My politics keep getting me in trouble with some people (or at least infuriating their Fox-News-fed gut reactions). Unfortunately for them, the rabid reductionism and rabble-rousing sloganeering of the right has got me scared. Eerily, even reading a fifty-year-old book can contribute to my dread of the future, as happened when I finished the James Blish tetralogy After Such Knowledge just after the new year. The series is composed of (obviously) four books, which one can consider either in the order that Blish wrote them or in their historical order (meaning the eras when the events of each book are supposed to occur).
The four books are: A Case of Conscience (1958), Dr. Mirabilis (1964), Black Easter (1968) and The Day after Judgment (1972). Some people consider the last two one book (and so they have been published—The Devil’s Day) since the last is a direct sequel to Black Easter with the same characters and mostly related situations. Except for the final two (when listed in order of publication), they are independent novels that share nothing except author and (as Blish declared) themes. Otherwise, they are quite different.
A Case of Conscience is a straightforward science fiction novel (albeit with religious themes and a priest for the major character). The two novels of The Devil’s Day are horror books, in which the practice of black magic causes the end of creation in publication-contemporary times—about 1970 (I guess there’s a religious connection, and like Conscience a major character in holy orders). The historical novel Dr. Mirabilis is a fictional biography of Roger Bacon (so I guess we again have a major character in holy orders, whom popular tradition has associated with black magic). The thematic links may be stronger than I at first led you to believe. However, there is no set order to read them as with a plot-connected series, and if you accept the fantasy of the end of everything set out in The Devil’s Day stories, the future of A Case of Conscience can’t happen because everything ended in about 1970, before the time of the science fiction story, 2050.
As my copy of Dr. Mirabilis was falling apart already many years ago, I ordered the four combined into one volume in 2000 from Allan Williams in Feversham, Great Britain—via amazon.com, I think. In that edition they are ordered by date of events: Dr. Mirabilis, Black Easter, The Day after Judgment, A Case of Conscience. I just finished reading them all again in that order. And they remain as readable and interesting as I have thought on several previous excursions into Blish’s imagination.
At any rate, perhaps because it is the story most recently finished, I would like to not-quite consider A Case of Conscience today.
Those Awful Aliens
So I was reading this book, you see…
I don’t know when that statement could not be true. However, I have read somewhat less in recent months, partly because I was trying to discipline myself to write (not read!) and partly because I think my current glasses are way off (and the dad-durned coating is smearing with each cleaning: cheap, damned optometrist) so I don’t see things in the closer ranges very well recently. I found myself removing my glasses altogether Sunday morning and just pressing my nose (almost literally) against the page to read Time magazine. Sad.
I have done the same thing at night, pulling a book right to my face (but tipped toward the available light) glassesless to read for a while. Without glasses the print is bigger and within centimeters of my eyes almost sharper.
I finished reading a chapter toward the end of A Case of Conscience by James Blish in this elderly style. Perhaps I was more than usually taken by the events and characters in that story because of my peculiar reading technique, but part two of that novel really smacked me this year.
Blish is best known for another series of books (an actual plot-connected tetralogy), Cities in Flight. That series is clear-cut science fiction, imagining a future when the old-fashioned (the series, which came out of the Fifties and early Sixties, was deeply informed by the Great Depression), hard-driving steeltown cities of the U.S. and the world encapsulate themselves and activate antigravity technology (“spindizzies”) for farflung adventures through the galaxy, wandering like hobos or displaced Depression-era Okie migrants, searching for work. It’s a great series, one of the best in sci-fi, with deeper themes than one might at first glean (or that were apparent to me when I read the four books first in high school). I have all four collected in one volume; maybe I should visit the Okie future again.
On the other hand, the great Blish work is A Case of Conscience [I have chosen all negative reviews for you in those three links], the culmination (chronologically) of his After Such Knowledge tetralogy, which openly and directly deals with moral and religious issues. All four books delve into questions of knowledge, theology, innocence and experience. In A Case of Conscience, the theological question is whether Satan might be tempting humanity to sin through an alien race that (Manichean heresy!) Satan created. The major character, a Jesuit priest, develops this theory of the new planet Lithia, which he and three other scientists are trying to assess. The Lithians, who morph through several life forms in their growth to maturity, thus being “at home” with their environment in a deeply biological sense, have a very highly ethical society but absolutely no sense of religion. How can one be ethical but nonreligious? Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez dreads the answer may be Satanic manipulation.
