Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” won a Hugo Award for best short story of the year. First published in Infinity Science Fiction, it has been widely anthologized since then. Many of Clarke’s stories have religious themes or elements.
“The Star” makes ample use of symbols. It opens with a description of the juxtaposition of the Jesuit’s crucifix with the astrophysicist’s computer. The dichotomies of the narrator’s life are thus immediately apparent. The narrator’s picture of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, which historically has been dedicated to education—bringing light—is juxtaposed with the tracings from his spectrophotometer, which measures another kind of light. The two concepts of light and enlightenment have come together. The narrator even wonders what the pictured man would have made of the pictured tracings.
Another important symbol in the work is the phoenix. The Phoenix Nebula is the supernova the ship has come to study. In mythology, the phoenix is a bird that dies and is reborn out of the ashes of its pyre. The phoenix has been used as a symbol for Jesus and for Christianity because it seems to die but, rather than remaining ashes, it rises from the dead to live again. This is the hope that Christians have for themselves and a major part of the belief they have in Jesus as the Christ. One might argue that out of the funeral pyre of this lost race came the birth of the new race of...
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The 1950s: U.S.-Soviet Rivalry and the ‘‘Red Scare’’
Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘‘The Star’’ during a time of political and social unease. Both the ‘‘space race’’ and the ‘‘arms race’’ between the United States and the Soviet Union, were ongoing, fueled by cold war animosity between the two superpowers. Both countries were developing and testing newer and more destructive weapons, including the hydrogen bomb, in the aftermath of the atomic bombs used in 1945 against Japan.
Growing fear of Communism leads to the ‘‘red scare’’ in the U.S. A number of high-profile nuclear espionage cases, including that of the Rosenbergs in 1952, convince a portion of the American public and government that Communist infiltrators are potentially everywhere. Large numbers of writers and actors are blacklisted by publishers and Hollywood movie studios after being accused of Communist Party membership or merely having Communist sympathies. Even U.S. atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, is considered a threat to American security because of his opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission clears him of disloyalty charges but still revokes his security clearance. American Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) conducts a campaign of accusations that the U.S. State Department is infiltrated by ‘‘card-carrying...
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This story is set in 2500 A.D., on a space traveling ship that has left Earth, arrived at a distant planetary nebula around a star that went nova long ago, and is now returning to Earth.
There are few suggestions of technical descriptions of the spaceship, and scarcely more depictions of the crew; this writing style does not seem sketchy, but terse and to the point. It is as if the story were set in the simplicity of a monk's cell or told with the plainness of the radio communications between Houston Space Center and the Apollo astronauts.
Far more important to the story than a description of the ship's controls or rooms is the account of what these travelers are doing. This crew is like the nineteenth-century explorers who traveled to the North Pole and Antarctica, not for gold or rich trade goods, but for knowledge and map making. When the crew arrives at the distant star, they discover that as well as the astronomical studies they had planned, there is an archaeological study to be made. Immediately they begin investigating a signal on a bunker left by an alien race, using whatever tools the crew can improvise. The reader knows these men have a hunger for knowledge, and that they learn whatever they can.
The alien artifact itself is barely described; its bunker was melted by the heat when that star went nova years ago.
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Point of View and Narration
‘‘The Star’’ is a first person narration by an astrophysicist who is also a Jesuit. The narrative unfolds for the reader the emotions of this individual as he tries to comes to terms with the knowledge he has gained on a scientific mission to a distant galaxy—knowledge that has caused him for the first time to question his faith.
Foreshadowing and Irony
In the course of the story, the reader is given clues to the ironic outcome of the story. One of the first occurs in the opening paragraph when the narrator says, ‘‘Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith … that the heavens declared the glory of God’s handiwork’’ (emphasis added). He goes on to tell the reader that something has shaken that belief and left his faith ‘‘sorely troubled.’’
The narrative gradually reveals the information the narrator has gained and foreshadows the ultimate irony of the story’s denouement, or final outcome. The story’s irony is situational; that is, an event intended or presumed to have had one purpose or effect has also had a markedly different one. In this story, one result of the supernova’s explosion is that an entire civilization was annihilated. However, the exploding star, burning brightly in the sky, also signaled the birth of the Christ child. The narrator even considers the name of the Nebula created by the supernova—the...
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There seems to be general agreement among critics and readers that either "The Star" or "The Nine Billion Names of God" is Clarke's best short story. But his own preference is for "Transit of Earth," according to the liner notes he wrote for a recording of all three stories. These stories were written during the early 1950s, while Clarke still lived in Britain.
