Welcome back to SF Short Works second installment. This week we’ll be hitting the second Hugo award for best short story and several other stories from SF’s 20th century. Enjoy!
* * *
Title: The Star
Author: Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)
First Published: Nov 1955
Publication: Infinity Science Fiction
Award: Hugo, 1956
This week’s post begins with the second Hugo winner for best Short Story, and a question: how to write about one of the greatest SF short stories ever written? With care. The story is very short, and it builds to the mother of all twist endings. We join a Jesuit priest on the return leg of an interstellar mission of exploration. From the opening sentences, we come to understand that his faith has been severely shaken by events witnessed on the mission. And with that, I am immediately hooked. Jesuits seem to be the intellectual and cultural ‘go-to’ sect in Christianity and Clarke throws some of that reality into the mix when he describes:
The Reubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs above the spectrophotometer tracings.
St. Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuits, and in one tossed off sentence, Clarke juxtaposes the artwork’s historical moment with a real astrophysics instrument in a way that feels uncanny. It’s another version of Heinlein’s ‘the door dilated’ which is the ultimate example of the SF throwaway sentence which can evoke an entire setting.
The crew have recently explored a solar system long since destroyed by a massive supernova. The civilization that once existed was eradicated save for a large cultural vault created on a world on the outer limits of the system (think their version of Pluto). This vault contains a large cache of artifacts – a survey of their entire culture – and as the crew returns to earth, they begin to get to know these strange humanoids who were nearly erased from galactic history.
Clarke is one of the genre’s better prose stylists, with a clear, relaxed yet forward tilting rhythm. At his least he can be a bit dry, but at his best, as he is here, his clarity and pacing serve the story well, slowly building with a stately tension until the final sentence, when he delivers his coup de grâce. I am a big fan of SF tropes driving and defining the story, and it is done here to masterly effect. The genius of The Star is that it builds to one last sentence which alters how we perceive a well-known mythological event, skewing our perceptions to allow for new considerations. If you even have a passing interest in SF, you need to read The Star.