Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good Short Fiction: The Sentinel (Arthur C. Clarke)

Title: The Sentinel
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Where I read it: Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (edited by Stephanie Harrison)

One member of an exploratory expedition on the moon spots a strange and glittering object in the mountains overlooking the Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises). It's probably nothing - just a rock. But he can't help thinking that it's something else entirely.

Some reasons to read it
  • Clarke conveys the epic possibility of outer space. He invites us to consider the scope of the universe and the life it possibly harbors. Even the moon, which is close and superficially familiar to us, becomes a mysterious place with a rich unknown past.
    We had crossed a hundred miles of it in a week, skirting the foothills of the mountains along the shore of what was once the ancient sea, some thousand million years before. When life was beginning on Earth, it was already dying here. The waters were retreating down the flanks of those stupendous cliffs, retreating into the empty heart of the Moon.

  • He mixes some light humor and prosaic details (making sausages for breakfast aboard the exploratory tractor) with passages of unearthly discovery.

  • The lyrical lunar names (Mare Crisium, Oceanus Procellarum), which are a part of the poetry of space exploration.

  • Suspense builds throughout the story: what is that glittering object spotted among the cliffs and mountains? How did it get there, and what is its purpose?

  • The ideas and events in The Sentinel were part of the inspiration for the novel and movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (however The Sentinel is very different in scope and content - regardless of what you think about 2001, this story is worth reading).

Other stories from this collection include these three, these four, and these three.