Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Star - Arthur C. Clarke

For the next stop in short fiction month I selected an older story. The Star by Arthur C. Clarke was published in 1955 and won one of the first Hugo Awards for short stories. It has been reprinted many times and remains one of his best known short stories. For a story that is more than 60 years old, it aged remarkably well. It is not a story that is carried by a big idea, technology or science but rather by what a particular discovery does to a scientist. I would not be surprised if it worked just as well a century from now.

The story is the account of a Jesuit priest and scientist on the way back from a scientific investigation of a solar system that went nova some time in the distant past. What he finds there shakes his belief in god to the very core.

Pretty much all of the work I have read by Clarke (a dozen novels) has a distinct optimistic quality to it. This story does not. It pretty much radiated despair. The main character wants to cling to his belief but in the end has to settle for a truthful account of his findings. One might say the scientist overrules the priest here. While science and technology is often equated with progress in Clarke's stories, in The Star it breaks something in the main character.

Clarke himself had an interesting relationship with religion. He appears to have been fascinated by the concept of god - just look at the titles of some of his stories -  but was also clearly an atheist. This story reminded me of a quote from Clarke's novel, The Fountain of Paradise (1979) in which an alien entity comments on the idea of god as follows:
The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason. If  you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the  creation of an entity known as God, he must be of an higher degree of  organisation than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first  step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as  early as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied  unnecessary. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.
Chapter 16 - Conversations with the Stargilider
Back then, I wondered what William of Ockham would have made of that, but I guess the same goes for this unfortunate priest. Clarke put religion under the bright light of scientific research and did not like what he saw. This story is perhaps the most merciless dismissal of human attempts to give meaning to life, the existence of the universe and random natural events.

The Star is a story that packs a good punch. It is easy to see why someone who wrote such elegant stories in a time when a lot of science fiction was barely past the pulp stage, would have been considered one of the big writers in the genre. It is worth reading, not just because it aged gracefully, but also because it shows the darker side of the writing of a man known for his optimistic work.

Story Details
Title: The Star
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Language: English
Originally published: Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Story length: short story, approximately 2,500 words
Awards: Hugo Award winner
Available online: King's College London


  1. This is an interesting counterweight to "The Nine Billion Names of God". In that story religion wins out over science, in this one science wins out over religion. Yet THE STAR seems "deeper". There is a difference in motivation. In "The Nine Billion Names of God" the scientists are cynical and the Tibetan monks seem naive. Here there are superficial scientists questioning naive superstitious faith, but the narrator is more complex than they think. He points out that the "incongruity" of his position is only "apparent": "It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers". The narrator's motivation, both religious and scientific, is deep. "The Nine Billion Names of God" incarnates the two cultures in separate individuals, whereas in "The Star" the narrator incarnates both sides, and lives out their conflict as an inner struggle. "The Star" combines a speculative element, the cold equations, and a religious element, the problem of suffering. But is it really pessimist? We are all mortal, civilisations included, but we must not forget the wonder and beauty of the alien civilisation, and the glory of interstellar travel. The wonder, the beauty, and the glory are all real and the cruel coincidence poses a problem only for the Christian theodicy. Yet with the failure of theodicy and the abandonment of faith something is lost.

    1. I haven't read The Nine Billion Names of God. I'm woefully ignorant of pretty much all of Clarke's short fiction. One of the reasons why I included on here. Maybe I should dig that one up as well and read it later in the month.

    2. It's quite short, you can find it here: http://downlode.org/Etext/nine_billion_names_of_god.html

  2. I have tried to spell out in what sense the story is also optimist here: https://xenoswarm.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/arthur-c-clarkes-the-star-consilience-is-the-phoenix/

    1. Now that is a well thought out argument. I don't think my brain is quite up to parsing the whole of it right now but I will come back to it over the weekend.

  3. Were there aliens in The Fountains of Paradise? I don't remember any, then again, there are many things I don't remember... ;) Was it toward the end?

    1. There is an alien probe passing through the solar system in that book. The builders themselves never show up.