Book review: The Sentinel

The SentinelThe Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As always when reading older science fiction–this collection of stories dates from the early 1950s–it’s important to remember what we take for granted today, what actually transpired over the last 60+ years, and how attitudes have changed regarding the sexes.

Regarding the latter, one of the longer stories, “Holiday on the Moon”, is a sweet tale that ends with a girl who becomes so entranced by what she sees while visiting the moon with her family that she (secretly) decides to pursue a career in “the quest for the secret of the stars.”

Clarke usually couches his technology in sufficiently magic-like explanations but there are still amusing bits, like when a futuristic submarine relays important information to its pilot by way of a ticker-tape machine.

This particular collection–the middle of a trilogy–focuses most of its stories on space travel and the moon. The opening story “The Sentinel”, which ultimately led to 2001: A Space Odyssey is about the discovery of an obviously alien machine on the moon (not the famous monolith). My favorite part is how attempts to analyze the machine result in its destruction.

A number of stories highlight the dangers in creating and then trying to control new technology, ranging from machines that can record and playback thoughts, to others that can allow one to control another mind–provided the batteries hold out. Clarke offers a wry, not quite cynical take on the inventors and scientists in these stories, highlighting both the dangers of technology and the fallibility of humans.

The strong voice of the author–almost a narrator in some of the stories–may feel anachronistic today but it also gives the stories the feel of someone sharing a good yarn. You know, sitting by a cozy fire in a pub and hearing about that time two guys talked about parallel dimensions and then got devoured by a monstrous alien beast of some sort when they merely thought that in some dimension they’d be attacked by a tiger.

In the end, I enjoyed this collection for both the strength and imagination of Clarke’s writing and as a kind of time capsule that captures the prevailing moods of the early 1950s, when the threat of the atom bomb loomed over everything and the promise of space travel and all the possibilities it could open, was tantalizingly close.

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