on 15 January 2015
Arthur C. Clarke – the ne plus ultra of SF, alongside Isaac Asimov – writes about infinity and eternity with a brevity that is simply awesome. Not for him longeurs needlessly swelling his books to, say, Peter F. Hamilton’s Brobdingnagian proportions, oh no. You get a two sentence reflection on what it must feel like to sit waiting for eternity for nothing to happen, and those sentences sink like stones to the heart of you and stay there for a long time.
This is what 2001 gets right – a sense of scale dwarfing the series of acutely tiny personal stories set in unimaginable vastness that feels described down to the dust in its corners. The passage of time, too – though jumping some three million years ahead between parts one and two – and the sense of age and majesty this invokes floats effortlessly behind everything you read; the gap is important, and the significance it is underlining is never overdone. What it gets wrong is that something like this needs an end, and compressing all that vastness back down towards a finishing point proves possibly too grand a task for even Clarke’s awesome abilities. I like to think it’s due to Kubrick’s influence but, whatever the reason, the ending is just weird and doesn’t feel at all Clarkeian to me.
If you’ve come to this after the movie, unsure if it will be your kind of thing, here’s a test: read chapter 7 (Special Flight). That casual technical speculation sprinkled with a mixture of scientific awesomeness and indistinguishable complete invention? That’s Arthur C. Clarke right there. Seriously, there’s a sentence in The Hammer of God that completely changed the way I think about gravity (I appreciate this might make me sound like an idiot...I can live with that). If chapter 7 reads like your kind of thing, welcome aboard; if not, give Clarke a wide berth, his myriad wonders aren’t for you.
on 28 December 2010
To think that this book was written over forty years ago, and yet the author has achieved a high success rate with his detailed predictions for the immediate future. This is a highly imaginative, superb story, one which really makes you think about our role in the universe. To be read again ...... and again.
And what a great idea (especially in 1968) for the spaceship's computer Hal to have a nervous breakdown!
A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond...
Well, it's easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.
The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don't directly interfere in the man-apes' existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It's written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.
We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth's greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn't managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.
A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn't exactly know why, though we're one step ahead in that we assume it's something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven't we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it's intriguing to compare Clarke's projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.
The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that's the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you're that way inclined. Clarke said...
“...because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man's comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in "2001", and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.”
He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn't aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I'm intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)
As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm... well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it's one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I'm going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn't go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it's philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I'm pretty sure I'd be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the '60s, of course.
Most sci-fi makes the universe feel... well, mundane. Few authors of science fiction actually convey the haunting wonder of the cosmos, and the mysteries that we may never grasp.
But Arthur C. Clarke clearly did not have that problem, as evidenced by his legendary "2001: a Space Odyssey." Written concurrently with the famously artistic (and glacially-paced) Stanley Kubrick movie, this is a hauntingly expansive, mysterious story that looks toward the strange, almost mystical expanses of the universe, from computers gone mad to mysterious aliens of almost godlike power. And yes, it's full of stars. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
The story begins millions of years ago, when a tribe of starving hominids encounters a mysterious black monolith. This strange object somehow affects their development, allowing them to develop tools and start killing for food and dominance. Fast forward to 1999: Dr. Heywood Floyd travels to the moon colonies for a meeting, and learns of a magnetic disturbance on the crater of Tycho. A strange black slab of mathematically-precise proportions has been unearthed there, designated TMA-1, and upon being found sends a signal towards Saturn's moon Iapetus.
Then we switch to the Discovery One mission, a sleeper ship that has been launched towards Jupiter; three crewmen are in suspended animation, while Frank Poole, Dave Bowman and the AI computer HAL 9000 run the ship. At first, all is well. But when HAL begins exhibiting strange behavior, Frank and Dave begin to suspect that something is seriously wrong with him -- and Dave's seemingly mundane exploration mission turns out to be just the beginning of a far stranger experience, which will take him past the edges of human existence.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" is rightfully considered one of the greatest, most compelling works of science fiction of the twentieth century, which is even more impressive when one considers that it is still overshadowed by Kubrick's movie. Admittedly a few facets of it are a bit dated (the rather adorably zeerust depiction of typewriters on the moon, an all-male astronaut crew). But the heart and backbone of the book is exquisitely timeless; knowledge of scientific phenomena (the physics of low gravity) mingles beautifully with the transcendent quality of the universe's mysteries.
Part of this is that Clarke was a masterful writer. While "2001: A Space Odyssey" has a fairly straightforward plot, the elements of cosmic mystery keep it from ever being dull or predictable. The monoliths, the mysterious creators of them, the signals sent towards the stars, the transformations -- Clarke doesn't overexplain anything, instead allowing the strange, almost mystical aspects of the story to link together organically.
And he had a writing style that could exposit at length about the futuristic society (including a paragraph on how they eat in zero-G), then switch over to luminously beautiful descriptions of space travel ("A ghostly, glimmering rectangle had formed in the empty air. It solidified into a crystal tablet, lost its transparency, and became suffused with a pale, milky luminescence"). In fact, the last quarter of the book is dominated by the lonely Dave Bowman zooming through space, seeing the wondrous beauty of the planets and moons around him. It's basically astronomy porn.
Speaking of which, Dave is probably the closest the story has to a main character -- while he's emphasized to be specially trained and highly intelligent, Clarke writes him as a fairly ordinary guy who quickly finds himself in a strange situation that no human being could be prepared for. And while everyone remembers HAL 9000, he's actually only in the book for a relatively brief time, but he is a childlike yet chilly presence who acts in an oddly logical manner, despite going a bit nuts.
