Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Clarke, a scientist with degrees in physics and mathematics from King’s College, England, usually incorporates in his fiction an optimistically advanced future based on steadily progressing scientific inventions. Nevertheless, the transcendence of human ingenuity in the form of science is merely the backdrop against which he presents his principal focus: the search for meaning and humanity’s place within the universe.

Using simple language and foregoing mystical imagery, Clarke convincingly questions the future of humanity. The uncomplicated narrative of the seemingly routine lunar mission, and the contrasting complex metaphysical theme incorporated in the story, provide a striking juxtaposition. The combination of uncomplicated style and metaphysical musings typifies much of Clarke’s fiction.

In “The Sentinel,” characterization and dialogue are minimized. The reader is told virtually nothing about Wilson other than his name. Even that small fact must be deduced from an offhand comment made by a member of his team regarding Wilson’s desire to climb the mountain on which the artifact stands: He calls it “Wilson’s folly.” From a passing reference to his exploits as a young man, the reader learns that Wilson is a veteran explorer. No other information is given. Even less is known about Garnett, the story’s only other named character. Minimizing character development and dialogue emphasizes the central theme and the ominous mood of the story.

Unlike character and dialogue, however, setting is crucial. Clarke’s predictions for the scientific advancements leading to the establishment of the moon base and exploration of the moon may appear overly optimistic in the late 1990’s. Had the United States space program continued the rapid pace of its development in the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, Clarke’s prediction likely would have been close to the mark. However, the chronology of space exploration is rendered insignificant against the backdrop of Clarke’s setting, the moon itself. The details he provides firmly establish the nature of life on the moon. Although the chronology of “The Sentinel” may be off by some years, questions regarding the nature of humanity’s place in the universe are timeless. The moon, symbolizing a step in humanity’s evolution, is not only the starting point for further scientific advancement but also, perhaps, for further spiritual evolution.