"The Sentinel": Analysis

Narrative Point of View

First Person Narrator. Wilson, a geologist exploring the Moon, tells of the experience of discovering a pyramid shaped object that indicates the presence of extra-terrestial intelligence. He describes the experience of discovery and creates a story that reflects on the meaning of the object.


The story of the accidental discovery on the moon of a beautiful pyramid--a sign of intelligent life somewhere in the universe. It's a First Contact story. Recounts the discovery of the object and the realization that it's not natural, but the creation of intelligence; then twenty years later when they crack the invisible shield and see the machinery; then the narrator creates a story to explain its meaning.

The narrator creates a plot to explain the pyramid: Millions of years ago some intelligent life came looking for other intelligent life (like man). Left this pyramid on the moon, which was emitting signals. It was a sentinel (one of million throughout the universe) to watch for signs of intelligent life. It's uninterrupted beams indicated no contact. When the men discovered it and then destroyed it by examining it (took 20 years), the signals were interrupted, thereby indicating to its makers that there was intelligent life on earth. The Sentinel was placed on the moon, not the earth, because only when man had progressed far enough in intelligence to escape his earth cradle and had reached the moon, would he have evolved far enough in intelligence to be of any interest to the obviously superior form of life that had set up the Sentinel. Now the alarm has been set off and humanity will not have to wait long for a visit--which may be good or bad.


The moon in 1996 and on earth twenty years later.


The narrator, Wilson, is a geologist who makes the discovery on the moon, and then back on earth twenty years later tells about the examination of the pyramid. The story is not about character. There is no focus on him or any change in him. He is simply a narrative voice laying out the ideas about intelligent life in the universe. The character is a vehicle for the expression of ideas about the evolutionary nature of man and speculation about the possibilities of "contact."



The most important theme is not the assertion that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe, but assertions about the nature of man. Man is essentially evolutionary intelligence. The earth is our "cradle"--we are in the infant stages of intelligent life. Only when we are able to make it to the moon will we demonstrate that we have reached a new stage of intelligence. Man is destined to evolve beyond the earth--to transcend the limits of earthly life and our "infant civilization." Therefore space exploration and travel is essential to human development--the sign that we are evolving into higher forms of intelligent life. The fantasy of some vastly superior form of intelligence--as represented by the Sentinel--is the fantasy about the real nature and future of humanity. "They" represent our possible future if we keep evolving, keep doing the space thing.

A sub-theme is the moment of speculation about "contact" with alien forms of life. These forms are clearly intellectually superior--but will they be benevolent or hostile? Part of the pleasure of this kind of story is the feeling that we will very soon find out.

Part of the rhetoric of space exploration and travel is that there is surely intelligence out there. Otherwise, the enterprise seems quite dull. If there are no alien life forms--no other worlds and cultures to explore (like Star Trek), then the whole space mission is banal and a dead end. There is no adventure out there--only the emptiness of silent space. 2001 shows how dull the space trip is--no encounters--only the drama created by lying to Hal, which could have been done on earth. The real moon trips, which came around 15 years after Clarke's story were the antithesis of the story: what we found was nothing of any significance. Getting there was not an evolutionary advance--no giant leap for mankind--which was, of course, the Clarkeian rhetoric that legitimated the journey. Not even a small step. We haven't been back since. We're still stuck in the "cradle" of earth.