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The Sentinel (1983)

by Arthur C. Clarke

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Few masters of science fiction have brought us glimpses of the near future as vividly as Arthur C. Clarke. It is the startling realism of his vision that has made classics of his CHILDHOODS END and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEYand Clarke himself one of the genres most successful writers. Here is a brilliant collection of Clarkes highest caliber short fiction. Among the ten stories included in this volume are: The Sentinel: The story that inspired 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, one of the most famous SF movies of all time. Guardian Angel: The rarely-glimpsed work that gave birth to CHILDHOODS END. The Songs of Distant Earth: A fantastic tale of first contact with an alien world, which became the basis for one of Clarkes most successful novels. Breaking Strain: The inspiration for the popular book series Arthur C. Clarkes VENUS PRIME.… (more)
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    Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: A full-length novel based upon one of the short stories in this collection.

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A group of classic sci-fi stories told by a master storyteller. He brings us to our own world again and again, while also venturing to Jupiter, the Moon, and Jupiter again. He describes solar-powered yacht races to the Moon and back, provides us with a glimpse of ourselves millions of years hence when Sol becomes a supernova, and plant the seeds for what becomes Childhood's End and . It is a look into the "what could be" that is the best of science fiction.

For me, and the reason I gave it a 3* rating, is the super explanation of science that is now for me only mildly interesting. I can see where science geeks took ideas like this and ran with them; I'd definitely like to see the interplanetary yacht races done by giant kites! And Clarke does give some good human viewpoints that are burgeoning for the time in which he wrote. But like some science fiction fans for whom fantasy is not their thing, I think I'm more of a fantasy fan for whom science is interesting but not an important part of the story. ( )
  threadnsong | Nov 11, 2017 |
Stories I have not read since I was a teenager. Clarke is one of my favorite scifi authors. ( )
  bness2 | May 23, 2017 |
A good collection of short stories, but the 'commentary' included is incredibly brief; if you've read these stories elsewhere, or own these in another collection, you'll find nothing new here.

The stories themselves, of course, are classic Clarke and well worth reading, here or anywhere else. ( )
  dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
The Sentinel collects nine of Arthur C. Clarke's short stories. "Rescue Party" views the destruction of Earth from the point of view of passing aliens. "Guardian Angel" explores a world in which aliens have made first contact and are guiding our cultural evolution. Clarke returned to this story when working on his novel, Childhood's End. "Breaking Strain" features the high drama of two astronauts who know their air will run out before they reach port on Venus. Clarke later repurposed "The Sentinel", after which this volume is named, for 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Jupiter V" explores the Jovian moons as astronauts discover make a world-changing archaeological discovery. "Refugee" is a fun, lighthearted story about the role of England in future space exploration. "The Wind From the Sun" uses a solar sail race as the setting for what, in an ocean setting, would be a traditional nautical tale. "A Meeting with Medusa" describes an explorer to Jupiter discovering strange life like that Carl Sagan later described on Cosmos. Finally, "The Songs of Distant Earth" is a story treatment born of a discussion with Stanley Kubrick in which Kubrick felt he and Clarke could have done more with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fans of Clarke's will find recurring themes here in his work, with both "Jupiter V" and "A Meeting with Medusa" forecasting the exploration of the Jovian system that dominated Odyssey Two and Three. Those planning to read this for more background on the making of 2001 may be disappointed as only "The Sentinel" played a large role in that endeavor. To them, I recommend The Lost Worlds of 2001, which contains "The Sentinel" as well as early treatments of key scenes in Space Odyssey and better demonstrated how Clarke's ideas evolved from one story to the other. This edition features artwork by Lebbeus Woods that brilliantly captures the pulp feel of Clarke's earlier stories. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Apr 10, 2016 |
Arthur C. Clarke

The Sentinel

Voyager, Paperback, 2000.

12mo. 319 pp. Introduction by Arthur Clarke, 1982 [pp. 9-16]. Prefatory notes to all stories, 1983.

First published thus, 1983.


Introduction: Of Sand and Stars

Rescue Party [1946]
Guardian Angel [1950]**
Breaking Strain [1949]
The Sentinel [1951]
Jupiter V [1953]
Refugee [1955]
The Wind from the Sun [1964]
A Meeting with Medusa [1971]
The Songs of Distant Earth***

* In square brackets: the year of first publication, usually in magazine.

** Later became part of the novel Childhood's End (1953). First published in book form in Science Fiction Origins (ed. William F. Nolan and Martin H. Greenberg, 1980).

