Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke

with 35 comments

We came slowly in through the concentric shells of gas that had been blasted out six thousand years before, yet were expanding still. They where immensely hot, radiating even now with a fierce violet light, but were far too tenuous to do us any damage. When the star had exploded, its outer layers had been driven upward with such speed that they had escaped completely from its gravitational field. Now they formed a hollow shell large enough to engulf a thousand solar systems, and at its center burned the tiny, fantastic object which the star had now become – a White Dwarf, smaller than the Earth, yet weighing a million times as much.

This is the sort of thing hard SF is meant to be about and Clarke does it very well. At the same time though, he is happy to just handwave away the speed of light with “the secret of the Transfinite Drive”. I can imagine fewer things duller than getting into a debate about whether FTL travel should be consistent with hard SF but I think this is worth pointing out.

The story itself unfortunately hinges on a silly punchline that is adolescent and hack-ish. To his credit, Clarke treats this with great seriousness but this only makes it even more baffling that he constructed the story around a cheap joke. The reaction of the characters to the revelation is no more plausible than the existence of a Transfinite Drive either.

Quality: **
Hardness: ****

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Written by Martin

24 February 2010 at 09:58

35 Responses

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  1. I haven’t read this in an age, but I don’t remember the ending being a joke. It’s a twist, certainly – but I didn’t see any humour in it.

    And it’s from 1955, which makes it quite probably the first time that twist was used. I agree that using that kind of twist repeatedly is a bad idea, but looking back from 50 years later and claiming that an idea is hack-ish seems a tad over the top.

    Of course, if someone was to use the same idea nowadays then they’d have to do something pretty clever with it to make it worthwhile (see the killing Hitler strip from Subnormality for an example:
    http://www.viruscomix.com/page382.html )

    Andrew Ducker

    24 February 2010 at 12:18

  2. Well no, there’s no humour in it, that doesn’t stop it being constructed around a gotcha punchline. You can call it a twist but there’s really not much difference.

    I don’t think the essential lameness is to do with its age either. It is a duff idea now because it was a duff idea then, not because the idea is now over-familiar. I am probably being overly harsh on the story because Clarke does execute it very well, I’m just unable to swallow that central revelation, its glibness sits ill with the rest of the story.

    see the killing Hitler strip from Subnormality for an example

    That’s pretty good.

    Martin

    24 February 2010 at 14:11

  3. I think it depends on the frame of reference you approach it with. An awful lot of short SF of the time is like that – twilight-zone-esque stories that are based around a single idea. It appealed to me when last I read it, but that would have also been around the time when I was reading a lot of other stuff of the time (things like Clarke’s “Tales from the White Hart”) and also stuff like Future Shocks, which are all about the punchline.

    Andrew Ducker

    24 February 2010 at 14:25

  4. If science-fiction is, as some would have it, the literature of ideas, then this is an excellent example of the form – the story is constructed entirely around a single idea, which it puts at the end and then spends the rest of the story working up to without distraction.

    It’s wrong to say that the punchline is adolescent and hack-ish. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the ‘What if…?’ that Clarke started off with, and as Andrew Ducker points out, it helps to consider the story in the context of its time. I disagree that it’s a duff idea, then or now. Perhaps the worst you can say about it is that it makes for a thin story, but that doesn’t make it a bad story.

    I think Ducker’s observation is an important one, that a lot of science-fiction of the time – both in the short story, TV (Twilight Zone), and even in more recent years like the Future Shocks in 2000AD – shares the same structure, an idea at the end (or punchline) that the story works its way up to. It seems to from your objections above that the form itself doesn’t appeal to you, rather than it simply being the particular story in this case which has failed to hit the mark.

    Nick H.

    24 February 2010 at 16:47

  5. The thing is I do like Future Shocks and The Twilight Zone. Perhaps it is a question of context. Outside in the dark even “the call is coming from inside the house!” seems less hokey than usual. In the restrained setting of Clarke’s story “and that star was the star of Bethlehem!” seems more hokey.

    I’m still not sold on the idea though. “What if the star of Bethlehem was a supernova?” is good. “What if that supernova wiped out the universe’s most perfect civilisation?” is going a bit far. “What if this was discovered by a space Jesuit and proves God doesn’t exist?” is too much.

