Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #25 of 107: “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke
“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke appeared in the very first issue of Infinity Science Fiction in November 1955 and got top billing on the cover. Was Clarke famous in 1955? “The Star” won a Hugo for him in 1956, so did that make him famous? Clarke was quite prolific at writing short stories and getting them published in a wide variety of science fiction magazines since 1946. So when did Arthur C. Clarke become famous as a top science fiction writer? By 1955 he was known for “Nine Billion Names of God,” Against the Fall of Night, Childhood’s End, and for the nonfiction book, The Exploration of Space, which Wikipedia claims Wernher von Braun gave to John F. Kennedy to promote the idea of space exploration. I ponder all this because I recently read a query on Facebook asking when Clarke became famous enough to be considered integral to the Big Three of science fiction writers. (Although, a more interesting question might be: Who are the top three writers of science fiction in 2021? I could not even begin to answer that.)
I discovered Clarke in 1963 when I read Dolphin Island, first published that year. I then discovered Islands in the Sky (1953) around 1965. In March of 1967 I argued with my best friend over who was the greatest science fiction writer, me claiming Heinlein, but Connell claiming Clarke. So by the mid-1960s I knew who he was, but only vaguely. I believe I had also read The Exploration of Space by then. Still, I was only slightly familiar with Clarke, but Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were already the Big Three of science fiction. I accepted that because it seemed so.
But when did Clarke become famous? When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out that seem to make him well known. In July 1969 he was interviewed on live television during the Apollo 11 moon launch and landing as if everyone knew him, not just SF fans. But when did he become a legendary science fiction writer to science fiction fans? Clarke was the Guest of Honor at the Worldcon in 1956, the year after Asimov. Heinlein was Guest of Honor in 1941, just two years after he began publishing, and again in 1961, 1976.
I bring all this up because I wonder if the success of stories is related to the success of their authors? How long does it take for a great story to be recognized as a classic? Members of the Worldcon voted “The Star” the best short story the year after it came out, but T. E. Dikty didn’t select it for his best of the year annual. Dikty did pick “The Game of Rat and Dragon” that competed with “The Star” for the Hugo.
Looking at the story’s ISFDB entry, we can see it’s been reprinted quite often. However, that ball didn’t start rolling until 1962 when “The Star” was included in The Hugo Winners edited by Isaac Asimov and A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight. Those two anthologies were often reprinted, and were selections for the SFBC. That spread the word far and wide. Plus “The Star” was included in Clarke’s third collection, The Other Side of the Sky that went through many editions. The list of reprints at ISFDB is quite long, and so is the list of languages its been translated into.
I’m surprised that the VanderMeers included “The Star” in The Big Book of Science Fiction, since they often seem to avoid the widely reprinted classics. I would have expected them to find a less famous Clarke to promote. They didn’t include a story by Heinlein because they couldn’t get the rights — and that omission really sticks out. The Asimov they picked was Asimov’s favorite I believe, but not mine. Both “The Star” and “The Last Question” are excellent stories, but not evidence that Clarke and Asimov were once part of a Big Three. Are there three stories that would stand as evidence?
When I go to bookstores I often check to see how many books are available by Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. Where once each of their titles would fill a shelf or two, they now take up inches with a few titles. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov are hardly the big three today. Will “The Star” survive if Clarke’s reputation doesn’t?
The story is rather slight, and can be read in 5-15 minutes, and I believe most people remember it because of its trick ending. Just to remind folks, I’m not reviewing stories, but discussing them, so I will spoil that surprise ending.
It’s rather interesting that Clarke’s two most famous short stories confirm the existence of God, and his two most famous novels, suggest that mankind will be resurrected into a higher state of being. That’s rather interesting since I believe Clarke was an atheist. Was he just going for a surprise ending, or was he making a philosophical statement. Maybe we should look closer at those two short stories.
In “Nine Billion Names of God,” the almighty dissolves the universe after Buddhist monks compile a list of all his possible names. In “The Star” God destroys a planet of advanced beings just to signal to our planet that his son had arrived. Was Clarke wanting his readers to consider that God is not nice? Or the ways of God are not fathomable by us? James Blish in A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow also use science fiction to question the nature of God.
In my opinion, Clarke was going for the cheap gasp. In both stories, he setup the story nicely. In “The Star” he does some astronomical infodumping, and covers a couple classic science fiction themes, one of which is a favorite of mine. I love stories about exploring the remains of extinct alien civilizations. Clarke even throws in a nice Jesuit character that I was getting to like. Then WHAM – the surprise.
When I reread these stories, and I do reread them because I have a personal rule to reread stories when I encounter them again in another anthology, I know what’s coming so I try to look for interesting bits along the way to the ending. This time I liked the Jesuit, and that he has a copy of Ruben’s engraving of Loyola in his cabin.
On the other hand, is this enough to keep reprinting “The Star?” If science fiction is mostly neat ideas and surprise endings is that enough for us to keep reading it. Shouldn’t we want more? What did Clarke give the science fiction world to make him famous?
I fear most science fiction has little lasting value. That’s why we see all its themes recycled for each new generation reclothed in current fashions. I wonder if “The Star” survives because no later generation has come up with this same trick ending?
If I was anthologizing SF stories from the 20th century and wanted to include an Arthur C. Clarke story, I’d use “Rescue Party.” I’ve read that Clarke was annoyed by the number of people who told him their favorite story of his was “Rescue Party” because it meant his career had been going down since his first professional sale. “The Star” is much better written, but if we’re going for unique ideas, “Rescue Party” has more. A race of aliens come upon the Earth but there’s no sign of humanity. The aliens poke about our remains wondering who we were. This is the inverse of the theme I like so much. A very nice twist. We have abandoned the solar system like the beings of “The Star” should have. Near the end of the story, the aliens discover we’d left monitoring equipment to record the end of our world, and followed the direction in which it was beaming data. The story ends with them going off to find us.
The science fiction theme that humanity must leave the Earth and solar system to survive is a strong one. It’s part of the drive behind Elon Musk’s effort to colonize Mars. It promotes the belief that no matter what God or Nature throws at us, we will hang on. That’s a much more powerful message for Clarke to leave his readers.
To answer my original query I’m guessing Clarke became famous when a certain percentage of science fiction readers thought his ideas and stories were among the best. I’m guessing that happened between Childhood’s End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956), maybe as late as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and definitely by Rendezvous with Rama (1973).
I found this quote in I, Asimov: A Memoir where Isaac Asimov claims Clarke was famous by 1949. But I find that hard to believe, because that was before any of his famous stories.
There was no question that by 1949 I was widely recognized as a major science fiction writer. Some felt I had joined Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt as the three-legged stool on which science fiction now rested. As it happened, A. E. van Vogt virtually ceased writing in 1950, perhaps because he grew increasingly interested in Hubbard’s dianetics. In 1946, however, a British writer, Arthur C. Clarke, began to write for ASF, and he, like Heinlein and van Vogt (but unlike me), was an instant hit. By 1949, the first whisper of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov as “the Big Three” began to be heard. This kept up for some forty years, for we all stayed alive for decades and all remained in the science fiction field. In the end, we all three commanded large advances and found our books on the best-seller lists. (Who would have thought it in the 1940s?) I, Asimov (pp. 140-141). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
James Wallace Harris, 10/4/21