Some science fiction -- for example, Star Wars or Star Trek -- is really not much different than any other action- adventure story and does not really require the reader or viewer to think very deeply. However, Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" forces the reader to confront one of the most important issues of our day, the conflict between science and religion. The reader may enjoy both the clever surprise ending of the story and skillful use of imagery to emphasize the serious theme of the story, but what really makes the story worthwhile is the portrayal of the priest-narrator's struggle to reconcile the very different scientific and religious interpretations of the Star of Bethlehem story.
That's right! The mysterious Phoenix Nebula that the crew of the spaceship has been studying turns out to be the remains of a supernova which was visible on Earth about two thousand years ago and which found its way into the Bible as the Star of Bethlehem. For readers who value surprise endings, the story is a success. It is not until literally the last word of the story that Clarke reveals that the space scientists have been visiting the remains of the same star that attracted the three Magi to Bethlehem:There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there are so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem? (307)That's the kind of surprise ending most readers look for and enjoy in science fiction short stories.
In addition to that startling surprise ending, readers can also enjoy the clever use of imagery to emphasize the main issue in the story, that is, the conflict between science and religion. In the first paragraph of the story, for example, we see a crucifix -- a small cross with the body of Jesus on it -- mounted on the wall just above the Mark VI Computer. (303) A few paragraphs later we learn that there is a reproduction of Peter Paul Rubens' famous portrait of Ignatius Loyola -- the founder of the order of priests to which the narrator belongs and which is known today as the Jesuits -- mounted just "above the spectrophotometer tracings." (304) The cross versus the computer and Father Loyola versus printouts from some sort of scientific instrument -- what better selction of images could be chosen by a literary artist like Arthur C. Clarke to emphasize the contrast between the values of religion and the values of science?
What really gives serious value to "The Star," however, is Clarke's portrayal of the narrator's internal struggle to reconcile the contradiction between his original view of the Star of Bethlehem as a hopeful symbol and his new view of what that star meant. Before his journey to the Phoenix Nebula, the priest clearly "believed that the heavens declared the glory of God's handiwork," (303) but now he has learned that the supernova seen as the star of Bethlehem wiped out a whole civilization when it exploded. Before his journey he could visualize the star as "a beacon in that oriental dawn," (307) that is, as a symbol of hopefulness and of new life. Now that he has learned the scientific truth, he no longer can see the star as a positive symbol and when he looks at his crucifix now, he is afraid that now "it is no more than an empty symbol." (303) "How," he asks, "could [the destruction of a whole civilization] be reconciled with the mercy of God?" (307) Science has taken this man of God to "the point when even the deepest faith must falter." (307)
At the end of the story, it seems that the clever little sci-fi story with its skillful use of imagery and its surprising revelation about the Star of Bethlehem is forcing us to think about the way that our scientific knowledge about astronomy sometimes makes it hard for us to see a divine plan in nature. Athur C. Clarke's priest-narrator has become a symbol for all modern people who have ever had to struggle with the conflict between science and religion.