Great Hugo Readthrough 1959: James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

First Readthrough/ Reread: First Readthrough
Acquired: Library

Other Nominees:
Poul Anderson: We Have Fed Our Sea (or The Enemy Stars)
Algis Budrys: Who?
Robert A. Heinlein: Have Space Suit — Will Travel
Robert Sheckley: Time Killer (or Immortality, Inc.)

Background: Originally published as a novella in If Magazine which would later win the 1954 Retro Hugo for Best Novella, Blish later added another part and republished it as a novel through Ballantine books.

Synopsis: This is one of the rare first contact novels done through a religious (in this case Catholic) perspective. The main character is a Jesuit priest/ biologist who is part of a four man team surveying an alien world with intelligent inhabitants. The four men end up debating how to judge the world, with one (who hates the world) wanting to turn it into a nuclear weapons stockpile, with the inhabitants as near-slaves, one wanting to immediately ally with the inhabitants, one unsure, and the priest… well, spoilers. When they head back to Earth, they are gifted with one of the spawn of the alien species, who grows to maturity on Earth, and becomes an internationally known figure. The ending is extremely ambiguous, and gets argued over a lot.

Verdict: I’ve never even heard of Algis Budrys, and I’ve never read Time Killer or The Enemy Stars. Have Space Suit- Will Travel is fun, but I don’t honestly know if I can fairly say it should have won instead (though it is one of my favorite Heinlein juvenile novels, and very well written.). I can’t really say if A Case of Conscience is the clear winner against the other books. Let’s judge it on its own merits, then. First off: Fails the Bechdel Test miserably. Only three named female characters, only one of whom shows up for more than a scene. I don’t think anyone but Asimov has passed in the Readthrough so far, though. The aliens are interesting. They differ immensely from humans in a physical sense, but their culture and behavior is very similar to human culture and behavior, but with a twist that provides most of the conflict in the book. The alien planet itself, Lithia, is one of the better fleshed out worlds I’ve seen in a while. It’s not on the level of one of Hal Clement’s worlds, but hardly anyone’s are. The religious material is actually some of the most interesting stuff in the book. I don’t know if Blish was religious or not, but he did a good job of actually giving us a character whose motivations are entirely religious, and yet maintains the interest of even non-Catholic or non-religious readers. None of his other books I’ve read have a particularly religious bent. (I highly recommend the Cities In Flight series, by the way, you can usually get the whole thing in one volume, it’s relatively short). I’ll give it a grudging nod for the hugo, but only the interesting ideas are keeping me from thinking the Heinlein work should get it instead. On a side note: James Blish apparently did NOT like the New York Port Authority, they show up as bad guys or insanely powerful future organizations in several of his books.

Trivia:
-This is, to my knowledge, the only work to win a Hugo and a Retro Hugo, albeit in different categories, by necessity.
-James Blish coined the term “Gas Giant”.

<1958: Fritz Lieber's The Big Time
1960: Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers>

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