*** This is not the eponymous 1957 short story that later inspired the novel of the same name. It actually is a movie outline written in 1979. The only piece here for which this is first appearance in book form.


This is a curious collection of (mostly) early stories of Arthur Clarke. It was originally published thus in 1983 by Berkley as a kind of deluxe edition that included considerable amount of artwork, at least one plate per story, by Lebbeus Woods. This modern paperback edition completely omits the artwork, the only compensation being the superb cover by Chris Moore. More importantly, however, the edition does retain Clarke's introduction written especially for the first edition in 1983 as well as his short, seldom longer than a page, notes that accompany each story. Considering the conciseness (if you excuse the alliteration) of Clarke's writing style, even such short pieces by him should not be neglected, as I will prove by amply quoting/paraphrasing from them. They all have a good deal of biographical and bibliographical significance.

The Introduction is dated ''16 December 1982'', Clarke's 65th birthday, and this is perhaps the reason for its intensely personal character. Arthur recalls some memories of his childhood and youth, such as those exciting pulp science fiction magazines whose literary quality was ''abysmal'', that were essential for his development as a writer. In fact, Clarke gives exactly what he promises in the second paragraph, having reminded us what day today is:

So it is already a little late in the day to consider why I became an author, or to wonder if there was ever any real alternative; that may have been as genetically determined as the color of my eyes or the shape of my head. But the kind of author I became is another matter: here, I suspect, both chance and environment played decisive roles.

In addition to a number of rather illuminating personal details, the introduction also contains considerable amount of food for thought as well, especially for would-be writers. The following paragraph occurs towards the end and, in addition to a reference to Somerset Maugham that pleases me very much, it shows Clarke's essential modesty which never degenerates into sham humility:

I was lucky; unlike most of the writers I know, I had very few setbacks and disappointments, and my rare rejection slips were doubtless thoroughly justified. And because every author is unique, the only advice I have ever been able to pass on to would-be writers is incorporated in a few lines on the notorious form letter which Archie, my word-processor, spits out at all hopeful correspondents at the drop of a floppy disk: 'Read at least one book a day, and write as much as you can. Study the memoirs of authors who interest you. (Somerset Maugham's A Writer's Notebook is a good example.) Correspondence courses, writer's schools, etc., are probably useful - but all the authors I know were self-taught. There is no substitute for living; as Hemingway wisely remarked, ''Writing is not a full time occupation.''

Finally, having hopefully convinced you that Arthur Clarke does say a lot with a few words, this remarkable introduction finishes with a tantalising suggestion about the nature of this particular volume:

Ours was the last generation that was able to read everything. No one will ever do that again.

Of course, it may well be argued that no one should want to do so, in deference to Theodore Sturgeon's much-quoted law: 'Ninety percent of everything is crud.' It is - to say the least - a sobering thought that this might apply even to
my writing.

I can only hope that everything that follows comes from the other ten percent.

So The Sentinel is by way of being Clarke's ''very best'' in the genre. This would make some sense. For otherwise it is a little difficult to find a reason for the existence of this collection. It does lack unity. Most of the stories are early ones, but two date from the 1960s and 1970s. All but two of the pieces had been published in older collections of Clarke's stories, and the two ''new ones'' consist of one that was later expanded into a famous novel and one that is actually no short story at all but an a movie outline (and was also expanded into an only slightly less famous novel later). Last but not least, it must be said that in terms of ''very best collections'', Arthur Clarke had done better selections before: The Nine Billion Names of God (1967), at least in terms of versatility.

Now let's, finally, have a look at the short stories themselves.

"Rescue Party" is a fine proof that even when he was not yet 30 years old, Arthur Clarke was well on his way to become a master in the genre of short story. (Indeed, the author was 27 years old when he wrote the piece, in March 1945!) The prefatory note is one of the shortest and one of the funniest. Arthur charmingly tells us that he probably didn't re-read the story since its original publication "for fear of discovering how little I have improved in almost four decades." On the other hand, though hardly Clarke at his best, the piece is a remarkable achievement for so young an author. And there is a charming quote of Gregory Benford which, together with Clarke's reaction, must be quoted.

'Aliens as a mirror for our own experiences abound in sf. Arthur Clarke's "Rescue Party" has humans as the true focus, though the action follows aliens who are a dumber version of ourselves. The final lines give us a human-chauvinist thrill, telling us more about ourselves than we may nowadays wish to know.'

