikes me as a strangely contrived jumble of ideas that even Blish could not be bothered to try to assemble into a single coherent perspective. 
Apparently Blish did later try to provide a more definitive ending to the tale of the Lithians when he expanded the original novella to a novel. I have not read the longer version of the story, nor do I feel the desire to spend any additional time with Father Ramon and his impossible aliens.
Related Reading: Jesuits in Sci Fi
  and: go down to the comment about about Finnegans Wake
Next: "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster

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  1. I really enjoyed this review! I'm fascinated by the idea of religious people being obsessed with "do these aliens have religion? are they good/evil?", to me, it's a rather silly question but it always makes for a great story. And Blish was a biologist? I had no idea! I need to read this story because biology and i want to know all about this iron thing you mentioned.

    1. Some information about the university studies of Blish is provided here: (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/big-ideas-james-blish/).

  2. A Case of Conscience does sound interesting! I'd never heard of it before.

    1. My favorite part of this novella is the "simple" fact that the aliens are so nice. I really get tired of stories about evil aliens. I don't want to read the longer, full-novel version of the story that Blish later published because it apparently has an ending that sounds far too horrible for me and my practiced naiveté.

  3. I see #VintageSciFi is off to a great start! I especially loved the parallels for the embryo evolution (which I remember from my high school biology books).

    I'm no expert on science-fiction, esp. *classic* scifi, but in all alien-meets-human stories, the first thing that captures my attention is the language barrier. How do they communicate, with no prior interpreter being available? A subject which Mary Russell explores at some length in The Sparrow, I think. I'll probably re-read that book this month.

    Look forward to reading more of your Vintage Science Fiction reviews!

    1. If anyone is in the mood for a shorter novel than 'The Sparrow', you might try "Star King" by Jack Vance. Vance's story features an alien species that has altered its physical structure so as to closely mimic the human body plan, allowing them to live undetected among humans.