The story is the account of a Jesuit priest and scientist on the way back from a scientific investigation of a solar system that went nova some time in the distant past. What he finds there shakes his belief in god to the very core.
Pretty much all of the work I have read by Clarke (a dozen novels) has a distinct optimistic quality to it. This story does not. It pretty much radiated despair. The main character wants to cling to his belief but in the end has to settle for a truthful account of his findings. One might say the scientist overrules the priest here. While science and technology is often equated with progress in Clarke's stories, in The Star it breaks something in the main character.
Clarke himself had an interesting relationship with religion. He appears to have been fascinated by the concept of god - just look at the titles of some of his stories - but was also clearly an atheist. This story reminded me of a quote from Clarke's novel, The Fountain of Paradise (1979) in which an alien entity comments on the idea of god as follows:
The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason. If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must be of an higher degree of organisation than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as early as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessary. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.
Chapter 16 - Conversations with the Stargilider
The Star is a story that packs a good punch. It is easy to see why someone who wrote such elegant stories in a time when a lot of science fiction was barely past the pulp stage, would have been considered one of the big writers in the genre. It is worth reading, not just because it aged gracefully, but also because it shows the darker side of the writing of a man known for his optimistic work.
Title: The Star
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Originally published: Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Story length: short story, approximately 2,500 words
Awards: Hugo Award winner
Available online: King's College London