2001: a space odyssey

by Arthur C. Clarke

Del Rey

0-451-45273-9

221pp/$12.95/1968

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


I've always preferred Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 to Stanley Kubrick's 2001, even though Kubrick's movie broke more ground than Clarke's novel. Although Kubrick's movie is a masterpiece for several reasons, I was never able to understand what exactly was happening, especially towards the end, without reading the Clarke novel. This was driven home to me when I was watching 2001 on January 12, 1997 (HAL's activation day) and found myself explaining the film to my wife. The majority of the explanation was based, not on repeated viewings of the film, but on my reading of the novel.

This is, of course, risky, since the novel and the film are two very different mediums and works. In the novel, the Discovery's destination is Saturn, not Jupiter. Clarke also has explained that he was not entirely sure what Kubrick's ending meant, although I've heard rumors it was Kubrick's way of not having to show aliens who would appear either funny or horrific.

So, the question remains, how does a 29 (Wow!) year old science fiction novel stand up?

I've always enjoyed the novel 2001 more than the movie. Although the film (which I'll watch just about any time) has magnificent special effects, there is so much silent time that one really doesn't get involved with the film. In the book, the silent time is taken up by Clarke's explanations of the science behind the novel, his attempts at characterization (it says something that the most fully realized character in the book is the computer) and his successful attempts to describe the solar system, the asteroid belt, Jupiter and Saturn, with a sense of wonder. Arthur C. Clarke may never have set foot on another planet, but his descriptive ability has allowed many readers to visit alien planets and moons.

Perhaps the weakest part of 2001 is the ending. There may be several reasons for this. The first is that Clarke was attempting to describe something which was entirely mystical and completely outside human experience. Because of this, he could only hint at what David Bowman experiences at the end of the novel. Another reason may have been that Clarke (as he has said in at least one interview) has no idea what Kubrick's ending meant. I imagine it would be difficult to describe the event in that particular circumstance. However, the very ambiguity which defines Bowman's experience is one of the strengths of the end of the novel. Rather than attempt to describe in minute detail what was happening to the astronaut, Clarke lets us see his strange experiences through Bowman's own eyes. We can only comprehend as much of his transformation than he can. David Bowman is undergoing a birth, and just as an human child can not understand what happens, neither could Bowman.

Of course, the most famous character from the novel is the HAL 9000 computer. During the course of the novel, HAL goes from being a member of the crew with the utmost confidence in the mission to an unemotional killer. As with many of the events which occur in 2001, Clarke gives no explanation for what would cause HAL's anomaly. This, along with the mysterious ending Clarke gives the novel, practically made a sequel essential. The surprising thing is that it took Clarke fourteen years before he wrote the explanatory work. Of course, in the fifteen years since 2010 came out, Clarke has written two more sequels to flesh out his vision of the future.

Clarke's work is highly optimistic. In 2001, he envisions a world in which travel to the moon may not be commonplace, but it occurs frequently enough that children can be born at a lunar scientific base. A massive space station is being built in Low Earth Orbit and shuttles ply their way between Earth, the station and the Moon effortlessly. A trip to Saturn is possible and almost a matter-of-fact occurrence. Written as man was about to set foot on the moon, it is no wonder that Clarke's portrayal of the future of astronautics would be so glorious. If only it had come to pass.

On the other hand, one issue which gets downplayed in 2001 (because the book does not cover the period immediately after the mission), is the public reaction to losing an entire astronaut crew. When 2001 was written, the Challenger disaster was still sixteen years in the future. The Apollo One fire in which Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died was in the very recent past. Unlike the Shuttle disaster, the fire did not shut down the space program. When Clarke was writing, space exploration could continue in the face of disaster, much as it would continue after the Discovery disaster of 2001.


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Go to Review of 2010: Odyssey Two
Go to Review of 2061: Odyssey Three
Go to Review of 3001: The Final Odyssey


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