Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Sentinel – by Arthur C. Clarke – originally published in 1951

mysterious pyramids of rotterdam by PK

Wow, I’ve just finished reading this and have just put it down. (Yes, I’m sitting in Starbucks, and yes, I’m drinking a latte, but you could have probably guessed that part anyway). I want to write about this story immediately. It’s amazing.

Okay, I know my last post was in defence of the New Yorker and I adore that publication and the short stories it promotes, but I wanted to read around and see what else the short story offered, over brutal, grinding realism. Eons ago, short stories once roamed the Earth in pulp sci-fi publications. These were often a way for writers to make money, but that didn’t mean those writers didn’t also fiercely believe in the validity of what they were writing as well. Perhaps with the rise of e-publishing, we’ll see a return to the short story form.

I have to admit I’ve always shied away from reading science fiction in the past. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I find it would be too easy for me to lock the door to my apartment, buy a pair of Vulcan ears and play online multi-players until I’m featured as a cautionary tale on a Current Affairs program.   The nearest I let myself approach sci fi normally is watching Matt Groening’s Futurama.

But to broaden my horizons I trekked to the science fiction store in downtown Melbourne only to find that most of their stock had been moved to a comic festival on at the same time on the other side of town.  Still, the guy behind the counter pointed me in the direction of Arthur C. Clarke if I wanted to read some amazing science fiction.

The Sentinel is a story about the loneliness of existence. It is set on the moon in 1996, let’s say 2096. An astronaut geologist on an exploration team is exploring a huge barren tract of the moon. Daylight lasts for a week. The team are exploring a wasteland. The explorers’ days are dictated by routine, at the end of every 16 hours, they retire for eight hours, wake, cook breakfast. One day, the geologist spots the sunlight glinting off something in the distant mountains. It’s not uncommon for the sun to glint off a rock face there, but the geologist wishes to investigate, despite the fact that everyone thinks he is wasting his time and that he will be the laughing stock of the mission.

He convinces the team to go though, and having climbed the mountain, he finds at its top, a shining pyramid twice the height of a man.

The pyramid is returned to Earth. It takes twenty more years to take it apart and reach the machine within the walls. The geologist realises they have taken apart a beacon placed by another intelligent civilization that had been left on the hope that life would form on Earth. Now that the beacon has been moved, its signal will have been sent to whatever was detecting it. As the geologist concludes, ‘we have set off the fire-alarm, and have nothing to do but to wait.’

Clarke explores the vastness of the universe and correlates it to the loneliness we have as an intelligent species. The loneliness of the aliens, whoever or whatever they are, is also felt. The civilization that has scattered thousands of the pyramid sentinels near every planet that could support life around the galaxy.

This story was expanded to become the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, but I have seen Space Odyssey and though that was a great film, I wouldn’t want to compare or contrast it with this story. They are entirely different. The Sentinel should be read as it is, but I can see how it gripped the imagination of that great film maker, as it is bound to impress anyone who reads it.

1 Comment

Posted by on December 27, 2011 in Clarke, Arthur C


An Annoynmous Island – by Yi Mun-Yol, (translated from the Korean by Heinz Insu Fenkl) – published in Sept 12 2011 New Yorker

photo by HominiA very kind individual that I know has recently packaged up all the New Yorker magazines she’s received over the past six months and sent them down to me in Melbourne. The New Yorker is such a treat, but with so many suddenly at my impoverished disposal, I find myself opening up each magazine and flicking though to the story. After reading the story, I cast the rest away. I feel like I’m after the cashew nut dangling at the bottom of a huge fruit. The New Yorker as a whole is an excellent magazine, but it’s that deliciously sweet, tasty nut that I’m really after.

I am always in two minds about whether I should rely so heavily on what the New Yorker publishes. Surely it is only one perspective on literature. By relying too heavily on one volume, aren’t I heavily narrowing my range of experience? But then I read something like An Annoynmous Island and can understand the importance of this literary magazine. For the New Yorker seems to be aware of its mandate as well, and makes sure source stories from other cultures. It’s not just about Updike and Dorothy Parker.

I was interested in Yi Mun-Yol’s story. I didn’t know much about the author. In this age of Wikipedia though, not knowing something about something is a sin that can quickly be remedied. Yi Mun-Yol is one of South Korea’s leading writers with scores of novels, novellas and short story collections under his belt, yet if it wasn’t for the New Yorker, he probably wouldn’t have registered on my radar.

There is no physical island in the story, it takes place in a small village, surrounded by mountains. There is only one road into the village, and only one other leading out. Like an island though, the residents have close familiar ties. The narrator is a young school teacher on her first assignment. There is however, one other outsider in the village, Ggaecheol, who by common consensus is considered the village idiot. Only he may well not be. The forty year old man lives off the charity of the villagers but is ungrateful for it, yet the young teacher can see no reason why the village would care for an outsider when he has no connection or relation to the village community.

Slowly though, the teacher realises that is precisely why he is tolerated by the villagers. She finds and even experiences herself, how the dishevelled man visits the young women of the village. He is an unspoken mechanism the village has accepted to combat adultery and incest between cousins. The men are aware that their wives are being visited, but agree to ignore the fact. It is a mask which allows for the outward preservation of moral chastity of the women. Sexuality can’t be conquered, even in a small community, but everyone can have a collective pretence of the fact, and that loose morals is a problem of the cities, not the rural communities.

A very interesting story, and I particularly enjoyed how it functioned within the concepts of another culture’s values, although sexuality is still something not honestly addressed culture. I need only look at the debate going on around in my country about gay marriage. I always had the idea that the New Yorker was intent on creating a genre of short story, but recently, reading the work of writers in other cultures, I realise the New Yorker does much to bring authors to the attention of the western populace.

This isn’t a link to the story, but it is a link to an interview with the translator and his experience of translating the story

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 10, 2011 in Mun Yoi, Yi