    Martin

    24 February 2010 at 19:09

  6. Is it possible to date the point FTL became ars non grata in hard SF? I kind of want to blame either Benford or Baxter, but I’m not really sure.

    David Moles

    25 February 2010 at 12:21

  7. I’m still not sold on the idea though. “What if the star of Bethlehem was a supernova?” is good. “What if that supernova wiped out the universe’s most perfect civilisation?” is going a bit far. “What if this was discovered by a space Jesuit and proves God doesn’t exist?” is too much.

    No, having this discovered by a Jesuit is an important part of what turns this from being a neat idea into a story. Because it turns the discovery into something personal. And it’s not the most perfect civilisation, it is just an advanced civilisation. That, too, is important, because it links the story to one of the oldest and most intractible of theological problems: if God sacrificed his only son for the salvation of humankind, are any inhabitants of another world inherently beyond salvation. As a good Jesuit, our hero has to believe that the people of the destroyed world were not saved, and indeed were not worthy of salvation, because they could never have known Jesus Christ. As a human being, he sees the aftermath and has to ask if God is good. This theological conundrum has been around since the early 17th century, but I know of no story that encapsulates it as neatly and as powerfully as ‘The Star’.

    I have to confess, I am dismayed by your response to this story. But nothing is ever the same to two different readers.

    Paul Kincaid

    25 February 2010 at 12:54

  8. And it’s not the most perfect civilisation, it is just an advanced civilisation.

    Not just advanced but morally superior to humanity. I described it as perfect because it seemed like a deliberate attempt to load the bases by making the destroyed civilisation Edenic.

    I just can’t find that theological conundrum interesting, I’m afraid. This isn’t that surprising since it is only a conundrum if you are a Christian but I don’t see why it is different to any other “why does bad stuff happen to good people?” theological questions. The fact that when the Jesuit sees the aftermath he has to ask if God is good just means he is a crap Christian. Rational thoughts and empiric facts shouldn’t cloud his faith. To put it another way, you don’t have to travel 3000 light years to find a holocaust or a natural disaster.

    Even if I was to accept your reading, however, I’m not sure what making the star the star of Bethlehem rather than any other star adds to the theological conundrum apart from an “ah ha!” moment in the last paragraph.

    Martin

    25 February 2010 at 13:31

  9. When you say “why does bad stuff ahppen to good people?” do you mean, in Yorkshire?

    Adam Roberts

    25 February 2010 at 14:23

  10. These always draw you out of the woodwork, don’t they?

    But yes, you only have to look at the Red Riding quartet.

    Martin

    25 February 2010 at 14:30

  11. It’s what I live for.

    More substantively, Paul is right: the problem about the uniqueness, or otherwise, of Christ’s atonement may look like obscure Christian theological quibbling, but it has surprisingly enormously ramifications in terms of larger culture, not least in providing one of the main starting impulses for the genesis of science fiction as a whole.

    Adam Roberts

    25 February 2010 at 14:46

  12. Also, the silent retrospective correction of typos to which comments have already made reference? Not cool. Not cool, dude.

    Adam Roberts

    25 February 2010 at 14:47

  13. I don’t know why you are complaining, I do this every time you comment on a typo.

    Martin

    25 February 2010 at 14:57

  14. “Also, the silent retrospective correction of typos to which comments have already made reference? Not cool.”

    Not as bad as what happened to my father, wherein his contribution to a book in which he made fun of a number of typos was rendered nonsensical when all the typos were corrected when the book was published.

    And at the moment I’m reading another book which has a number of parts where quoted text has ‘[sic]‘ next to it, yet there’s nothing wrong with the text, clearly corrected by a overzealous proofer.

    That I haven’t said any more about “The Star” is only because Mr Kincaid has said what I would’ve said already, and said it far better too. The only thing I would add is that ‘make the main character someone who would be personally affected by the events’ is one of the very basic rules of writing, which is a further reason why the main character being a Jesuit is, rather than being wrong, very much correct.

    Nick H.

    25 February 2010 at 15:03

  15. (Nuts – I put an extra blank line in the comment above, to separate the two strands on my comment, but WordPress would appear to have stripped it out!)

    Nick H.

    25 February 2010 at 15:04

  16. Martin, at the time Clarke was writing there was a general acceptance that advanced equated with morally superior. But neither of these equates with ‘perfect’, that word loads the bases in a way that is unfair to the story.

