The Sentinel,” by Arthur C. Clarke is famous for being the starting point of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like so many great science fiction stories, it was conceived long before man had ventured into space. Written in 1948 and published three years later as “Sentinel of Eternity” in 10 Story Fantasy in England, it was then anthologized in the collection Expedition to Earth in 1953. The story opens with a description of the Moon, in particular “a small, dark oval . . . the great walled plain, one of the finest on the Moon, known as the Mare Crisium . . . three hundred miles in diameter, and almost completely surrounded by a ring of magnificent mountains.” The first person narrator states that the site hadn’t been explored until 1996. It’s an interesting date for Clarke to pick. Even though Sputnik hadn’t been launched yet when the story was written, routine Moon exploration could easily have been a feature of late twentieth century life. And the narrator implies as much about the mission itself. “It was an uneventful routine. There is nothing hazardous or even particularly exciting about lunar exploration.” If there’s an element of the story that doesn’t jibe with late twentieth century sensibilities, however, it’s this. “Half a dozen times a day we would leave our vehicle and go outside in the space suits to hunt for interesting minerals, or to place markers for the guidance of future travellers.” With space travel costing billions of dollars, it’s highly unlikely that any country would decide to waste that much money on a mission so nebulous.
The narrator describes getting eight hours of sleep every day, with the astronauts shut inside their land roving craft while the sun blazes outside, then getting up and fixing breakfast in the morning. “It was sometimes hard to believe that we were not back on our own world--everything was so normal and homely, apart from the feeling of decreased weight and the unnatural slowness with which objects fell.” But all of that changes one morning. Looking out the window of the craft the narrator sees something reflecting light from the distant mountains. He goes up to the observation telescope, but still can’t make out exactly what it is, though it seems as if it must be fairly flat to reflect the light in the manner it does. It takes all day, but he finally convinces the rest of the crew to drive the craft over to the mountains so that he can take a look and see if he can find whatever is there to find. For the narrator, named Wilson, and his partner Garnett, the climb is strenuous but not impossible, and Wilson has absolutely no expectation that what he finds will be anything out of the ordinary. “The thing that had lured me over these barren wastes . . . would be, almost certainly, nothing more than a boulder splintered ages ago by a falling meteor, and with its cleavage planes still fresh and bright.” When he at last he sets sight on the twelve-foot high pyramid shaped monolith rising from a flat, level plain, however, Clarke describes the man’s reaction in an absolutely wonderful turn of phrase. Wilson had been almost sure it would turn out to be nothing. “Almost, but not quite; it was that haunting doubt that had driven me forward. Well, it was doubt no longer, but the haunting had scarcely begun.”
That’s really all there is to the story, and it’s probably that fact more than any other that led to its initial rejection when Clarke submitted the story to the BBC for a writing competition in 1948. But the lengthy denouement is where the heart of the story lies, and in a post Star Trek--Star Wars world it takes a little bit of mental readjustment to really see things from the narrator’s point of view. Those films are just fiction. In reality, man has yet to find evidence of intelligent life in the tiny fraction of the Universe that he has thus far explored. That is the genius of Clarke’s story. The description of the pyramid-monolith makes the implication of its discovery crystal clear.
I have said the plateau was scarred by meteors; it was also coated inches deep with the cosmic dust
that is . . . upon the surface of any world where there are no winds to disturb it. Yet the dust and the
meteor scratches ended quite abruptly in a wide circle enclosing the little pyramid . . . I picked up a
fragment of splintered rock and tossed it gently toward the shining enigma . . . but it seemed to hit a
smooth, hemispheric surface and slide gently to the ground.
Wilson’s initial though is that the pyramid must have been the remnant of a civilization that had existed on the moon before Earth itself had spawned life. But, of course, that’s impossible, “and my pride would not let me take the final, humiliating plunge.” One of the postulations that Clarke makes early on in the story is that the Moon was originally very Earthlike, covered with water that eventually evaporated. But that hardly makes sense on a dead satellite that has little atmosphere. Though scientists have recently come to believe that the atmosphere of the Moon was once much thicker than it is today and lasted for millions of years, its surface certainly had nothing like the “tideless ocean . . . a half a mile deep” that Clarke’s narrator claims once existed there.
The “humiliating plunge” that the narrator finally undertakes is to accept that the pyramid could not have been built by ancient beings that were somehow associated or connected to the Earth and had once inhabited the Moon. “I knew then that I was looking at nothing that could be matched in the antiquity of my own race. This was not a building, but a machine, protecting itself with forces that had challenged Eternity.” Even at this point Clarke is not in a hurry to get to the shuddering implication of this machine, but the understated way in which he unfolds it is magnificent. Of course man can not find a way in to examine the pyramid and must resort to atomic weaponry, the most crude and unsophisticated method there is, and naturally destroys the machine in the process, leaving them with tantalizing fragments of something created by extraterrestrial life. But even that is not the most chilling aspect of the story. The narrator finally calls the pyramid what it is, a sentinel, and the slow unraveling of Wilson’s conclusion is a pleasure to read and consider. Because in the end, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” is not a science-fiction adventure story but a thought-provoking intellectual question: Does the existence of a race of highly advanced beings millions of years old--a race that may even be extinct--make man less alone in the Universe . . . or more so.