Tag Archives: Arthur C Clarke

The Sentinel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sentinel [Amazon, Bookshop] by Arthur C Clarke.

Clarke The Sentinel

The Sentinel collects nine pieces of Arthur C. Clarke’s short fiction, with an author’s introduction. These represent earlier work, since the 1972 story “A Meeting with Medusa” was Clarke’s last, after which his fiction consisted entirely of novels (237). Each individual story is also supplied with a brief introduction by Clarke circa 1983.

Several of these stories are notable as having eventually contributed to novels by Clarke. The eponymous “The Sentinel” was the germ of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Guardian Angel” was the basis of the first part of Childhood’s End. “A Meeting with Medusa” contributed premises to 2010: Odyssey Two.

Despite some later incorporation into larger works, these stories do not generally presume a shared narrative continuity or “future history.” Clarke was distinctive for his emphasis on scientifically plausible “hard” science fiction, to the point where composing a story could require “twenty or thirty pages of orbital calculations” (153). As a result, his relatively near-future stories of space exploration written over four decades had to change in order to align with the real-world developments of astronautical knowledge.

Clarke tended to err on the optimistic side. It was a little sad to read him writing in 1951 about a manned lunar surface exploration in 1996 which most certainly did not come to pass (139). Generally he avoids specific dates in these stories, though.

The story that was most interesting to me was “Breaking Strain,” something of a psychological sketch regarding two men on a spaceship reduced to life support resources for one. It had a passing literary reference–somewhat anomalous among these pieces–to Cabell’s Jurgen. Another story where there was a curious real-world reference was “Refugee,” which painted a rather flattering picture of the British monarchy.

My copy of the book is a Barnes & Noble reprint of the Byron Preiss Visual Publications collection. It includes attractive and apt illustrations by Lebbeus Woods in black and white–roughly one full-page drawing per story (and in one case a two-page spread).

The City and the Stars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke The City and the Stars

In his preface, Arthur C. Clarke identifies this 1950s work as a second pass at his first novel (i.e. Against the Fall of Night). I haven’t read the earlier book, but the two share about 25% of their content, and the author presents The City and the Stars as a very complete revision.

The City and the Stars is plot-intensive, and the ratio of major, world-tilting events to page count is quite high. The characters are fairly flat, but the high concepts tend to compensate for that. As is typical for him, Clarke’s futurological intuition is very solid, and in the long lifetime since this book was written there have been no technological developments to trammel up and obsolesce the details of the far future that he offers here. He has virtual reality, distributed computing, matter synthesis, artificial intelligence, non-viviparity, and gravity control as features of a post-imperial no-longer-star-voyaging technocracy.

Although this book has aged reasonably well, it didn’t really blow my mind–especially given how many of its concepts have been taken up and rehearsed in later science fiction works. It is tangent to, if not firmly within, the “dying earth” subgenre, as it features terrestrial posthumanity in a stagnant, insular society. It could have supplied some inspiration for Michael Moorcock’s excellent Dancers at the End of Time books. Another work that may exhibit traces of its influence is John Boorman’s Zardoz. Even Logan’s Run bears some similarities to it in general shape. Clarke’s protagonist Alvin, a “unique” who is in his person a calculated disruption of his engineered, sealed society, seems also to be echoed in the Neo of the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies.

The book as a whole isn’t terribly long, and the short chapters and intense plotting keep it moving at a fast clip.