512XAamP04L._AA160_by Chris Edwards

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not goingto write a better review of the classic science fiction novels found in The American Library’s American ScienceFiction: Classic Novels of the 1950’s anthology than those of the reviewers on the book’s web site < http://www.loa.org/sciencefiction/ >. I don’t need the pressure of trying to compete with William Gibson and Neil Gaiman.

Here, we’ll briefly review James Blish’s A Case of Conscience and Fritz Lieber‘s The Big Time.

Blish’s novel features a Jesuit, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, who tags along with a UN team to an unspoiled planet inhabited by intelligent reptilians. Ruiz-Sanchez explains his presence on the trip to his uncomprehending colleagues by noting, quite correctly, that Jesuits always accompanied the grand explorations. Blish reportedly an agnostic, may be toying with Catholic sensibilities by having a priest try to convert reptiles, but the text reads as if the author was sincerely trying to imagine how incompatible ethical systems might clash.

Modern science fiction almost totally avoids questions of ethics, but A Case of Conscience puts forth an interesting ethical dilemma: what do you do when you encounter alien forms of ethics? Do you assert the superiority of your own or bow to the gods of multiculturalism? It’s easy to tell Catholics and fundamentalists to mind their own business when they attempt to impose their prudish sexual mores on others, but what about all of the child marriage and genital mutilation that takes place in the parts of the world the Enlightenment has yet to reach? Blish asks essentially the same question.

My favorite book in the second anthology–I’m saving the first anthology for a special time, which will be whenever I feel like reading it–however, was the last novel in it, The Big Time, a 1958 Hugo Award winner by Fritz Lieber, which reads at times as if it was written by a 12-year-old boy. It pits snakes versus spiders in a time-bending fight for stakes that are never made clear.

There’s no linear plot line in it. Instead,  there’s a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative from a not-yet-thirty-year-old named Greta, who pops in and out of both historical events and romantic interludes with a variety of barely sketched characters. One needs to read Lieber’s novel  twice for it to make sense, and Gaiman’s essay on the web site is particularly helpful in this regard. Is the writing amateurish or does it deliberately depict the addled mind of someone who lives without the benefit of a timeline? Very probably the latter–of course time-travelers won’t think like you or I.

The novel is great fun, even with its depictions of baby-eating and Nazism. And how many times do you get to say that about anything?

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snakeoilcover Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil and is hard at work on a science fiction novel about Holocaust denial.

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