Young People Read Old SFF

The Star

Arthur C. Clarke

Young People Read Old SFF

28 Feb, 2021

First up to bat in Young People Read Old Hugo Finalists, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955The Star”. Clarke (16 December 191719 March 2008), born in England and later emigrated to Sri Lanka, was in his day one of the big names of science fiction, active as a science fiction writer, science writer, futurist, and television personality. His light has dimmed somewhat in recent decades thanks to declining output, regrettable share-cropped novels, and persistent disquieting rumours about his personal life1. Nevertheless, he amassed an impressive body of work over the course of his career, of which“The Star” is arguably one of the most famous. Frequently anthologized, and adapted to television and radio, it tells a classic story about an explorer who, though hard work and perseverance, makes a discovery he’d have been much happier not making. How has this venerable tale aged? Let’s find out! 

1: Unless my Young People are quicker with google than they traditionally have been, they’re probably only learning about the rumours as they read this. In other words, I don’t think this is a factor in their reviews. 


This is definitely one of those the last line changes everything” sorts of stories, because I spent the first part of the story alternating between this is very lyrical prose” and Okay, I *get it*, something happened that broke your faith.” Had it just been that the star destroyed the whole world, I wouldn’t have bought it as thing that shakes your faith;” Earth has enough natural disasters that you have to be able to hold your faith through them to stay religious at all. But I can date this star to Bethlehem” makes a bit more sense because of the deliberate choice implication… but it’s still kind of on that spectrum of Why does a benevolent God do these things?” and so it’s interesting to think about What, exactly, is the point where you’re pushed over the edge in terms of thinking the world is too cruel to have a controlling power?” Overall, I think this holds up well; the prose is quite pretty and the questions it’s asking about faith and at what point you stop having faith are still very relevant in this era in which a lot of people are drifting away from religion.

I *am* wondering if Clarke had a fixation with exploding suns or if I’ve just coincidentally gotten the two with this theme. (The other Clarke I’ve read being *The Songs of Distant Earth*.) Given the number of bomb metaphors describing the stars I’m picturing all of this as a way of talking about A‑bombs. Which sadly is *very much* still relevant today. The world-destroying things we’re afraid of are not the same– the current ones are a bit more diffuse– but that underlying sense of the world is always on the edge of destruction” and the resulting questions about what the point even is are very much still with us, which may be why it still feels so relevant today.


The Star” is a story I have actually read numerous times before, because it is so often collected and praised that it just comes up a lot. However it never really works for me.The essential problem I have is that it feels to me less like a piece of fiction and more like Clarke wanting to grind his own moral axe in the clumsiest manner possible. The idea of someone losing their religion can be an interesting concept. For example, The Book of Strange New Things does this very elegantly in science fiction context. But it is done by setting up a ridiculously contrived scenario:

1. If Supernovas explode and are an act of God


2. One wiped out a civilization that was generally good


3. That was done in order to be the star in the Nativity story

Then therefore,

4. God would be cruel and there is no meaning in the universe. 

You might just as well say:

1. If the Earth was once a giant chicken egg


2. When the chicken died its soul was distributed into all other eggs.


3. That continues to this day

Then therefore

4. It is immoral not to be vegan.

If there is some point you can try to get it down to, it would seem to be if God is good why does he allow terrible things to happen”. Something that is a basically pillar of theological discussion for millennia and there are hundreds of responses developed for it. There is even a Futurama episode that develops a better response to it.

It is a very short story so there is not much more to say outside of the situation. There is only one character, who doesn’t have a personality except to be Clarke’s straw-man. The style does have a good melancholic feel but it is also quite dense at times and I found myself drifting away and rereading some passages.

I am perhaps not the audience for it, I am generally not a fan of Clarke’s work and also I am religious. And clearly appeals to a large group of fans but leaves me hollow.


I had a difficult time connecting with this story. Maybe it’s because I’m not religious, but while the narrator’s struggle with faith is an interesting way to structure the story, I had difficulty actually getting invested in his struggle. And I also couldn’t help but wonder why this particular natural disaster was his breaking point, rather than any one that happened in Earth’s history. If it was just because of the date of the destruction, and not the deaths themselves, I have a difficult time having sympathy for that viewpoint.

Considering it’s a story about the narrator losing faith in his religious beliefs, it doesn’t seem particularly friendly to non-religious people. They seem to exist only to be condescending about his scientific achievements and argue about his beliefs. I’m frustrated by the assumption that there must be this conflict, and that apparently everyone on the ship would be involved.

There is barely any characterization for anyone in this story, but what there is irritates me. This feels more like a monologuing thought experiment than an actual story.


This is interesting as I wondered if I didn’t connect with it as I was religious. I think it does point more towards the tale not aging well.

From my understanding the reasons this one are meant to push him over the edge were that this was meant to be the star of Bethlehem” and also that there is no sign these people were wicked so why would God punish them?

The flaw with that second point is the narrator is a Jesuit and, to the best of my knowledge, the Catholic position is not that natural disasters are punishment from God (this is predominantly an Evangelical Protestant position) rather that God’s purpose is unknowable and people’s faith is tested within it.


That’s interesting, that we both assumed that the story didn’t work for us for completely opposite reasons. You’re probably right that it indicates the story didn’t age well.I might have been unclear, but the star of Bethlehem link is what I meant when I mentioned the date. I have a difficult time with the idea that the reason this is the event that tested his faith is because it is connected to an event that has meaning to him, and that he’s idealizing the people who were killed. It feels dismissive of other victims of natural disasters, because they weren’t personally important to him, or he knew enough to decide why they somehow deserved it. That was probably not the intent, but that’s how it felt to me.


Meanwhile I, in my email-submitted review, essentially went Oh, he’s talking about A‑bombs; those were really prominent then and fear of the destruction of the world still is! This holds up pretty well!” It’s interesting how we all had such different reactions to it. 


I’m glad we have a variety of opinions!