I must admit that I'd never thought of it that way; but Dr Benford may be right. You have been warned.

Well, Benford's remark is rather perceptive. His only mistake is that the "human-chauvinist thrill" occurs, not in the final lines, but in the very last line. I daresay there may be many interpretations of this line, but Benford's is very plausible. Actually, this last line is the weakest part of the whole story. It comes after an excellent twist in the end - in which there is certainly pride of being human yet no chauvinism - and it is definitely something of an anticlimax. Mr Benford has also hit the nail on the head evaluating the mental resources of the aliens: they are really easily and not quite convincingly taken in. That said, it's a charming story to read, not a little amusing yet with a certain streak of seriousness. Clarke is very skillful at putting mankind in the focus without having a single human being among the characters. All of them are aliens, one stranger than the other, and they make a hilarious bunch in which, Mr Benford's on spot again, many human qualities can be discerned. The story is a very good start but there are far better achievements further in the volume. I quite agree with Sir Arthur:

Those who claim that it's their favourite story get a cooler and cooler reception over the passing years.

"Guardian Angel" will be very familiar to everyone who has read Clarke's classic novel Childhood's End (1953). As pointed out in the prefatory note, the story (written as early as 1946, by the way) later became the first part of this novel, "Earth and the Overlords". Actually, the short story, more like a novelette really, is almost word for word the same like its novelised variant. It must be admitted that it works better as a short story, for "Earth and the Overlords" is certainly the weakest part of the novel (though the other two parts are very fine indeed and they develop the material in a most astonishing way). It is fascinating to note that in his note Clarke mentions something about "major rewrite" and "new ending" by some guy who worked for his literary agent. That was the version that appeared in magazine form in 1950, but it remains unclear whether it is the same one that appears here as well as in the novel. Be that as it may, perhaps because I have recently read the novel and was rather disappointed with its first part, the short story didn't impress me much, although for a near contemporary of "Rescue Party" it is a considerable feat of imagination and narrative skill.

"Breaking Strain" may be my personal favourite in this collection. Now this is science fiction at its absolute best: science firmly in the background, fiction with verisimilitude and dramatic intensity that you seldom find in a short story. This is also Clarke at his best, which is all the more remarkable when one reflects that the story was written in 1948. In his note Clarke mentions a "friendly critic" who remarked that he aspired to be "Kipling of the spaceways". Well, I don't know about Kipling, but the story certainly strongly reminds me of some of the finest creations of Somerset Maugham ("The Outstation") and Joseph Conrad ("An Outpost of Progress"). Of course the similarity is very superficial and I, for one, would never diminish Clarke's originality with some of the presumptuous claims so beloved by the literary critics that he "was influenced" by his predecessors or that his story "could not have been written" without their examples. This, of course, is tosh.

All that the three stories actually share is that they are largely concerned with mighty collisions between two very different individuals who were brought together by the exigencies of their work. Of course the locale, the motives and the ending are vastly different. Maugham's conflict of social position in Malaya and Conrad's horrifying malaise of Congo's climate are replaced here by a captain and an engineer who are suddenly sentenced to death when a small meteorite hits their spaceship and leads to fatal loss of oxygen. When the story starts, the ominous and completely unpredictable event had already happened. Clarke takes from here and creates a masterpiece of story-telling, sharp characterisation and drama with quite a few twists. If you think, somewhere in the middle of the story, that you see it coming, you are most probably wrong. But let me not spoil the pleasure with more details. Suffice it to say here that both Maugham and Conrad, I have no doubt, would have been only too happy to have written so masterful and suspenseful a story.

Having mentioned spoilers, let me jump to the last piece in the book and warn those who have read neither the short story nor the novel of the same name. As explained by Clarke in his note, "The Songs of Distant Earth" was initially a short story and only more than 20 years later did it become an outline for a screenplay. As it turned out, Stanley Kubrick was unenthusiastic and no screenplay was ever written or movie made. Clarke states here that this is the final version of "The Songs of Distant Earth" but, reading how similar outline led to the writing of 2010: Space Odyssey Two, probably as early as 1983 he did have the idea to write the novel The Songs of Distant Earth (1986).