    Adam, this is one of the things we agree on. Where would science fiction be without those 17th century theological conundrums? The underlying issue in Clarke’s story is strong regardless of whether you are a Christian or not. I am not, I had already turned my back on Christianity before I first read Clarke’s story, but I found the issues it explores resonated with me very powerfully. They still do, I’ve re-read the story many times since then and it still has exactly the same effect.

    Paul Kincaid

    25 February 2010 at 15:04

  17. What Paul Kincaid said.

    John Kessel

    25 February 2010 at 16:00

  18. I kind of want to blame either Benford or Baxter, but I’m not really sure.

    There’s plenty of FTL in the Xeelee sequence (just not usually available to humans).

    On “The Star”, I agree with Martin that the theological conundrum at the heart of the story is only really a conundrum if you’re a Christian. On the other hand, plenty of people are Christians, so it seems perfectly reasonable to write a story exploring said conundrum. On the third hand, plenty of people are not Christians, and this is obviously not an entirely, possibly not even predominantly, Christian future, which makes the narrator’s fears about the potential impact of the conundrum on society at large feel a bit overblown. But my point is: the story hangs not on whether or not the idea is interesting, but on whether or not the character is convincing; and I think he is. He may indeed be “a crap Christian”, he may have too completely and arguably too easily succumbed to doubt, but (at least while reading the story) I believe that the conundrum is really a conundrum to him.

    (Actually, I just like to say conundrum.)

    (For anyone who wants to refresh their memory of the story, the text is here.)

    Niall

    25 February 2010 at 18:56

  19. I’m not really interested in ‘Christianity’ (too vague a signifier, really, but let it stand) from a metaphysical point of view. But even as a hardline atheist I’m interested in it from a socio-cultural point of view, because in that sense it continues to shape our lives.

    So, two points. One is that ‘religion’ makes much more sense as social praxis than as a metaphysical belief system (my wife doesn’t go to synagogue every Saturday for theological transcendence; she goes for reasons of identity and community, the latter especially). Two is that science fiction is a product of a ‘Christian’ cultural dominant. Not that fans of SF necessarily self-identify as Christian; as far as that goes, some will and some won’t (and perhaps the proportion will be weighted more highly towards the latter in SF than in some other cultures). But that it’s culturally Christian, or more precisely, culturally marked by a specific set of religiously contested discourses. It’s why SF texts keep returning and returning to the status of messiahs and superheroes; to narratives of salvation and atonement, to the exploration of other worlds than earth, to questions of free will and to a materialisation of transcendence (what we call ‘sense of wonder’). Just on the atonement issue, the reason (plucking an example at random) The Dark Knight is a story about a superhero taking on the sins of the city in order to save the city has nothing to do with the specific religious beliefs of the screenwriter, or director, or fanbase. It’s shaped, rather, by the discursive tradition in which it takes its place, and the roots of this in turn go back to a specific time and place and conceptual war, the Reformation.

    This is the reason why SF has been such a big deal, culturally speaking, in Europe (inc. Russia) and North America; and why it has been such a relatively trivial part of the culture in Africa and East Asia. (Japan’s an interesting anomaly in this regard, although I’d say Japanese fascination with SF is a function of the postwar Americanization of the country).

    Adam Roberts

    25 February 2010 at 21:02

  20. David: re FTL being “non grata” in hard sf: around the time Reynolds’s Revelation Space came out (1999/2000), I remember him giving a bunch of interviews saying that, as a professional astronomer, he couldn’t countenance having it, or equivalent quasi-magic, in his stories. Of course, here I verge onto the mundane sf debate, and verge off again, quick.

    Graham Sleight

    25 February 2010 at 22:12

  21. Graham: I’m sure I did say that, but I’d probably phrase it differently now (especially given the amount of bendy science that did eventually creep into the RS universe) – more, why not, and see what happens? Clarke, Benford, Lem, Haldeman, Niven and many other writers were there first, though, so I take no credit for it.

    This is a great discussion, by the way.

