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Warning: Heavy Spoilers. Read the story’s few pages first:
First sentence: “It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican.”
Synopsis: A Jesuit is on board of a spaceship in the role of chief astronomer some 500 years in the future, examining a white dwarf at the center of a supernova. They find one outer planet where a civilization deposited a mausoleum of their achievements to be found by whoever comes along.
The civilization has been whiped away by the supernova. This caused the faith crisis of the Jesuit, because he dated back the time of the supernova to be exactly the Star of Bethlehem. Why would God have caused the extinguishing of a whole planet full of intelligent aliens just to show off the birthsite of his son?
Oh God, there were 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?
Review: Is it blasphemous to rate this highly praised story with “only” three stars?
Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favorite Golden Age authors. While being an atheist, he wrote multiple times about religious questions with his stories, and I found The Nine Billion Names of God remarkable.
Religious SF is a never ending trope of SF, and there are very many examples for it, including James Blish’s “A Case of Conscience”, Silverberg’s anthology “The Day the Sun Stood Still”, or in more contemporary days several stories of Ted Chiang, e.g. Hell is the Absence of God, or Tower of Babylon.
I love those Jesuits in space, because they always mix science and religion, providing an interesting point of view. Blish’s Case of Conscience is a remarkable older work, Russel’s The Sparrow is a newer sample of this, and I have a review of Simmon’s Hyperion on this blog. A full treatise has been written for the “Jesuit studies”, and is accessible here.
Why didn’t this story convince me like it did so many others? First of all, the core of the story is a very old question of theology, namely theodicy. The biblical Book of Job is most often used as a reference for this question reaching back thousands of years and plaguing the faith of numerous beliefers: Why does God allow evil in the world? A discussion here would fall short and shy away readers.
Whereas theodicy can be taken personally – when a relative has died – or on a more global level – when a nation suffers – Clarke raised this topic to an extrapolated dimension: A complete planet full of sentient aliens vanishes just for a showoff, clearly caused by God himself.
Here is the thing: The story doesn’t bring anything new to the old topic beyond the spectacular construction. Yes, Clarke knows as a great storyteller how to deliver a punch at the end of his story. But that punch didn’t touch me at all, because
- I’ve found my answers to theodicy before (so the question isn’t new),
- Clarke doesn’t provide any further discussion beyond the fact that the Jesuit questions his faith, and
- the arrangement is heavily constructed
Is it plausible that a intelligent species will show off bathing children at the end of times? Consider that it takes billions of years for a star to reach the state about to explode in a supernova. This transformation alone takes millions of years, and any civilization will have an enormous amount of time to prepare. What state will this civilation be in? Even when no interstellar propulsion and expansion will have been found, it will be absolutely old. Like a billion years old, in the unprobable case that it didn’t crash before reaching that age. My vision for such a civilization is very different than those of bathing children – with post-human and post-singularity, there are subgenres of SF treating this. There would be transcended people maybe in Dyson-Spheres, or genetically engineered people beyond recognition floating through space.
That’s my understanding of my time, and Clarke didn’t have those tools around in 1955, when he still thought of local computers using magnetic tapes. When read within its own context, disregarding our modern understanding, the story works far better. It all depends on the mood consuming this story.
Recommended for readers of Golden Age SF looking for a religion/science crossover.