Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Curious Case of Christmas Censorship?

I recently finished reading science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star". I read it in The Other Side of the Sky, though it may appear in other collections as well. The tale is well-written, thought-provoking and short (always a virtue!). The main character is a Jesuit astrophysicist living in the 27th century, returning from an expedition to outer space, where he recently studied the remains of a supernova. The story has a vaguely holiday theme, though not warm or fuzzy or in the way you'd expect. For anyone with a modicum of interest in sci-fi literature, I'd recommend it.

Curiously, the copy of The Other Side of the Sky which I checked out from the Texas A&M library had sustained unusual damage: the entirety of "The Star" had been cut out of the book. Where the original pages would have been, were photocopy replacements which the library staff had carefully grafted onto the book. No other pages were missing or damaged. Why would someone remove "The Star" from a university library?


If you have read the short story, or you're electing to forgo the joy of an untainted first reading, continue on.

While studying the remnants of this supernova, our protagonist encounters a Vault left by a now-extinct civilization. Realizing their star was going to explode into a supernova, these humanoids built a massive repository of information about themselves, for later explorers to find, before they were obliterated. This alone is tragic, but not new to the Jesuit, who has seen other extinct civilizations in distant space. Rather, the stunning conclusion is his realization of the precise timing and nature of the this star's destruction:
I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shown in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in the oriental dawn. There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, 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?

Did our mysterious book trimmer steal a copy of the story because it was so fascinating? Perhaps, though this seems unlikely, given that the other two dozen stories were left intact; were none of them worth stealing? No, my theory is that someone removed the story because they thought it blasphemous.

This strikes me as a curious misunderstanding, both of the story and of the science fiction genre. Clarke is not actually arguing that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova which destroyed an innocent alien civilization. Rather, he is asking what if evidence were discovered that this was the case? Would this constitute proof that God is not love? Or could such a thing be reconciled with the Christian faith? (If not, we would have to declare it heresy, though "astroclarkeianism" is a rather awkward term.)

So far as I can tell, this speculative quality is at the heart of the sci-fi genre. Sci-fi proposes situations which - under present conditions - are impossible, and then uses these situations to gain unique perspective on enduring questions about man, his nature and his place in the cosmos. Clarke's question in "The Star" is a subset of the "can scientific discovery radically shake theology?" question, which C. S. Lewis also considered in his essay, "Will We Lose God in Outer Space?" While Clarke is suggesting that such a discovery is a possibility, this short story neither argues that such as discovery has been made, nor that it necessarily will be. Is posing the question such a crime?

Oddly, in the mind of our book vandal, I suspect it was. Indeed, I wonder if he did not pull the book off the shelf precisely because someone told him it contained this blasphemous story (which he may not have even read). Why do I suspect this? Because, while I have not yet read any other works by Arthur C. Clarke, I would be surprised if he manifests a dramatically different world-view in other writings. Would a Clarke fan really get through a few hundred pages, only to suddenly be offended by this work? Perhaps. Perhaps Clarke alluded to similar questions in earlier stories, but in a way that an unalert reader missed. Perhaps Clarke is most explicit in this story about his religious doubts. Still, I worry there's an overzealous pastor out there who needs to read a little more sci-fi and encourage a little less censorship.
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