Anyway, be warned that this movie outline here makes explicit pretty much all major details of the plot. So if you haven't read either the short story or the novel, you had better not read this piece at all. Then again, with Clarke's genius for thrilling narrative and vivid, alive characters, it hardly matters if you know what will happen; you are glued to the pages anyway. Actually, I haven't read the other two works of the same name but already know that they are going to be very high on my to-be-read list. The outline is most promising indeed. As an antidote to entertaining space epics on the screen that are more fantasy than science fiction, Clarke tried to write here a "completely realistic story" using interstellar (not interplanetary!) setting. What a story indeed! Paradise-like islands with utopia-like societies, global destructions on a solar-system scale, space travel for generations in huge mother ships, giant squids, human love and other passions. It is totally unrealistic actually, but doesn't it sound exciting?

Coming back to the order in which the stories are printed, "The Sentinel" is of course Clarke's (probably) most famous story, "though not for itself, but as the seed from which 2001: A Space Odyssey sprang", as Arthur ruefully remarks. Further in his compelling note, he also mentions that he is "continually annoyed by careless references" that "The Sentinel" was the story on which 2001 was based. He may well be. Actually the short story inspired just one part of the novel, and even here a number of minor changes were made (Mare Crisium became the crater Tycho, and the pyramid became the famous black monolith). Much more importantly, the novel went unimaginably further than anything in the short story. As Clarke beautifully puts it, the story

...bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak. (Considerably less, in fact, because ideas from several other stories were also incorporated.)

"The Sentinel" doesn't really need 2001 to boost its value. It is one of Clarke's finest short stories all the same. Indeed, it is evocative and unforgettable first-person narrative of a momentous discovery on the Moon. It has a unique atmosphere, gorgeous descriptions of lunar landscapes (including haunting ones of mountain climbing under low gravity) and a simply mind-blowing speculations in the end. The plot is as simple as it could be, yet it is not the story but the treatment that makes a great writer. And the treatment here is unmistakably Clarkian. One short quote will illustrate that, particularly Clarke's flair for creating breath-taking dramatic effects:

You must understand that until this very moment I had been almost completely convinced that there could be nothing strange or unusual for me to find here. Almost, but not quite; it was that haunting doubt that had driven me forward. Well, it was a doubt no longer, but the haunting had scarcely begun.

"Jupiter V", I cannot resist quoting the author, "belongs to that typical and often despised category of science fiction, the 'gimmick' story, in which some little-known fact or natural law forms an essential part of the plot." Then Clarke continues to quote himself that even in 1956, much less twenty-seven years later, he could no longer write a story that required "twenty or thirty pages of orbital calculations". Arthur is being very mischievous here. From this note you may get the impression that the story is a dull affair with lots of tedious technical stuff. Nothing is further from the truth. Indeed, the "gimmick" takes any part at all only in the last ten pages of the story. Yes, it is indeed essential for the plot, but the story has a lot more to offer, such as space archeology, ancient Martian civilisations and compelling hypothesis of cultures that have colonised the Solar System long before even the earliest predecessors of man appeared. The major surprise is not difficult to predict - you will see it coming for sure - yet it is staggering all the same. The ending is a bit disappointing, since an all too human conflict hijacks the action and shifts the focus towards much more mundane matters, but it is at least amusing and not in the least technically abstruse.

"Refugee" is the shortest and the only decidedly light story here. It makes a startling contrast with the other pieces, all of them much longer and certainly serious. Nevertheless, "Refugee" is an amusing trifle and reminds us about Clarke's versatility, not to mention his considerable talent for writing comedy. The story is unabashedly pro-British, and rather charmingly so, though it does contain few good-natured barbs as regards the ridiculous affection that these people have for their Royal family. But since the main character is actually an American, Sir Arthur doesn't miss the opportunity to poke some fun at the Texan way of thinking, either. You will have no trouble guessing the ending, but if you think that the short length and the light tone would prevent Clarke from supplying keen insight into his characters and food for thought, I believe you will be mistaken. Consider this short excerpt:

For the first time he began to realise what tradition meant: it gave Prince Henry something that he could never possess. Poise - self-confidence, yes, that was it. And a pride that was somehow free from arrogance because it took itself so much for granted that it never had to be asserted.

"The Wind from the Sun" and "A Meeting with Medusa" are the real "gimmick stories" in the volume. The former is just as entirely concerned with sun-powered space yachting as is the latter with the exploration of Jupiter's vastly dangerous atmosphere. In both cases characters and plot are secondary and rather more insubstantially developed in comparison with the other stories in the volume. In lesser hands these would have turned out to be perfectly unreadable pieces of semi-fiction (if there is such a genre). This is not the case here, though. It is true that Clarke can occasionally spend a trifle too much attention on descriptions and technical details, and sometimes he is even a little verbose (highly untypical for him indeed), yet the stories still make an exhilarating read. Your imagination is sure to be stretched quite a bit.

