© Voyager / Harper Collins Publishers
The Sentinel is a collection of nine short stories written between 1945 and 1980 by legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that resulted in the movie and book versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968). Indeed the collection’s title story, which was first published in 1951, contains some of the same elements and themes as 2001 and is seen as its forerunner.
As you might expect from a science fiction writer like Clarke, The Sentinel treats its readers to descriptions of weird and wonderful alien lifeforms. In the first and oldest story, Rescue Party, there’s a creature called T’sinadree, who ‘normally employed twelve legs and could use twenty when he was in a hurry, though no one had ever seen him perform this feat.’ There are vast jellyfish-like organisms, ‘more than a mile long’ with ‘scores of dangling tentacles’, floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa, while The Songs of Distant Earth offers an underwater species called the Shining Ones, ‘giant squidlike creatures who communicate in the total darkness of the abyss by beautiful displays of multicoloured luminescence.’
However, it’s on page 183 of the collection, halfway through a story called Jupiter V, that we meet the strangest and most unexpected lifeform of all. A woman.
Admittedly, the preceding stories had contained occasional, faint but tantalising hints that, somewhere in Clarke’s universe, women might exist. In Breaking Strain, at a time of crisis, a crewman on board a spaceship reflects briefly about his ‘wife… of whom he was moderately fond’, presumably back home on earth. In The Sentinel, a geologist inside a vehicle trundling across the moon’s surface describes himself being in the vehicle’s galley ‘by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for the sausages to brown.’
But in Jupiter V, a tale of two rival expeditions engaged in a battle of wits over one of the moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, which has turned out to be a giant spherical spacecraft laden with alien artefacts, Clarke holds back no more. He actually shows a real, in-the-flesh woman. She’s called Marianne Mitchell and, while the male characters in the story are scientists, space pilots and, in one case, a photographer commissioned to take pictures of the solar system by Life magazine, she has a less glamorous job: she’s a secretary. But at least the story’s narrator credits her with having brains. “I could tell that Marianne was a very intelligent woman,” he remarks. “It was quite remarkable the way she saw my point of view… in everything I showed her.” I’d like to think that was Clarke poking ironic fun at his narrator’s unthinking male chauvinism here but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Also, the narrator expresses frustration that he has to show the dishy Marianne around the airless alien spacecraft while both of them are space-suited up. “A space-suit is the most perfect chaperone ever devised, confound it.”
After this shockingly upfront description of womankind in Jupiter V, the creatures disappear from view again in Clarke’s subsequent stories. Refugee has a humorous reference to a spaceman’s ‘plump girlfriend’: “He had never quite lived down a blind date on Mars which had given him a completely unwarranted reputation for preferring statuesque blondes.” In A Meeting with Medusa, a woman’s voice from Mission Control is heard on the hero’s radio for a little while. It’s not until the final story, A Song of Distant Earth, that a woman plays a prominent role in the plot and isn’t the butt of jokes, but A Song is only six pages long and is actually a synopsis of a never-realised follow-up movie to 2001 that Clarke sketched out for Kubrick. It feels like a postscript to the collection rather than a story in its own right.
So, my first reaction to The Sentinel was ‘Wow!’ – and not ‘Wow!’ in a good way. It’s a startling reminder of how traditional science fiction, back in the days when Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were known as ‘the Big Three’, was a blatant, unabashed boys’ club. As the award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin noted in a recent article, “Fifty years ago in science fiction… Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities. Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.” And while female writers have won the Hugo Award for the year’s best sci-fi novel six times in the last decade, there are still dark corners of the sci-fi universe today inhabited by embittered male writers and fans who remain in a huff about girls barging uninvited into their genre and insisting on playing with their toys and taking all the fun out of it for them.
However, having got over the fact that Clarke fails to acknowledge the existence of half the human race in these stories, I have to admit I found most of The Sentinel extremely enjoyable. Breaking Strain, about a spaceship losing its supply of oxygen, starts off as a bog-standard nuts-and-bolts science fiction tale but, while the air leaks out of the ship and the two men on board grow increasingly desperate, we’re treated to some unexpected character development. Similarly, The Wind from the Sun, while ostensibly about a yacht race from the earth to the moon, is a meditation about aging and achievement that’s as character-driven as the sails of the futuristic yachts in it are solar-driven.
A Meeting with Medusa tells the story of an explorer entering the upper atmosphere of Jupiter and encountering a weird airborne ecosystem composed of giant creatures. By itself, A Meeting is phantasmagorically entertaining – it reminds me of the 1913 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Horror of the Heights, which takes place in ‘the jungles of the upper air’ – but Clarke also cannily builds in a twist-ending that gives the story a new perspective.
And the title story is rather wonderful. Like 2001, it features a mysterious alien transmitter on the moon that informs its distant, unseen creators when humanity arrives and interferes with it. In other words, it lets them know that a technologically advanced civilisation has now evolved on earth. The Sentinel conveys in just 11 pages both a sense of cosmic wonder and a sense of niggling trepidation. As its narrator muses at the end: “…they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young… If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait… I do not think we will have to wait for long.”
By the way, having recently waded through a few stories by other writers from the supposed Golden Age of Science Fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s practically unreadable 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I should also compliment Clarke on his prose. Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, it’s sinewy and unshowy, never gets overheated and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.
Even the story that for me is the worst one in the collection is entertaining in a fashion. Refugee features a character who, Clarke hints in his introduction to it, was inspired by Prince Charles – ouch!. (“Captain Saunders, who came from Dallas and had no intention of being impressed by any prince, found himself unexpectedly moved by the wide, sad eyes. They were eyes that had seen too many receptions and parades, that had had to watch countless totally uninteresting things, that had never been allowed to stray far from the carefully planned official routes.”) It’s also set in a futuristic Britain that’s managed somehow to strike a balance between human technological and social progress on one hand and ritual and tradition on the other. This shows a rather affecting naivete on Clarke’s part and is amusing when you compare his starry-eyed version of 21st century Britain with the sorry place it’s really become in 2019. For example: “The London Underground was still, after a century and a half, the best transport system in the world…”
Well, Arthur, that’s one prediction you certainly didn’t get right.