In 1948, Arthur C. Clarke submitted a short story, The Sentinel, to a BBC contest; which he did not win. However, the story was published in the Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader in 1951, and in 1964 he returned to the story and began expanding it into a novel. He and the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used this as the basis for a movie script which, in 1968, became 2001 : A Space Odyssey; for which both received Oscar nominations.
Especially considering the opacity for which the movie is notorious, the story is remarkably spare and straightforward. The narrator, a lunar geologist, recalls cooking sausage one morning at a research base on the Moon, when the rising sun revealed a metallic glimmer on the rock wall of Mare Crisium. He and a compatriot climbed the crater rim and found :
[A] roughly pyramidal structure, twice as high as a man, that was set in the rock like a gigantic, many-faceted jewel.
Though they initially believed it to be a relic of a lost lunar civilization (notice it is much different than the black obelisks which were eventually used in the movie), they soon realized that it must have been placed there billions of years ago by an advanced race from another planet. It took twenty years, but finally they were able to penetrate a protective shield around the crystal by using atomic upon it. Now they understand the structure to have been a kind of sentinel, waiting to alert the beings who placed it there that finally the human race has achieved a sufficient level of development to be worthy of their notice.
I particularly like the way that this tale, written by a renowned futurist at the dawn of the space age, actually resonates with age old religious concerns. The simple idea at its core is that it is by increasing our knowledge and developing our technological prowess that we will become superior beings, even gods. The geologist sagely worries, as must anyone who recalls the Fall of Man and the Tower of Babel, that the beings who left behind this early warning signal may even be jealous of our advances and may not be all that happy to find that they finally have company. Like all of the best tales of the fantastic, The Sentinel, though ostensibly about the future, illuminates the very mundane concerns we've always had about the nature of our being and our role in the order of things.
GRADE : A