Sunday, February 14, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke

This novel is probably one of the best known and most read science fiction novels of all time. Its connection with the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name helped lift it to a popularity that novel would not have reached otherwise. I'm not entirely sure the same is true for the movie  but it has to be said that they probably work better combined than each of them do individually. The novel and movie complement each other in a unique way. In part, this probably has to do with the way they were created simultaneously, with the movie eventually being released a few months before the novel. There is a fascinating contrast between Clarke's clear, direct prose and Kubrick's poetic and ultimately trippy cinematography. Personally I think it is virtually impossible to understand the movie without having read the novel.

The novel is written in six parts detailing the intervention of an alien species in the evolution of humanity. The story begins three million years ago, when a strange monolith is discovered by a group of starving early Homindae. Given the knowledge of human evolution at the time, Clarke probably had Homo Habilis in mind. The aliens set the human species on the path of developing tools, enabling them to hunt and add meat to their to that point meagre diet and defend themselves from predators. It sets the species on the path towards technology. The aliens do not stick around to see the result of their experiment. Instead, they set an alarm, one that humanity cannot fail to set off if they reach a sufficiently high level of technology. In the year 2001, it is discovered on the far side of the moon. We are no longer alone in the universe.

2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968 and like pretty much any science fiction novel of that decade, it is badly dated. This is most apparent in the Primeval Night section, set three million years ago. This part of the story borrows the concept from his short story Encounter in the Dawn which was published in 1953. Our knowledge of human evolution has increased tremendously in the last half century, creating a much more detailed picture of the human family tree, as well as their environment, diet and other aspects of their ecology. A modern anthropologist would shred the opening of the novel to pieces. The implication that cognition is so rare that Earth needed a nudge to develop it is interesting though. Makes you wonder where, in Clarke's story, we would have ended up without it.

Soon Clarke moves into more familiar territory: the future seen from 1968. Part of the story is inspired by another one of Clarke's short pieces, The Sentinel written in 1948. He misses his guess on a number of social and political developments in these sections too. Space travel is much more advanced in the novel and human visits to the gas giants are possible in this story. As always there is a meticulous eye for the details of space travel. The difference between weight and mass, the consequences of the absence of gravity, inertia and how all those things impact and complicate getting around in space. This is what Clarke is good at and it is on prominent display in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He even goes so far as to describe how using a toilet in space might be accomplished. It sounds like a bit of an overcomplicated solution to me.

The real star of the show is HAL9000 though, and Kubrick makes excellent use of that in the movie. In a way, Clarke reaches back here to Asimov's stories on artificial intelligence. In his Robot stories he describes several scenarios in which the programming instructions of the Robot appears to conflict and the sometimes unexpected results this can have. HAL9000 is presented a similar problem and he turns the trip into a nightmare for the crew. The movie does a better job of turning HAL into a creepy machine but the book is not far behind. The isolation of the crew and he fact that HAL is the essential in running many parts of the ship create an atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia in this part of the novel. It is Clarke, the eternal optimist when it comes to human ingenuity, warning against the use of technology we do not fully understand.

It's not the only thing Clarke is uncharacteristically pessimistic about. He gets the population of Earth about right but thought we would have trouble feeding that many. In essence, the final part of the story tells us that we once again could use alien intervention. That picture is buried in an almost surreal bit of writing however. Clarke's aliens are alien for sure. It has to be said that Clarke does a few things that are atypical in this book. Perhaps that is the influence Kubrick had on the novel. It does contain many of the flaws found in much of his work though. Characters are completely two-dimensional and there isn't a woman in sight. When the new wave was washing over science fiction, Clarke was for the most part still stuck in big idea stories. Something he would not be able to move beyond in the rest of his career either.

I very much doubt 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been the pinnacle of popularity in Clarke's career without the movie. It is probably telling that while the movie is considered one of the best science fiction movies ever - it even won an Oscar for the best visual effects -  the novel generally does not inspire such praise. It was largely ignored during awards season, a sharp contract to Rendezvous with Rama (1973) which would sweep the awards a few years later. It is an influential work for sure, but the shadow of the movie looms over it. Perhaps the two can't really be fully enjoyed separately. For me at least, the book and the movie work a lot better in tandem. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those science fiction novels you have to have read, but in all honesty, it is not the best Clarke has produced.

Book Details
Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 266
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85723-664-4
First published: 1968

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