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I recall a short story where first contact occurs when an alien probe enters the solar system, takes up orbit around earth. Turns out that it's a sublight "ambassador/library" with AI on board, that engages in information exchange with us for a limited time, then will head back out to the next system. It is asked about religion, specifically if other sentient species have religions, and if so, is there a correlation with species that form family units, and raise their young? The AI/probe answers in the affirmative to both parts of the question, and is intrigued that humans came up with the hypothesis on the basis of only a single sample.

Anyone remember this?

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  • Do you remember when or where you read this?
    – DavidW
    Feb 6 at 20:52
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    But … there are many species on Earth that form family units, but don’t have religion. So the correlation is not very plausible (I omitted the word “sentient” on purpose).
    – wra
    Feb 7 at 21:50
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    The point of the question is to locate the story, not debate its feasibility.
    – reedstrm
    Feb 9 at 20:32

1 Answer 1

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This is super reminiscent of the shoehorned-in "Starglider" subplot in Clarke's Fountains of Paradise. Starglider shows up, asks a bunch of questions, claims that only species that form family units come up with the idea of religion, etc.

More about that from here:

Clarke complicates his story somewhat with the unexpected arrival of an alien probe named Starglider, which arrives, Rama-like, communicating openly and changing the world forever before drifting on. The idea of unseen aliens giving us a bit of a nudge in our evolutionary path is a theme Clarke famously explored in 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama, and it worked much better in those stories. Here, Starglider seems a bit tacked on (as if the concept of the Orbital Tower isn't SFnal enough), and Clarke introduces the wholly improbable idea that, simply by virtue of Starglider's testimony that the existence of God is highly unlikely and unnecessary (and found only in a small handful of the hundreds of advanced alien cultures it has discovered), all religion on Earth basically stops. Although this might be the atheist's and skeptic's dream scenario, it would simply never happen that way, because the entire psychological drive behind religious belief is the desire to hold that belief, and a religious fundamentalist will hold onto his belief system even if incontrovertible proof it's all wrong is presented. Faith is an emotional process, not a rational one, and the scenario just doesn't ring true. What would really happen is that religious fundamentalists would vilify Starglider as an emissary of the devil, sent to lure us to our spiritual doom; conversely, religious liberals would simply shrug the whole thing off and pronounce that God has simply made other provisions for the salvation of these aliens, and/or will reveal Himself to them when He sees fit. Starglider's pronouncements, if anything, would lead to a renaissance of religious fervor. That alone could make a novel in itself.

But, it's not a short story, and Starglider doesn't orbit Earth, it just flies through the solar system.

None of it has anything at all to do with the main space elevator part of the novel, so maybe that's why you remember it as a short story.

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    I came in with the same suggestion.
    – Andrew
    Feb 6 at 22:53
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    This is exactly it, I recall reading Fountains of Paradise many years ago, and I bet you're also right about the disconnect from the rest of the story making it seem like a short story "intermission" in my hazy recollection.
    – reedstrm
    Feb 9 at 20:30

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