Part one includes a lot of veiled references to Finnegans Wake, as Father Ramon has been reading Joyce’s book, trying to sort out some of the immensely tangled and theologically related issues in that vast dreamworld. Author Blish is playing with us readers: only at the end of part one does Father Ramon think about the title of the book to himself so that we know what Satanic volume troubled his mind, as the world on which he has landed with the other scientists troubles his soul. Having first read A Case of Conscience in high school, at my sister’s behest, the Wake’s presence there may have ignited my Joyce love…
By the end of part one, Father Ramon believes that Lithia, the alien world, is a deliberate Satanic creation, meant to tempt humanity from religious belief, as the Lithians—giant, intelligent lizards totally without religion—are more ethical and humane than we humans. Lithia is a trap, he feels, just as Joyce’s dreamscape novel is also a devilish snare for cultured minds (oh, how Joyce would have adored that insight). It’s not often you get sophisticated lit crit in science fiction novels (and Finnegans Wake was less than twenty years in final print, so a truly modern novel in Blish’s day). Even with its pulp-fiction trappings and contrived action/suspense, the story presents a fine portrait of a religious man’s mind and doubt.
Because the Wikipedia article on Blish’s book gives you all the plot anyone could want (making the story seem quite a bit less than it is), I’ll skip straight to the wow factor. In part two, Father Ramon has brought to Earth the egg of one of the Lithians he befriended (that must be the ultimate realization of the unnecessary neologism “frenemy”—accepting a living gift from someone you believe to be a Satanic device, yet whom you respect and even admire). In an interesting opening section to part two, the egg hatches and the small Lithian (whose perspective we receive) grows up, damaged by not being able to go through his changes of creature on Lithia or in anything truly like the appropriate environments. Once he matures, the alienated Lithian is granted full Earth citizenship (a mistake) and considerable freedom. This visiting alien with no true home, Egtverchi, abuses the freedom his lack of identity either with his home world or Earth has given him to become a media star, a critic of earthly social life (with good reason in the book). He then uses his fame to stir his enthusiastic but hooligan fans to riot, expressing their disfavor with society. He is a frighteningly populist media agitator.
Reading the book over Christmastime recently, Egtverchi’s behavior scared me. Scared me truly. He was uncomfortably too similar to the vocal buffoons made media stars today by… (oh, just wait for it a bit) of course, Fox News. He is equally nonsensical but appealing. A certain faction of society, moderately disaffected, alienated, feels profoundly stirred by Egtverchi’s rants, identifying with their star and with his “message,” however little his message makes sense. The fans even identify with his obvious paranoia. But Egtverchi claims just to be a clown, an entertainer (sadly, weakly, the same defense offered for the Fox News talking heads—Glenn, Hannity, O’Reilly—when caught lying, distorting and spewing contradictions) until the time Egtverchi tests his fans’ devotion by getting them to bury his broadcaster and sponsor in mail. They do, wildly. Once he knows his power as a media celebrity, he instructs his viewers that it’s time to let the government know how badly they think it has performed by rioting (yes, oh, teabaggers—just like August 2009).
Blish’s imaginary scenario and his wildly uncontrolled character felt too much like the media voices of our neo-Right. I felt chilled and scared. At least for a day or two. Blish, in 1958, was probably basing Egtverchi’s antics at least somewhat on Hitler, perhaps Stalin. But Hitler’s comic role in Twenties Germany seems closer. Of course, closer yet—oh, prescient Blish—is the mad buffoon of Fox News, the one who knows all about arguing with idiots having observed arguments with himself. The one—self-proclaimed clown entertainer—who has hypnotized his dupes/fans with slogans and paranoia into loyal obedience, who supposedly will unveil his plan for America’s future this summer. (Oh, yeah, I want a scary clown telling me how American should be.) Disaffected, alienated from the legally elected government, screaming his (supposedly entertaining) abuse and woes into the media ether to provide fodder for his dupes’ prejudices, placing the vast uncultured of America at his Beck and call.
I just hope Blish got the riots wrong…
Did that get it out of my system? Doubtful. Finishing the book really did make me think again about the wild voices screeching on our Right. These media madmen feel they can say anything—absolutely anything—regardless of contradiction, regardless of sense, regardless of law, Constitution or history—and get believed. That belief is the horrible element. What may such believers do? Those suckers, chumps, stooges who listen and believe—they really frighten me.
The echoes of their agony (how like the fallen angels’) cackle along the airwaves still.