2001: A Space Odyssey by Clarke, Arthur C., 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey by Clarke, Arthur C. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Like Blade Runner, I doubt that there are many of you out there who have not seen Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. Its one of the most epic, unusual, interesting and in my opinion, best genre movies that have ever been made, and in that respect it has a lot in common with Blade Runner. The movie itself was a loose adaptation by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke of a story that Clarke wrote in the 1940's called The Sentinel, about an object that is excavated from the moon which sends a signal to the culture that buried it there millions of years ago. The novel which is being reviewed here was written by Clarke contemporaneously with the movie script, and was approved by Kubrick. It was basically a movie tie-in book that came out about six months after the film was released. For that reason the novel bears little resemblance to the original short story but tracks for the most part with the film, with a few big differences, and a lot more explanation of things left unclear in Kubrick's film. The scope of this novel is amazing. It examines the effects that discoveries by early man have on the mature race millions of years later as it is pushed by outside forces onto the first step of a post-human existence. It tells an important story from the dawn of mankind which is linked to the next story about a trip to Saturn in the year 2001. Rather than go though the entire plot, which I am certain most of you are familiar with, I'll just hit on the big elements from each section, discuss how the book deals with a few of the more hard-to-grasp concepts in the movie, then summarize and conclude with a discussion of the themes and how Clarke uses them to achieve his and Kubrick's goals. Five out of five stars.

Part one of 2001 is about the ascent of man and how we discovered tool-use as a success strategy. It is set about three million years ago, and Its about a band of early hominids led by an alpha-male who calls himself Moon Watcher. Moon Watcher's band is not doing so well. They and their race are mostly foragers and compete with cud-chewers for berries and shoots on a plain. There is so little food available that members of the band die pretty frequently of starvation, and are hunted with impunity by larger predators. They are forced to trek great distances each day for food, and one day come across a crystal obelisk in their path. The obelisk is a probe from an alien race that accesses the hominid's minds directly and teaches them how to use tools for hunting and defense. There are probes all over the Earth, working with many different groups. The fortunes of the hominids, who will one day evolve into us, change radically and overnight. They learn how to kill for meat, defend themselves from predators such as leopards, and make war with other hominids for scarce resources such as water.

Clarke transports us then to the year 1999 in Part two where an identical black obelisk has been excavated in the regolith of the Moon. Once excavated and touched by the rays of the sun the obelisk transmits a message to the stars, signifying that mankind has achieved a technology and awareness capable of allowing them to reach the Moon. Close on the heels of the message mankind sends a ship, the Discovery, out to the Saturn system where the message was directed. The Discovery is crewed by five humans, Poole and Bowman, as well as Whitehead, Kaminski and Hunter in cryogenic sleep, and the Hal 9000 computer. Hal is mankind's greatest achievement, a sentient computer. It is capable of running the ship completely on his own, and has been instructed that if an emergency arises he is first to wake the sleepers, then contact Earth, and then if necessary complete the mission on its own. Only Hal has been told that the mission is one of first contact. Poole and Bowman think only that they are on a voyage of discovery. Along the way Hal, who is dedicated to the pursuit of pure knowledge, loses his mind because of the lie he was forced to tell to Bowman and Poole. Hal malfunctioned and Poole and Bowman decided to disconnect Hal's consciousness, keeping his autonomic functions up to run Discovery. Hal learned of this and took action to protect himself. He disabled the antenna for communication with Earth, terminated the life functions of the sleepers and killed Poole while he was EVA trying to correct the malfunction that Hal orchestrated. Bowman survived Hal's attacks and disconnected his higher logic circuits, leaving himself alone continue the journey to Saturn. He arrived months later and found an enormous replica of the monolith on the moon Japetus. Bowman descended in a pod and was swept away through a stargate to a far, far distant binary system made up of a white dwarf and a red giant. There he encountered the crystal monolith from the dawn of humankind, which regressed him to the form of a child, then forcibly evolved him into a being of pure energy which was capable of understanding and using the high technology of the aliens. The Star Child returns to Earth in time to stop an all-out nuclear war, where the story ends.

I think what Clarke was really writing about here was transformation. The most obvious element of this is Bowman's transformation from human being to Star Child at the end of the book, but there is something much more basic and in a different sense, more important here going on. The world that Clarke has drawn is not too different than our own. It is highly overpopulated and as a result food shortages affect every nation including the United States. Most nations have become pretty destabilized. Added to this are the thirty-eight nuclear nations, and China, which regularly sells weapons technology to any buyer. So what Clarke has done here is essentially come full circle with the effects of food scarcity and weapons on humanity. Three million years ago the development of tools as weapons was necessary to end food scarcity and stabilize the hominids enough so that they could dedicate energy to mastering tool use and evolve into man-kind. Later, after homo sapiens sapiens has conquered every corner of the globe those very same weapons threaten the survival of the race, and food scarcity acts as a catalyst to destabilization, which increases the threat of the use of weapons. Clarke is saying that there comes a point in our evolution where we have to abandon the strategies that gave us a leg up against the competition, even if those same strategies may still help but only if used wisely.

Just below that, however, Clarke is also telling us about evolution, and the wonderful possibilities of technology. The last part of the movie, which deals essentially with the technology issue, is as clouded in mystery as a Jackson Pollack painting. These days, after having watched the film literally dozens of times, I usually fast-forward through the stargate trip because it is so obtuse and difficult to watch. Clarke gives you a much clearer, much more cogent, and infinitely more interesting description of a race that has had millions and millions of years longer than us to evolve. From the stargate passage, to a switching station for different legs of stargate "tracks," to long abandoned star ship ports, to beings that live in and get energy directly from stars, the last forty pages of this book will have you reading with your jaw in your lap. And that is the real strength of an Arthur C. Clarke book. He usually gives you an interesting plot, and pretty well crafted characters, but the settings he provides are simply second-to-none.

I have never since nor do I actually think I will ever find anyone who does this as well as Clarke. In all his career Clarke had basically two main moods. the first was wish-fulfillment, and the second was wide-eyed, child-like wonder. This book is written in both. I have always thought that Clarke was saying in this book that the race that got this immense program started in the first place eventually evolved out of their bodies and into the monoliths, then evolved further to beings of energy that do not need bodies any longer. On this re-reading I think I may be reading too much into the text, as the artificial bodies that they evolve into are described as "metal and plastic," but I think that there may still be something to this. But whatever Clarke meant, his ideas are visionary. Unfortunately these days they are not exactly singular, but Clarke seems to me to be one of the first to really go to his place, and in that regard I think of him as the father of the post-human movement that really got going, then died before producing a masterpiece for us, in the 1990's.

There are three other books in this "trilogy," which are 2010, 2061, and the much maligned 3001. For the most part they deal with the same issues of evolution and massive engineering of the Sol system. I personally have not read the last book yet, but its in my pile. I do recommend 2010, and if you're a completest, 2061. This one however, 2001, is a must-read that you should seek out and read soon.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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