Few science fiction books have the majesty and mystery of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- and it's even more impressive when you realize it was just the first part of Arthur C. Clarke's four-part series. Spellbinding, gripping and beautifully written.
on 9 August 2011
Where do I start? Yes this is without doubt a masterpiece. Every page a thought provoking wonder. Yes the movie is a superb moment in film history but this book is in my view even better. If only the movie had stuck more closely to the novel then I feel many people would have not felt so baffled. A wonderous work
on 13 August 2001
An incredible, beautiful, awe-inspiring book that has had a considerable impact on my life. The prose is excellent, but the thing that makes this book so brilliant is it's scope.
It is also based on _real_ science without being overly technical. For example, in both the book and the movie the "Dawn of Man" (or Primeval Night) part demonstrates memetics eight years before Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. We see how one meme allowed man to develop.
That's all that I can say without spoiling the book, but it is amazing.
on 9 February 2016
This book is revolutionary. It well and truly set the standards for all future sci-fis concocted thereafter. People had been blown away by that epic, The End of Eternity, by Asimov, but then this magnificent tour de force nudged its way in, and changed everything yet again. The main theme of it is that of how humans first got their supreme intelligence. Clarke dives keenly, unflinchingly, authoritatively and confidently into this concept, generating a story that actually is a proper epic, despite the fact that it isn't that long. In common with Asimov's work, however, the thing that gets this book down a tad is how unrealistic the characters are. The way they react to the perilous situations that are thrown at them is a little cheesy. The storyline is next-level. You will most certainly not be bored. The narrative moves from Earth; to the moon; to Jupiter; to Saturn; and to...some place that I don't even know what to call, but that's cool anyway, in next to no time, meaning that this book reads kind of like a rollercoaster ride! The level of imagination behind it is just unthinkable. NEVER BEFORE THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN had anyone ever gotten CLOSE to matching the depth and passion exibited by this book, (and that's really saying something when you think back to End of). There's a good level of well-founded suspense in there as well, which adds a good bit of tonal impact. This is a magnificent whirlwind of a ride, that you'd be very ill-advised to miss.
Reviewed by Arron S. Munro.
on 3 July 2014
Summer is here and that can only mean one thing; a lazy day in the garden reading my book. Science Fiction is not always the best genre for doing this, the tomes can he heavy both physically and psychologically. With the impish and trippy ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ by Arthur C Clarke, you may think this would be the case, but it is actually a very approachable book that is easy to read. So easy in fact that I completed it in one sitting.
Written in parallel with the filming of Kubrick’s movie, it shares the same DNA as the film, but with some minor changes. It follows man’s journey to the stars from the cave all the way to beyond our understanding. Rather than coming in at 1000 pages and reflecting on every moment of man’s past and future, Clarke concentrates on a few key moments. The best are the cave men coming across a strange obelisk that opens their minds and the famous Hal section in space.
‘2001’ is extremely well written. It has some high minded concepts, but Clarke never loses the reader. The science is explained in a way that is approachable without being patronising and he continues to move the narrative forwards throughout. There are certainly small issues with the book; the vignette feel of the stories give it a disjointed feel and the end is a little too trippy even for me. However, read the book as a collection of connected short stories and you have a fun and extremely interesting science fiction book that will appeal to fans of the genre, but is also accessible to those who are not.
In many ways this is an extremely important book. It was written at the same time as the screenplay for the film was being produced, but both Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were clear that it was a completely different - if linked - entity. Agreement was reached between them that Clarke could adapt the storyline in ways which made more sense as a novel, so it is definitely not a 'novelisation' of the film, nor is the film based on the novel!
I read the novel first and then saw the film. It certainly helped to have read the novel when trying to deconstruct the film, which is now available at a very reasonable price as a marvellous Blu-Ray disc 2001 - A Space Odyssey [Blu-ray] . There are, however, many differences between the book and the film and they should be treated separately.
The novel, like many science fiction stories, is very much of its time. When it was written, the year 2001 was still over 3 decades in the future, and it is now nearly a decade in the past. Some of the predictions about life in the early 21st century now look quite quaint, whilst others are wildly over-optimistic, especially the state of space travel including shuttle, space station, moonbase and interplanetary travel. Nevertheless, the story is an epic one which encompasses the evolution of mankind from ape to superman through the influence of another race of beings. Clarke can often be seen as being rather 'cold' and better at describing the technology than the feelings of the humans involved, but he becomes very involved with the story, to the extent that HAL 9000 is almost more human than the humans. The plight of Dave Bowman is also dealt with in much more detail than would have been possible in the film.
Whilst no longer ground-breaking SF writing, this is still an enjoyable read and should be seen as an important part of the wider 2001 story, along with The Lost Worlds of 2001 which outlines the development of the story - and the screenplay - and The Making of Kubrick's 2001 which is the best contemporary account of the making of the film.
on 30 May 2012
I've found Arthur C. Clarke to be occasionally long-winded and overly techy at times, not so in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a novel that is so beautifully refined and free from filler that I was amazed it was Clarke I was reading.
The story is one of intervention. It's a history of the birth of mankind, and a prediction of where we may yet end up. I can't say much more than that as it will spoil key events in the narrative; events that act as a catalyst for the most significant change.
Written by Clarke at the same time as he collaborated on the film script for the Stanley Kubrick feature 2001: A Space Odyssey  [DVD], the prose both complements and occasionally deviates from the story presented in the film. Neither one is the gospel text; they both have a part to play. Interestingly, what I consider to be the most powerful scene in the film feels hurried and less emotional here. Conversely, the "monkey bit" in the film that elicits laughs from naysayers is a thing of beauty here. Kubrick creates the world and presents impersonal protagonists to inhabit it. Clarke creates more rounded characters but places them in a world that is in a state of constant flux. To fully understand the themes of 2001, it's important to assimilate both film and novel.