(Short Stories for Students)

The entire story consists of the male narrator’s reflections on what he has learned during a scientific mission to investigate a ‘‘white dwarf,’’ a sun in a distant galaxy that became a supernova and burned itself out thousands of years earlier. The reader learns that he is a Jesuit priest and an astrophysicist aboard a starship, and that he has been fighting a ‘‘private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious war’’ against the atheism of the crew. The findings of the mission cause him to question the foundations of his faith.

Dr. Chandler
The ship’s doctor is the only person’s name the reader learns in the story. A conversation between the narrator and the doctor reveals the atheistic attitudes that the Jesuit astrophysicist encounters from the ship’s crew and officers during the mission.

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In this story, as in many of Clarke's stories and novels, it seems almost a given, a manifest destiny, that humans will travel to distant places in the galaxy. Other writers have used this theme to speak of technology or of natural wonders. In this story, Clarke writes about people: identities, beliefs, motives, and actions are really the important elements of the story. Places, even astronomical wonders, are to Clarke places to which people go to learn and work. The marvels of technology are ingenious tools, used with care.

Only one character figures prominently in this story. The rest of the crew are clearly astronauts, and the reader is expected to be familiar enough with the kind of men who are test pilots and who were in the Mercury space programs. Clarke was familiar with military jet pilots from World War II Britain, and with a minimalist writing style, he suggests characters like the competent and courageous men he knew. When the author describes the discovery of an artifact left by an alien race on a burnt-out cinder of a planet circling a distant star, readers understand very clearly not only what kind of people are in the crew that has traveled far from Earth, but how hard they work with inadequate tools to uncover and explore this artifact.

The Jesuit astrophysicist is never described in physical terms, but the reader surmises that he must be an astronaut and, therefore, is healthy, strong, well-coordinated, emotionally stable, and...

(The entire section is 554 words.)