Clarke wrote many stories that had their genesis in a single line of dialogue or a comprehensible invention. "The Nine Billion Names of God," for example, makes reference to a literary invention of Lord Dunsany: the "mechanized" prayer wheel, from which concept the whole story may have subconsciously evolved. "Transit of Earth" was inspired by an article of the same name by Belgian astronomer Jan Meeus which included dates and duration for several transits of Earth as visible from Mars. "The Star" began with a short story competition for the London Observer on the subject of "2500 A.D." Clarke was then already writing an astronomical article for Holiday magazine and welcomed the opportunity both to use a theme already in hand and to avoid further research.
"The story was written in two days, shortly before my departure to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, in a state of unusually intense emotion," he said in the liner notes for the audio recording Transit of Earth, which includes readings of all three stories just mentioned. Though "The Star" did not win the...
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"It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican," the story begins, and immediately the reader is far from home and far from now, caught up in a space journey. It is a journey the author makes many times in his writing, and nowhere more smoothly than in the opening sentence for this story.
In the author's foreword to his 1982 novel 2020: Odyssey Two, Clarke had much to say about the impact of space exploration on humanity.
No one could have imagined back in the mid-sixties, that the exploration of the moons of Jupiter lay, not in the next century, but only fifteen years ahead. Nor had anyone dreamed of the wonders that would be found there. . . . When 2001 was written, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto were mere pinpoints of light in even the most powerful telescopes; now they are worlds, each unique.
And there is another, more subtly psychological factor to be taken into consideration. 2001 was written in an age that now lies beyond one of the Great Divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot upon the Moon. Now history and fiction have become inextricably intertwined.
That is how Arthur C. Clarke sees his writing, as bridging that Great Divide, first from one side as he wrote "The Star" and dozens of other stories and novels, and now, from the other side as he continues to write. His works come more slowly as his age...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1954: There are 32,501 Jesuit priests, brothers, and scholars in the world, with 7,630 in the United States.
1990s: The number of Jesuits has declined to 22,000. There are fewer than 4,000 Jesuits in the U.S.
- 1950s: The ‘‘space race’’ begins, with the worlds’s two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, separately developing space travel technology. The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the first manufactured satellite, and Sputnik II, carrying a live dog, into orbit around the earth in 1956.
1990s: The lunar surface is littered with debris from 32 unmanned probes and nine manned missions to the moon. The U.S. space shuttles Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour regularly carry U.S. astronauts and scientists to work aboard the Russian space station MIR.
- 1950s: The ‘‘arms race’’ between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. parallels the space race between the two superpowers. In 1954, the U.S. Atomic Commission explodes a nuclear-fusion hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The device is hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
1990s: The U.S. and the former Soviet Union have signed numerous arms treaties and have committed to destroying their nuclear arsenals. Numerous smaller...
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Topics for Discussion
1. When one travels far from home, does one leave everything of home behind, including behaviors, beliefs, or traditions?
2. Is it a contradiction for a Jesuit priest to be an astrophysicist?
3. What message of hope is the author conveying by setting his story in the future?
4. What message of despair does Clarke convey by the Jesuit scientist's discovery?
5. What is being discovered in this story? Is it the natural wonders of the universe? Is it the nature of humanity? Or could it be the nature of God, as the Jesuit astrophysicist defines God?
6. Were the living beings of the distant solar system "people?"
7. How can readers define "people" as opposed to animals and other living things?
8. Why should it matter to the protagonist that these alien people ever lived?
9. Why should it matter to the protagonist when these alien people died and, possibly, the reason for their deaths?
10. What does it mean to this man if God is not always understandable as good?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What is the history of the development of the scientific method? Why is it believable for Clarke to write a Jesuit character as an astrophysicist?
2. Why is science fiction writing optimistic by nature, even though seminal works in the genre are pessimistic? What examples can you find and discuss?
3. Create a model of the buried archive, as you think it could have been made. Your model can be a sculpture of the archival building, or a visual or audio sampling of the archival materials. How will you choose what media to use to make your model? Will your archive be for the alien race in "The Star" or for the humans of Earth? If alien, will your alien race be represented by human images or will you create a completely different race?
4. Are religion and science mutually contradictory? Can a devout believer honestly search for objective proof of his beliefs? Does it matter to which faith the believer ascribes?
5. Is a prolonged, detailed, and thoughtful observation and analysis of the natural world the proper study of humanity?
6. Is a prolonged, detailed, and thoughtful analysis of the nature of God the proper study of humanity?
7. What pre-conceptions are shown when a person refers to the universe as a creation of God? How can a person seek knowledge and understanding while minimizing prejudices which may alter her or his perceptions and conclusions?
