Arthur C. Clarke’s THE STAR: consilience is the phoenix

The next story on Rob Weber’s series of reviews is Arthur C. Clarke’s THE STAR. Weber’s review can be found here.

This story is an interesting counterweight to Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God“. In the latter story religion wins out over science, in this one science wins out over religion.

Yet THE STAR seems the “deeper” story. There is a difference in motivation. In “The Nine Billion Names of God” the scientists are cynical and the Tibetan monks seem naive. Here there are superficial scientists questioning naive superstitious faith, but the narrator is more complex than they think. He points out that the “incongruity” of his position is only “apparent”:

“It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers”.

The narrator’s motivation, both religious and scientific, is deep. “The Nine Billion Names of God” incarnates the conflict between the Two Cultures in separate individuals, whereas in “The Star” the narrator incarnates both sides of the divide, and lives out their conflict as an inner struggle.

THE STAR combines a speculative element, the cold equations, and a religious element, the problem of evil or suffering. But is it really a pessimistic story, as the despairing tone may suggest? We are all mortal, civilisations included. But we must not forget the wonder and beauty of the alien civilisation, its “loveliness” and “innocent happiness”, and the glory of interstellar travel.

The wonder, the beauty, and the glory are all real, and the cruel coincidence of the timing of the star’s explosion poses a problem only for the Christian theodicy. Yet with the failure of theodicy and the abandonment of faith something is lost.

The question posed is that of the relation between science and religion. Is it necessarily one of conflict? The conflict thesis is not borne out by the history of science, much of the original motivation for science had religious roots. Is another form of religion both more compatible with science and more desirable? This solution is suggested by Dr. Chandler in the story:

“Well, Father,” he would say at last, “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world—that just beats me.”

This secularised religion has no problem of suffering to resolve, as the hypothetical Great Something has no special interest in humanity, but with it there comes a loss of soul, the flattening of affect and the triumph of a quantitative approach to the world.

The “conflict thesis” seems to apply now to the science side of the divide, where formerly the Church (i.e. not “religion” but a political institution) imposed its hegemony by all the means at its disposal. In the spaceship the conflict continues, seemingly as just ideological struggle:

The crew were already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me—that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious war which lasted all the way from Earth.

But this is also a struggle for the meaning of life and the basis of our civilisation. Dogmatic faith versus nihilistic science. The alien cvilisation seems to symbolise a third alternative, a depth based on knowledge that is perhaps still beyond us:

“Everything that they wished to preserve, all the fruits of their genius, they brought here to this distant world in the days before the end, hoping that some other race would find it and that they would not be utterly forgotten. Would we have done as well, or would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?”

Faced with an extinction event secular nihilism would have no meaning to protect it from misery. The aliens surpass us in their optimism, in their faith that preserving and sharing their genius, in the full sense of that word, is a worthwhile endeavour. They did not give in to depression, as the ship’s crew has, and the narrator more so.

The narrator finds the name of the Phoenix Nebula inappropriate:

I do not know who gave the nebula its name, which seems to me a very bad one. If it contains a prophecy, it is one that cannot be verified for several billion years. Even the word “nebula” is misleading; this is a far smaller object than those stupendous clouds of mist—the stuff of unborn stars—that are scattered throughout the length of the Milky Way. On the cosmic scale, indeed, the Phoenix Nebula is a tiny thing—a tenuous shell of gas surrounding a single star.

But here his vision is uniquely quantitative, assigning any finite object, however vast, to cosmic insignificance. The name is also ironic and depressing, localising the site of the death of a civilisation and of the death of faith.

One wants to say here that the “hero” has been transformed by his voyage, but that the transformation is incomplete. He claims to return with nothing but the sad “burden of knowledge”. He has gone further than the founder of his order, Ignatius of Loyola, could have imagined and discovered an insurmountable challenge to his faith. He set out with certainties and faith, he returns with questions and doubt.

However, he does not come back as empty-handed as he thinks, with a knowledge that serves to defeat all idea of a divine plan or of divine justice. He comes back enriched with visions of loveliness and knowledge of a people who, even if they did not solve the physical problem of survival, solved the moral problem of avoiding despair, and shared it with us.

The optimism in the story is not, as yet, available to the narrator. It comes from the gap between the implied author’s vision and that of his narrator. We know that Clarke was an atheist, and nonetheless an optimist, so the narrator’s point of view is not the final word on the conflict between science and faith and their possible reconciliation. The narrator has glimpses of this, but only at an emotional level, where it is mixed with despair. Like the other crew members, he has only partial knowledge, he remains a divided soul.

Perhaps he will learn to reconcile the fragments in a vaster synthesis, no longer of conflict but consilience.

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