Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” opens with the line, “It is three thousand light years to the Vatican”, which immediately pulls the reader in by meshing a pair of opposing subjects, astrophysics and religion, in a compelling way. This juxtaposition continues to carry the entire plot. Also, the beginning says a lot about the narrator immediately, as the Vatican is the first landmark on earth that comes to his mind.
So in theory, many components of this plot would be stereotypical for sci-fi: a team of scientists from earth travel through space and discover new worlds. However, what sets it apart is the narrator: basically a Jesuit priest on a spaceship. As you can imagine, that causes lots of internal conflict as he grapples with the way that the science in front of him contradicts Christianity, which was previously all he’d known. At some point we have all had to compare and contrast the two, and this common debate is portrayed here in a surreal and speculative way.
The first few passages mainly exist to show the dual nature of the narrator’s alliances. Again, it is established that he is grappling with this problem when he refers to the crucifix on his wall as an “empty symbol”, questioning his faith for the first time in his life. Obviously the crucifix is a symbol, but so is the Mark IV computer that it hangs above. They represent religion and science laid side by side in the narrator’s mind. Additionally, the other scientists are amused by his circumstances.
Another way Clarke makes the story more memorable is through imagery. One really powerful example is,
Even if the pylon above the Vault had been destroyed, this would have remained, an immovable and all-but eternal beacon calling to the stars.
This passage shows how the universe operates on a much smaller scale than we imagine, and the narrator’s discovery that the trivial events that consume our lives are practically insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Something else that’s pretty important is the description of the children playing on a blue beach in another galaxy before that planet was destroyed. It humanizes them so we understand that we are just as vulnerable to the volatile whims of the universe.
The narrative structure of the piece helps convey the theme. The priest varies whom he is talking to throughout the story. Sometimes it seems like he is thinking to himself, sometimes he addresses an unnamed “you”, other times St. Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits), and finally he directly addresses God. This shows the escalation of his train of thought, which culminates in a direct statement of the theme:
Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.
Some people will disagree with this message obviously but that’s okay.
Also, if you didn’t catch the meaning of the last line: the star of Bethlehem was actually the Phoenix Nebula they’d been studying. So the “star” that accompanied the advent of Christ, a symbol of new life, turned out to have destroyed a planet with civilizations in their prime. The irony of this situation is what closes the story.
I think something we can all take away from this piece is the way the author uses imagery. He chooses which phrases will resonate with the reader and only uses those, which is important for any writer to learn how to do. Also, I like how he was able to come up with a situation that literally sounds like a joke and take the plot to interesting and poignant places.