Friday, March 4, 2016

A life of its own.

René Descartes once through a cat out the window. Or so it is said. As the story goes, he wanted to demonstrate his faith that animals didn't have souls.

Imagine that this is true. And that the cat was on, say, its fourth life at the time. I think I can imagine what would be on its mind for life #5.

The story about Descartes appears as a kind of side-anecdote in James Blish's A Case of Conscience. This novel relates the story of a Jesuit who encounters an alien lifeform and believes it to be sent by Satan, despite-nay-because of this population living good lives on their own planet. If you read this book it probably helps to know that it was written before the Vatican II council, which liberalized Church teaching on evolution.

There are some factual issues in A Case of Conscience. The Lithians are at one point described as having marsupial features, even though their young gestate in the sea. And at one point Ramon describes the name of female lead Liu Meid as "Japanese" even though it's a mixtuer of Chinese and German. (This could be the character's mistake, to be fair.) The physics I have to beg ignorance on, mostly.

But overall it works because of Blish's commitment. He's engaged with his characters on their philosophical questions, presumably his own as well.


susan said...

Since I couldn't remember having read the book I just read the synopsis of it on wikipedia. I gather it's a story of a group of men sent to evaluate a new-found planet for suitability of use by Man, a planet already has a race of intelligent beings who have a perfectly evolved society that is no religion. After having spent time in the home of one of the Lithians the scientist who is also a priest finds himself in a quandary - either God doesn't exist or the planet is a trap set by the Devil. (Ummm..) Deciding on the latter interpretation (being a priest, after all), he shocks his co-scientists by saying humanity should have no further dealings with these beings. He's overruled and even takes an alien egg back to Earth to be raised in the caverns our descendants inhabit by 2049 (and have done for a fairly long while). Interestingly, by setting the novel 100 years (at the time it was written) into the future, Blish creates two worlds - the fictional future and the alien world of Lithia. Thus, the morality play takes place in an Earth that doesn't exist. Eventually the alien troublemaker returned to Lithia just in time for the planet to be destroyed by an accidental nuclear chain reaction while the priest/scientist watches in real time by means of a special telescope.

The whole thing sounds pretty cool. At the moment I'm reading another classic sci-fi novel that also treats of ultimate meanings both spiritual and moral - Olaf Stapleton's 'Star Maker'. Written in 1937, it's only a novel in official nomenclature. Then again, I'm less than half way through and the fact there has been no voice other than that of the protagonist doesn't necessarily mean things will continue that way.

Abstract discussions of the relationship between the human mind and the universe are always fascinating.

susan said...

Please excuse typos - It's so easy to miss things in these comment boxes.

ps: I've read before that Renaissance scholars were unsympathetic to animals.