    Al Reynolds

    25 February 2010 at 23:31

  22. Al: fair enough. “Bendy science” is a useful term…

    Graham Sleight

    26 February 2010 at 06:58

  23. It does make me think that we should be rating stories on a Mohs scale, rather than sorting them as hard or not.

    Niall

    26 February 2010 at 09:21

  24. No, no, first we have to decide whether it’s more appropriate to measure scratch, indentation or rebound hardness, then pick a scale. That should keep us occupied for a good twenty years…

    David Moles

    26 February 2010 at 10:28

  25. Oh indentation hardness surely.

    But Niall, you will see I’ve already been grading out of five for hardness so I guess my asterisks equate thus:

    * Gypsum
    ** Fluorite
    *** Orthoclase Feldspar
    **** Topaz
    ***** Diamond

    Martin

    26 February 2010 at 11:18

  26. This is a very interesting discussion. I find the ‘Bethlehem’ punch line rather trite and unnecessary. The important issues are the problem of suffering – that is the best part of the story but not really SF-specific – and the problem of the unredeemed, which to my mind is the crucial issue of Christian theology. To believe in salvation you must believe in the unsaved, and what does that mean. In my opinion he should have left it at that – it’s a deep enough issue, and one which is well illuminated by the SF context, because these aliens were not only slaughtered for our redemption, but slaughtered with no hope of their own redemption: galactic trash.

    Alison P

    26 February 2010 at 12:08

  27. [...] Martin Lewis considers the evolution of epic fantasy. His latest project is reading The Ascent of Wonder; interesting discussion about Clarke’s “The Star” here. [...]

  28. The Bethlehem punchline cannot be dismissed; the main character himself says this is the one aspect of the situation that has brought him to a crisis of faith. It serves a few purposes: First, it presents a point of reference for readers familiar with the New Testament. Second, it personalizes the issue for the main character. Third, it clarifies the theological issue: God didn’t just allow the destruction of this admirable species, but rather, God destroyed it intentionally and actively.

    But what does this superbly crafted story do to deepen our struggle with the problem of evil? “Not all that much” is the honest answer.

    Rbarry

    1 July 2010 at 09:02

  29. I don’t know that the charges against Clarke’s ending to “The Star” are warranted. (I would, for example, driect readers to much of the 19th century literature still studied seriously in universities today.) It seems that Clarke is interested in the thought experiment: “What if God intentionally destroyed a civilization to give a sign to another of his ostensibly universal redemption plan?” Of course, not all thought experiments appeal to all people. I understand why this experiment might not appeal to some. One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact, however, that Clarke, whatever his intentions were when he wrote the story, provides a sympathetic account of the faithful confronted with troubling facts about their own beliefs–something many can relate to on some level regardless of religious disposition.

    MDE

    13 December 2010 at 18:45

  30. [...] Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke ‘Proof’ by Hal Clement ‘It’s Great To Be Back’ by Robert A. Heinlein [...]

  31. [...] The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes? – in which I take issue with the Nebulas. 2) ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke – in which I dislike a short story. 3) 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Statistics: The State Of [...]

    Three « Everything Is Nice

    27 October 2011 at 16:07

  32. The best part about that short story is that it is a very real possibility. As far as the Bible tells us the star of Bethlehem shone in the sky for a few days and outshone everything else. Those are exactly the characteristics of a supernova. Why could it not have been that? And your statement that the character’s reactions aren’t believable is interesting. If a christian was presented with that data and there was only room for one logical conclusion how else would they react? It makes sense to question why God’s reasoning.

    Wade

    27 February 2012 at 21:47

  33. Well, I’m late to the party.

    A supernova precursor of the sort implied by this story would be massive and short lived. Really short lived. For there to be natives able to die in a way that challenges the narrator’s faith, the place would to have gone from single celled organisms to tool users in tens of millions of years. That smacks of Intervention, for the sole purpose of incinerating the results.

    James Nicoll

    4 October 2012 at 05:03

  34. […] discus the exhaustion of science fiction. 8) What I Want, Exactly – Talking awards. Again. 9) ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke – Perennially popular discussion of a story I didn’t like. (Down seven places from last […]

    Five | Everything Is Nice

    28 September 2013 at 12:47

  35. I have just read The Star. There is no astronomical object know that would move and then stand still over Bethlehem. The star of Bethlehem has therefore to be placed into the realm of myth. The Star is nevertheless a highly philosophical and religious piece of literature and executed in typical Clarke style.

    Rasputin

    21 April 2014 at 07:58


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