8. What pre-conceptions are shown...
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Topics for Further Study
- ‘‘The Star’’ is an example of an interior monologue. Do you think that the narrator’s doubts heighten the suspense of the ending? Do his doubts detract from the suspense?
- The story looks at the idea that humanity is central to God’s plan for the universe. Does this plan seem fair to other civilizations which may inhabit the universe?
- The narrator mentions that humans have found traces of other long-dead civilizations, but have never made contact with a living alien race. Does this make the story more believable? Less believable? Why? Would knowledge that other races of sentient beings exist in the universe tend to strengthen or weaken traditional Christian tenets of faith? Why?
- The story ends with reference to the star of Bethlehem. Is it necessary that the reader be Christian in order to feel the impact of the ending? Why or why not?
- Only one other character, Dr. Chandler, is heard from besides the narrator. The narrator considers the doctor a ‘‘notorious atheist’’ and suggests that most of the starship’s other scientists and crew are too. How might a confirmed atheist react to the news that the supernova was the star of Bethlehem? What might be the response of a deeply religious person who is not a Christian—a Jew, a Muslim, or a Hindu? How might their reactions differ from that of the Jesuit narrator?
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"The Star" was the final story in a collection of Clarke's stories that appeared under the title The Nine Billion Names of God. An audio recording of "The Star," read by the author, was included on a cassette titled Transit of Earth. The cassette included the title story and also "The Nine Billion Names of God." It was released in 1978 by Caedmon. The author's clear British accent beautifully complements not only his style of writing, but his subject matter. This recording is a treasure of the genre and is to be recommended to anyone who enjoys science fiction books and movies.
It is worth noting that Clarke's most celebrated novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was based on another of his short stories. "The Sentinel" was written during the same phase of his writing career as "The Star" and expressed some of the same emotions of awe and resolution as space explorers crossed immense distances and uncovered a buried artifact from long ago. The story ended on a note of expectation, with the narrator trying to hope for the future; this is a distinct contrast to the ending of "The Star."
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What Do I Read Next?
- The Nine Billion Names of God: The Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (1967) by Arthur C. Clarke. This collection includes the title story ‘‘The Nine Billion Names of God.’’ This story deals with a philosophical confrontation between Western scientists and the religious beliefs of Tibetan monks.
- Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke. This was the first of Clarke’s major novels to win wide public acclaim. It deals with the evolution of utopia imposed on Earth by an alien race which confines humanity to its own planet by eliminating space travel.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) derives from his short story ‘‘The Sentinel’’ and was written concurrently with the screenplay for the motion picture of the same name. The novel is divided into sections. In the first section, a monolith appears on Earth and signals the dawn of man by nudging pre-homo-sapiens into learning about tools and taking a giant evolutionary step. In the next section, set in 2001, humans find a second monolith on the moon and set out to track the signal it is transmitting to a distant receiver. Clarke continued the saga in three further works: 2010: Odyssey Two (1982); 2061: Odyssey...
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For Further Reference
Clarke, Arthur C. The Nine Billion Names of God, New York: Ballantine/Signet, 1967. A collection of works, including "The Star."
Clarke. Transit of Earth, Caedmon, 1978. An audiocassette featuring three stories are read by the author, including "Transit of Earth," "The Nine Billion Names of God," and "The Star."
Clarke. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, New York: Tor, 2001. This recent work gathers over 900 pages of Clarke's short fiction, from his 1937 title "Travel by Wire" to his 1999 work "Improving the Neighbourhood."
Strahan, Jonathan. "Reviews." Locus (December 2000): 29. Reviewing The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Strahan claims the work is "a mammoth, truly indispensable collection of his short fiction that details his 63-year long literary odyssey far more effectively than any of his novels.... 20th Century cannot be told without the stories that are gathered here. Truly essential."
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Clarke, Arthur C. The Other Side of the Sky. Signet, 1959, p. vi.
Hollow, John. Against the Night, the Stars: The Science Fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, 197 p.
Leiber, Fritz. ‘‘Engaging Adventure Tales,’’ in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine, February 16, 1958, p. 7.
McAleer, Neil. Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography. Contemporary Books, 1992, pp. 44, 82-83, 114, 296.
Rabkin, Eric S. Arthur C. Clarke: Starmont Reader’s Guide 1. Starmont House, 1980, p. 57.
Reid, Robin Anne. Arthur C. Clarke: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press, 1997.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Space Odysseys of Arthur C. Clarke. Borgo Press, 1978, 64 p.
Aldiss, Brian W. Trillion Year Spree. Avon Books, 1986. A history of science fiction. Aldiss places the genesis of the genre in Gothic literature and traces it through late twentieth century literature and film.
Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995. A carefully compiled reference work.
Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977. Nine critical...
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