2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Rating 10.0/10
2001: A Space Odyssey therefore is much more than a trip into space that goes wrong.

The novel version of 2001 A Space Odyssey came to be because the director Stanley Kubrik wrote to Arthur C Clarke in 1964 to ask him if he had any ideas for a 'proverbial good science fiction movie'. Kubric wanted a story to then form a script for the 1968 film of the same name. Developed from a short story Clarke wrote called The Sentinel, where an alien artefact is found on the moon, 2001 A Space Odyssey expands this into a frontier-exploring novel where mankind, which has managed to build a space station above earth and set up a research base on the moon, is now expanding even further out into the solar system and sending men to Saturn. However, the unearthing of a strange black monolith buried on the moon will have significant consequences for the crew of the Discovery as it makes its way deep into the solar system.

The book, like the film, begins with the beginning of mankind, hundreds of thousands of years ago, and a monolith that appears out of nowhere near a group of apes. What the book explains, which the film does a lot more abstractly, is that this monolith has been sent by, and contains, alien intelligence, and it kick-starts the development of the apes down a path towards becoming human. It is the same as the monolith on the moon, which once uncovered, sends out a pulse into space aimed at Saturn. Unfortunately this discovery of the monolith is concealed from Frank Poole and David Bowman, who are the two members of the Discovery crew which are awake for the voyage, and who are at the mercy of the most advanced computer of the age - HAL 9000.

HAL has been built to sound as human as possible, as well being powerful enough to run the entire ship. As the alien intelligence influenced humankind so long ago, humans have created their own intelligence in a computer that is vastly superior to any human brain, but which has its own failings. The film focuses heavily on the voyage and HAL's personality and interaction with the crew, and the growing uneasiness Bowman feels in the face of HAL’s unblinking red eye and unemotional demeanour. As disaster befalls the crew, the film leaves the cause unexplained as a warning that the technology we build may then move beyond our control, with the reason only being revealed in the sequel, 2010, released in 1984.

However, in the novel, although the plot is very similar, the spaceship and HAL aren’t focused on to the same extent, and the reason for what happens is explained. What the monoliths are, and what subsequently happens to Bowman when he reaches Saturn’s moon Iapetus and makes his final transmission to earth of 'The thing's hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God – it's full of stars!', is what the novel is really built on rather than a psychotic computer. This isn’t to disparage the film in any way, it just creates a different feel and in the way that the film and book of The Shining are different but still both great, so is 2001. It seems to be the way Kubrik liked to work.

What happens to Bowman after he reaches Saturn is where I think the novel really moves to a different style of space-based science fiction, as a more space opera feel comes in and the most extraordinary scenes are described. At one point a derelict spaceport is passed, which is described as being hundreds of miles long and a million years old. This story only just hinted at by Clarke is immense and goes far, far beyond our solar system, but also our existence as a species. This one construction that has been left drifting in space for so long encapsulates so much – who or what built it, what was it used for, what distance of space was this a hub for, and why was it abandoned? Have ‘they’ moved beyond the need for a physical presence? Bowman is humankind’s ambassador into this extraordinary evolutionary leap, but what will follow is left to our imagination.

Not only does Clarke tease with a sketch of a far greater story, deliberately trapping us in with Bowman as he sails through this truly alien panorama in complete ignorance of what has already been achieved so long ago, he also manages to predict a manned space station, and more intriguingly an electronic pad used by a character to check news from across the Earth, which is truly astonishing when it would be another forty years before ipads appeared.

2001 A Space Odyssey therefore is much more than a trip into space that goes wrong, or a warning about artificial intelligence, it’s a story of humankind’s onward quest to discover what is out there, but also of how we got to where we are.

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