I’ve been working my way through some of the “classic” science fiction books to see and understand more of the genre’s origins and how it’s evolved. The science fiction titles on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list feel like a good way to kill two birds with one stone. What I knew about Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey before reading it was mostly just two things strongly connected to the film—the music from Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra and the bit of dialogue referencing the pod bay doors—and neither of which turns out to have given much of anything away from the story at hand.
Beginning with the early education of mankind as he evolved from man-apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey follows a rather disjointed structure that makes pinning down the main plot a bit difficult. Some sort of extra-terrestrial force arrive in the African plains and study and educate those early ancestors of mankind in part one. By part two, man had already established working colonies on the Moon and made an unexpected discovery while exploring and excavating the Moon’s surface—a monolith that dates back to the days before mankind had fully evolved. A clear indication that intelligent life has or continues to exist in the greater universe, the rest of the book is much more focused on the mission to make contact—though who knows about the discovery and the true nature of the mission is kept pretty quiet. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole are the two active crew-members as the ship Discovery—with the assistance of a supercomputer, HAL—embark for Jupiter while their three companions wait in suspension to be reawakened upon arrival when they will conduct their experiments. Before they can reach Jupiter, however, the secrets of the “true mission” begin to cause problems with the HAL computer system.
2001: A Space Odyssey felt like it was trying to tell several different stories at the same time and I think that’s part of why I found it inconsistent and ultimately a bit disappointing. It’s full of wonderful insights and eloquent observations about mankind but it lacks a unified and driving narrative. The strongest—and for me, most compelling—part of the story was Part Four when HAL and his artificial intelligence begin posing problems for Bowman and Poole. The questions of intelligence, consciousness, and how artificial intelligence fits into that conversation when juxtaposed with the depictions of early man in Part One are fascinating. There’s an attempt to carry that consciousness discussion through the resolution of the book but with so much of the book dealing with the journey, there isn’t enough build up of the extra-terrestrial race itself for that conversation to feel successful in the final chapters of the book—at least, not for me. There were moments when Part Four walks the lines between thriller, science fiction, and horror story.*
The science that goes into describing the conditions and technology in space—particularly the ways they create artificial gravity—is incredibly detailed. One of the best things about going back to old science fiction is seeing the predicted technologies and seeing if and how they match up with modern reality. There are several technologies that have modern approximations—a portable screen for reading newspapers that sounds a lot like an iPad or Kindle—and others where the modern approximations feel like the writers should have been able to see them coming—digital photography and video for instance.
So while it won’t be at the top of my list of favorites any time soon, it was interesting to read something so iconic—though I suspect the film will be more impressive.
*(A little research will show that the film was inspired by a short story Clarke wrote, The Sentinel; he wrote the screenplay with Kubric and after the film came out, released the novel. Given the title, I’m guessing the story was focused on HAL, which is probably why I find that part of the novel the strongest.)