"The Wind from the Sun" looks at first glance more like a fantasy, than like a science fiction. Sun sailing, indeed! But Clarke spends considerable time in his prefatory note to convince us that his calculations, if not exactly exact, are certainly very close to the real ones - at least as far the latter can be ascertained theoretically. The story follows a single race from the Earth to the Moon, but a very unusual race indeed. The rival vessels really are wind ships, but they use the only possible "wind" in the airless space: the wind from the sun, namely the minute pressure that sunlight does have. It all sounds incredible, but consider the circumstances in space - very difficult thing, really, as we are hopelessly addicted to gravity and air. The sunlight in space is much stronger than it is when reaches Earth's surface; moreover it is absolutely constant and there is no friction whatsoever to hamper your vessel. Of course you need huge sails - several square miles at least - because the driving force of the sunlight is dismayingly tiny; on the other hand, you don't need a single milliliter of any fuel whatsoever. The whole concept is extremely compelling and Clarke's descriptions of the different yachts, particularly their wondrous sails, are well-nigh unforgettable. The story's ending is decidedly anticlimactic, but it does have a poignancy that redeems this fault. As for the putative velocities of the sun yachts, the matter is delightfully explained by the protagonist:

'It means that in the first second, we'll move about a fifth of an inch. I suppose a healthy snail could do better than that. But after a minute, we've covered sixty feet, and will be doing just over a mile an hour. That's not bad, for something driven by pure sunlight! After an hour, we're forty miles from our starting point, and will be moving at eighty miles an hour. Please remember that in space there's no friction; so once you start anything moving, it will keep going forever. You'll be surprised when I tell you what our thousandth-of-a-g sailboat will be doing at the end of a day's run: almost two thousand miles an hour! If it starts from orbit - as it has to, of course - it can reach escape velocity in a couple of days. And all without burning a single drop of fuel!'

"A Meeting with Medusa" is the longest story in the book, more like a novella actually as it consists of eight parts that amount to some sixty pages or so. In his note Clarke frankly confesses that he wrote the piece, on the one hand, just as a filler for a collection that was too short and, on the other hand, because he was very interested in Jupiter at the moment; about a decade afterwards he developed many of the ideas in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two. The different parts of the story are a little loosely linked and sometimes Clarke gets a little carried away with ravishing descriptions of the Jovian atmosphere, but since all of the former are essential for the story and the latter are simply breathtaking, it seems churlish to complain. The story has a good deal of compensations, too. The sheer size of Jupiter may fill one with profound humility; as Arthur is fond of reminding us, the whole of Earth's surface, peeled and stretched, would look on Jupiter no bigger than India does on our planet. And the turbulence of its atmosphere, just like Clarke's stupendously visionary descriptions, might just fill you with awe; his constant comparisons with more familiar phenomena and scales from Earth makes the whole picture even more awe-inspiring. As a special bonus, the story can boast a very interesting, if sketchily drawn, main character who inhabits the no-man's-land between man and machine.

All in all, whatever drawbacks and inconsistencies The Sentinel may have, they are completely obliterated by its merits. Few of the stories have but very occasional hint of boredom, yet none of them is unreadable or dull as a whole. Quite to the contrary. Just like some pianists can play even the C major scale in a unique way, so can Clarke create compelling stories on every subject, gimmicks or no gimmicks. The Nine Billion Names of God (1967) is perhaps a better illustration of Clarke's versatility. But when it comes to his best, The Sentinel is no slouch either. ( )
5 vote Waldstein | Aug 9, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Clarke, Arthur C.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Woods, LebbeusIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Few masters of science fiction have brought us glimpses of the near future as vividly as Arthur C. Clarke. It is the startling realism of his vision that has made classics of his CHILDHOODS END and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEYand Clarke himself one of the genres most successful writers. Here is a brilliant collection of Clarkes highest caliber short fiction. Among the ten stories included in this volume are: The Sentinel: The story that inspired 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, one of the most famous SF movies of all time. Guardian Angel: The rarely-glimpsed work that gave birth to CHILDHOODS END. The Songs of Distant Earth: A fantastic tale of first contact with an alien world, which became the basis for one of Clarkes most successful novels. Breaking Strain: The inspiration for the popular book series Arthur C. Clarkes VENUS PRIME.

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