Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The unnamed narrator, a Jesuit priest, is the astrophysicist on an exploratory scientific spacecraft. He is constantly reminded of this duality by his shipmates and by the very decorations and features of his room. The Jesuit speaks throughout the story to an unnamed “you” who is often unknown, sometimes himself, at times St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), and finally, God. The narrator’s several brief asides show his distress over something the ship has discovered.
The ship has come to the Phoenix Nebula, the remains of a star that became a supernova, to try to reconstruct the events that led up to the catastrophe and, if possible, to learn its cause. Expecting to find only the burned star, the ship makes a much more exciting, and ultimately poignant, discovery. The last planet of the star’s system survived the burning, and an artifact is sending out a beacon from its surface. Although untrained for this unexpected archaeological work, the crew enthusiastically sets out to discover what secrets and treasures have been waiting through the centuries for discovery and rescue.
A monolithic marker leads the men to the hopes of the race doomed by the supernova, a civilization that knew it was about to die and had made a last bid for immortality. The artifact contains artwork, recordings, and written works, including keys for their translation. It also contains photographs of beautiful cities and happy children playing on beaches...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
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The story's protagonist is identified only as Father. A Jesuit priest, he is also the astrophysicist on a space mission that has made a discovery which causes him to have a crisis of faith.
This story is a quintessential example of Clarke's writing style and subject matter; it is to be recommended as a quick (though not easy) read in comparison to his novels. It is succinct and straightforward, unlike some of the works in his short story collections. Many of Clarke's beliefs about the role of humanity in the universe and the future are made manifest in this story. However, they are only mentioned briefly and as "givens" rather than statements. For example, the protagonist is a Jesuit, but he does not make long explanations of how prevalent or active religious faith is in this future time.
Clarke's Third Law is manifest in this story. He claimed repeatedly, at many science fiction conventions, that "Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic." While some writers feel each and every technological idea in their stories must be accountable according to state-of-the-art science, Clarke is willing to tell us that a space ship is traveling, without cluttering up a very short story with lectures on particle physics or engineering. In real life, people do not give lectures on hydro-electric dams each time they flick on a light switch; neither do Clarke's characters.
Clarke's First and Second Laws run as follows:...
(The entire section is 292 words.)
The story opens with the unnamed first-person narrator musing that at one time he had believed that his travels in outer space could not alter his faith in God. The reader learns that he is a Jesuit as well as an astrophysicist. He is aboard a starship returning from a scientific mission three thousand light-years from Earth. Something he learned on this mission, as yet unknown to the rest of the scientists and crew, has caused him to question his faith. He reflects regretfully that the data gathered on the mission will soon make the cause of his own doubt—‘‘this ultimate irony’’—known to everyone.
The narrator reflects on the ‘‘private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious war’’ that the largely irreligious crew has waged with him during the long mission. He thinks particularly of the ship’s doctor, Dr. Chandler, who sometimes professes himself willing to believe that ‘‘Something’’ created the infinite vastness of space and everything in it, but cannot accept that a being so powerful could possibly care about ‘‘us and our miserable little world.’’
The narrative goes on to reveal more details about the mission. The ship had been sent to examine the aftermath of a supernova—the explosion of a star, during which it burns with an intensity and a luminosity that may be a billion times that of the Earth’s sun. Following such an explosion, a star becomes a white dwarf, a body of very dense...
(The entire section is 394 words.)