"The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke - Sci-Fi Classic Review
Just so we're clear: I'm reviewing the story, not the anthology named after it
By the future year of 1996, mankind has established bases on the moon and sent out exploration teams to map its surface. Wilson, a geologist on one such team, has seen something unusual glinting in the sunlight just above the mountainous circle of Mare Crisium, the Sea of Crises. He climbs to a curiously flat surface at the mountain's peak, and there, he finds something extraordinary, a structure not built by any natural means and surrounded by a forcefield beyond the technological understanding of man.
This is 1948's "The Sentinel," one of Arthur C. Clarke's earliest stories and the bare-bones seedling of an idea that would eventually become the starting point for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke submitted it for a BBC competition, in which the story failed to place, and then published it in 10 Story Fantasy in 1951. Upon first reading, it doesn't seem like a terribly remarkable story, and indeed, if it weren't for the subsequent master status of its author, it would probably be forgotten today.
However, "The Sentinel" is a crucial stepping stone in the career of that science-fiction master, a story that demonstrates the kind of storyteller he would ultimately become. It is driven entirely by its mystery--by the promise of an intelligence greater than our own--which is a recurring motif in almost all of his greatest works, including 2001, Childhood's End, and Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke has a way of very simply putting mankind in its place, and he does it quite efficiently in "The Sentinel."
It also shows his attention to detail, although "The Sentinel" is far less accurate with those details. To be fair, he does get some basic things right--the moon's gravity is roughly one-sixth that of the Earth, for instance--but he is working under some assumptions about the moon that, while popular with sci-fi writers at the time, were largely dismissed by the scientific community even then, things like there having once been oceans and rivers on the lunar surface. It had been accepted by the mid-1800's that any standing water on the moon would immediately evaporate in the incredibly tenuous atmosphere, so few respectable scientists held to the hypothesis of large-scale liquid water existing on the moon.
Of course, as I discuss in my review of The City and the Stars, another early Clarke work, the author spent a good deal of his early career grappling with whether to be a science fantasist--a writer who uses science as a jumping off point for fantasy--or to be a scientific realist, a "hard" sci-fi writer who uses the best and most current understanding of science to dictate his plots. Ultimately, he would become famous for embracing the latter, but he certainly hadn't made that choice by 1948.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Sentinel" when one looks back at it from the perspective of knowing the kind of writer Clarke would later become is the final few paragraphs, in which the narrator lays out the meaning of the device he discovered. Here, Clarke tells rather than shows, and it ruins the mystery he spend the entirety of the preceding story setting up. In that way, it's a sloppy, badly constructed narrative.
Some of Clarke's other early works fall into this trap, too--Childhood's End and The City and the Stars leap to mind--and it's understandable. It's hard for any writer, even a master like Clarke, to accept that not everything one imagines to explain the story should actually be in the story. On the plus side, these early works serve as strong evidence that Clarke's later writing, in which the mystery is left more to the reader's imagination, are informed by logical narrative choices and are not created solely for the purpose of being mysterious. (I'm looking at you, J.J. Abrams.)
"The Sentinel" is not a great story, but it is a neat, self-contained idea. I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point for Clarke, but for anyone well-versed in his later works or for anyone interested in the origins of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's a short, easy read that might help you understand where Clarke was coming from. I actually love it for its flaws, because it reminds me that even one of the greatest science-fiction authors of the last hundred years was once a very modest, flawed writer who struggled to get it right.
-e. magill 11/12/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: