Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Worlds – 2001: A Space Odyssey (London, 2000)

(This review will contain spoilers for both the book and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey just in case you haven’t got around to seeing that 48 year old movie yet).

The weekend before last, I capped off  my first ever week of teaching to visit my girlfriend in London in order to both physically and mentally get away from it all. The worst thing about this was that I eventually had to come back. On my way to Euston Station I invariably stopped off in the ever-excellent Camden Lock Books. There I picked up three new books – a couple of Penguin Essentials – Lolita and Out of Africa – and also found 2001: A Space Odyssey in the pile of sci-fi books at the end of the discount table. Though I already had something to read (Aaron Allston’s Iron Fist – which will be reviewed en bloc with his other X-Wing book, Solo Command, when I have read them) I decided to make a start on it whilst waiting for my train and then proceeded to blitz through a good chunk of it for the rest of the day.

2001

2001 is a book intricately associated with the legendary Stanley Kubrick film. I saw that film a long time ago and I must confess I found it to be a film that was simultaneously remarkably technically accomplished and enjoyable to look at/listen to and also incredibly boring and, at the end, impossibly trippy.

In a short introduction Clarke notes that the novel was written alongside the film itself, though there are differences between the two. It appeared in 1968, shortly after the film and therefore, the two are inextricably linked. In this sense, this review reminds me a bit of the time I read Jurassic Park last year – though is different in two important ways (1) given its conception this book is much more inextricably linked with the film and (2) I like Jurassic Park (the film) way more than I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though I enjoy most of his other work my favourite Stanley Kubrick by a country mile is Barry Lyndon. I know, sue me.

The book follows the same three broad ‘acts’ as the film. It begins in prehistoric Africa at the dawn of mankind, then jumps right to the twenty-first century to the discovery of a mysterious monolith on the moon and the mission sent in response. The second Act details Frank Poole and David  (‘I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that‘) Bowman’s custodianship of a mission to Saturn and struggle with supercomputer HAL 9000. The final one is almost as trippy and incomprehensible as the film.

I have only seen 2001 the film once. But it is such a testament to the enduring quality of its visuals that all I could think about when reading the first section of the book was its cinematic counterpart. This is not to say that the one is better than the other, indeed I don’t think the two can really exist without each other. 2001 is quite a slim book considering the vast, literally incomprehensible, scope of the work. Despite this, Clarke is at home describing the functions of primitive proto-men shuffling about the savannahs of Africa, cowering fearfully in caves from the leopard that comes in the night. One day a shimmering, crystalline monolith appears and begins to carry out a series of intelligence tests upon the apes. Many fail, but some succeed, and thus with tiny incremental steps mankind sets out on its journey to take over the world.

Perhaps one of the most iconic shots of the entire film is the smash cut from bone to satellite (see below).

MatchCut
From bone to satellite. Probably one of the most iconic shots in cinematic history.

The transition in the book is just as abrupt. Bringing the narrative forward by millennia to 2001, a year that must have profoundly disappointed Arthur C. Clarke given his optimism for our progress in space exploration. From hereonin there is a lot more ‘science’ to go along with the fiction, and it seems clear that Clarke is both a master of his craft (writing) and also knows what is what where the science is concerned. I mean, I confess, he could have been saying anything and my distinctly humanities-oriented intelligence would have accepted it eagerly but Clarke goes to great length to explain astronomical phenomena as Dave, Frank and their hibernating crewmates slowly power toward Saturn. Clarke’s writing style is quite basic and is not often given over to dramatic flourish, but this works really well and helps the story flow, even where there are chunks of what is essentially exposition explaining how something works. The odyssey of the Discovery becomes the odyssey of mankind as the plot ruminates on where man came from and where they might go – evolving from our problematic biological shells to become immortal machines of plastic and metal, and finally beings of pure consciousness.

The intermediate metal stage is illustrated by the presence of what might be called the novel (and the film’s) primary antagonist – HAL 9000. This is, however, something of a misnomer since HAL’s ‘evil’ comes from a profoundly ‘human’ flaw – its guilt at being made to keep a secret about the true purpose of the Discovery‘s mission. Thus begins one of the most famous, if one of the least eventful, ‘space battles’ in sci-fi history as Dave, the sole surviving member of the crew, attempts to turn off the computer that controls so many of the essential functions of the ship.

Indeed, the conflict with HAL is symptomatic of the entire style of 2oo1, not a book given over to unnecessary dramatics, it operates primarily on a cerebral – almost philosophical – level. Questioning our very notions of humanity, of existence, of self-determination and free will. After all, if the human race emerged as the result of extra-terrestrial experimentation, is their role truly any different from that of a god? Rather than thrill-a-minute space dogfights or chases across alien worlds, Clarke captivates the reader with the beauty of space, the marvels of human engineering, and the incomprehensible wonder of the universe.

Then, much like the film, everything goes a bit crazy. I appreciate that the final part of the novel/film when Dave goes through the Star Gate is supposed to be largely incomprehensible. All I could think of when reading this last part was the prog-rock song ‘Children of the Sun’ by Billy Thorpe (which incidentally I discovered while watching the excellent second season of Fargo). However, it just jarred a little with what had come before, which was a novel that was science-fictional, but in a recognisable and understandable way. Clarke goes all out for the final bit, with inverted galaxies, spaceship graveyards, and strange hotel rooms. To his credit, however, all this is explained much more clearly than it is in the film, where I seem to recall that I had little-to-no idea what was going on. Essentially, Bowman is transported to a sort of holding cell, his accumulated human knowledge is acquired by the ancestors of those who placed the monoliths on earth and the moon millions of years ago, and he is reincarnated as an almost omnipotent ‘star child’. Then he goes back to earth and, I think, stops a nuclear war – or doesn’t, I don’t really know as it ended quite abruptly.

In conclusion, then, 2001 is a very short book which deals with lots of big issues in a (relatively) comprehensible and, more importantly since it is a fiction book, readable way. I feel that if I re-watched the movie I would probably now understand and perhaps enjoy it a lot more. The relatively lack of activity might open this work up to similar criticisms of the film, i.e. that it is a bit boring. However, I felt that it did the job of the best science-fiction in making us question the world we live in today, and didn’t sacrifice this for the sake of page-turning action sequences. Similarly, the very few characters were quite well-drawn, which is to Clarke’s credit in a novel which is really about concepts and technology. Moon-Watcher, the proto-human with whom the narrative begins, was a more rounded individual than many sci-fi characters I have encountered and he never spoke a word.

Because it lost me a bit at the end I will give this four infinities ∞∞∞∞ (this would have been a really good time to know how to do stars…)

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