Arthur C. Clarke
The Sentinel

This is one of those plush reprint collections which American publishers present to big-name authors who've failed to produce enough new short stories. (Clarke, as we know, has been writing novels.) Like many lavishly illustrated books, it would have been more impressive without all the lousy artwork. The collection is still welcome: lots of Clarke appears to be out of print. Asimov and Heinlein are reissued daily, but British publishers seem less keen on the only Briton to challenge and surpass the American biggies on their own turf.

Large print disguises a skimpy contents list: introduction, eight short stories, a very short film outline, thirteen pages of alleged artwork, and lots more pages which are blank except for a story title or a paragraph of chatty introduction, or just plain blank. One of the blanks is page 301, tagged in the contents as "Contributors". Contributors? There are secrets of the Universe with which mankind was not meant to meddle.

The stories are good, assembled from hard-to-find collections: Reach for Tomorrow, Expedition to Earth, The Other Side of the Sky, The Wind from the Sun. They're full of Clarke's favourite themes of elegies for great things which have passed away, slender threads of intelligence reaching across gulfs of space, the human spirit being measured against infinity. Unlike Asimov and Heinlein, Clarke has a genuine touch of poetry -- the austere poetry which Wordsworth saw in the statue of Newton ...

with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind, forever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

Included here: "Rescue Party", with aliens weeping over the death of Earth, only to receive a nasty shock. "Refugee", that very British tale of royalism in space. "Guardian Angel", seed of Childhood's End, whose famous punchline was lost in the novel. "The Sentinel" itself, fabled seed of 2001. "Jupiter V", though a very different story, could almost be called the seed of Rendezvous with Rama. "Breaking Strain"... "The Wind from the Sun"... "A Meeting with Medusa"... no duds here, though the film outline "The Songs of Distant Earth" isn't a patch on the original short story of that name.

Not the (over-anthologized) best of Clarke, but definitely better than nothing. Better, too, than his Imperial Earth or 2010....