Well dear reader, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And not just because it was a book on my list that I actually finished recently. I liked it so much in fact that I watched the movie as well (more on that in a bit), and have already finished the second book in the Space Odyssey series, 2010: Odyssey Two. There are two more books in the series, 2061 and 3001, which I’m excited to get to as well to learn how the story of the monoliths ends.
So let’s get to it!
2001: A Space Odyssey is a story that encompasses a vast timescale in the universe’s development, focusing specifically on what are called monoliths and how these large, rectangular, black objects have influenced the development of intelligent life. As we are told right off the bat, this nurturing of intelligent life is all part of a grand experiment.
“It was a slow, tedious business, but the crystal monolith was patient. Neither it, nor its replicas scattered across half the globe, expected to succeed with all the scores of groups involved in the experiment. A hundred failures would not matter, when a single success could change the destiny of the world.”
Like the movie, which is quite an accurate adaption of the book, given that the two were developed together, the book begins with man’s ancestors, apes who are not yet “intelligent” and follows them as they discover a monolith near where they live. The monolith seems to be able to read their thoughts and compel them to engage in different actions, and it is through this psychic power that it sparks the idea in one of the ape’s minds to start using tools to make their lives easier.
You might recall the famous scene from the movie when one of the apes discovers that he can use the bones of dead animals as a weapon. This changes the trajectory of man’s development for ever after.
We are then treated to a time skip in which an aeronautics professional named Dr. Heywood Floyd visits the moon, where, surprise surprise, another monolith has been found! He has been sent to investigate the object. Floyd has a more prominent role in the later books in the series, and after this preliminary investigation, we are treated to another time skip and meet David Bowman and Frank Poole aboard the spaceship Discovery. They are being sent to Saturn since the monolith on the moon seems to have sent out some sort of signal in that direction.
Aboard the Discovery we also meet the infamous HAL 9000 computer, which ends up going rogue, since it must conceal the true nature of the mission from Bowman and Poole. This was a really interesting part of the novel that I enjoyed, because who doesn’t love a good AI-gone-rogue plot line.
After HAL goes rogue and the Discovery is all but destroyed, Bowman is taken on a spectacular trip around the universe, presumably by the monoliths or the entities that control the monoliths, becoming a star-child himself, an eternal being of pure energy.
Development of Intelligent Life
Intelligent life seems to be the main theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the rest of the series. In each part of the book, we see individuals who are essentially grappling with the limits of their intelligence.
In the first part, we see man-apes who are struggling to survive. They’re hungry all the time and they live at the whims of the nature around them. A leopard regularly terrorizes them and captures one of them to eat. There is an opposing tribe of apes at their watering hole. They have no control over the direction of their lives and need (though that could be argued) the monoliths to help them. So even their development was, in the book, unnatural and spurred on by forces outside their control. Once they understand how to use tools though, they are able to take control of their lives and shape the destiny of mankind.
In the second part of the novel, when we join Dr. Heywood Floyd on his journey to the moon to investigate the monolith, we once again follow someone who is working at the limits of his knowledge and intelligence. The monolith is discovered to be three million years old, meaning that it’s proof of intelligent life beyond mankind.
“At last, one of Man’s oldest questions had been answered; here was the proof, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that his was not the only intelligence that the universe had brought forth.”
But Floyd and the team investigating the monolith have absolutely no idea what the object is. It’s as black as night, absorbing all light that is aimed at it, and it doesn’t respond at all to any of their probes or machines. It is completely unknowable to them.
Finally, we meet HAL (more on him in the next section) and David Bowman. Bowman’s fate is to become a star-child, meaning that he becomes a being of pure energy that is able to zip around the universe with ease and understand things he did not understand before. Though even he as a star-child is not privy to all that the monoliths know.
So each section of the novel, with its different characters, shows us individuals working at differing/increasing levels of intelligence, all leading up to the monoliths, who seem to be trying to develop and/or spur on the development of intelligent life in the universe.
What the monoliths are we don’t know yet. Their grand experiment seems to have to do with helping intelligent life develop on different planets. But if there’s anything more to the experiment, we just don’t know yet. There might also be themes here of whether the monoliths, or the entities controlling the monoliths, have any right to compel the development of life in any way, but since we don’t yet know what their ultimate motives are, that discussion has to wait.
HAL 9000, which stands for “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer,” is a member of the Discovery’s crew, which is sent to Saturn (Jupiter in the movie), to locate the destination of the energy burst stemming from the monolith on the moon. It seems to be radiating in the direction of one of Saturn’s moons, Japetus.
However, the crew of the Discovery don’t know that this is their true mission, and so HAL must keep it a secret from them. Unfortunately, keeping this secret messes with HAL’s conscience, causing him to go rogue.
With the character of HAL, we are treated again to the theme of intelligence. HAL is the embodiment of pure intelligence, being an AI, but at the same time he is extremely unintelligent and childlike since he is unable to integrate the two opposing aspects of his programming and mission (keeping the true nature of the mission a secret while fully reporting to Bowman and Poole). Rather than coming clean to Bowman once he starts to feel guilty, HAL ends up causing the deaths of all the crew members because he doesn’t know how else to rectify his guilt.
“Deliberate error was unthinkable. Even the concealment of truth filled him with a sense of imperfection, of wrongness – of what, in a human being, would have been called guilt. For like his makers, Hal had been created innocent; but, all too soon, a snake had entered his electronic eden. For the last hundred million miles, he had been brooding over the secret he could not share with Poole and Bowman. He had been living a lie; and the time was fast approaching when his colleagues must learn that he had helped to deceive them.”
“He was only aware of the conflict that was slowing destroying his integrity – the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.”
When HAL starts malfunctioning and disobeying Bowman, Bowman threatens to disconnect HAL, which sends the AI into a state of utter panic.
“To Hal, this was the equivalent of death. For he had never slept, and therefore he did not know that one could wake again…”
So even though HAL is theoretically a super intelligence, he still makes the same mistake many humans have made in the history of the world: panicking and then causing even more damage due to that panic.
The idea of HAL going rogue due to his inability to integrate the two conflicting aspects of his programming reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s book of short stories, I, Robot. In that collection, we are treated to various stories about how robots grapple with maintaining the Three Laws of Robotics. It’s a really good read, and I highly recommend it.
Strengths & Weaknesses
One definite strength of 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it is a classic, or pure, science fiction, in that it really seems to take the science of the day and extrapolate from that for its scientific aspect. I hesitate to call it a “true” science fiction, since there are many different kinds of sci-fi, but we can also call it a “hard” sci-fi as opposed to a “soft” sci-fi.
Arthur C. Clarke was educated in math and physics, and served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist during World War II. He also “proposed global broadcasting via communication satellites in geostationary orbit,” and one of his short stories apparently inspired the internet. So he was a very smart man.
The exposition and details he gives regarding the ship Discovery, for example, are quite detailed:
“The equatorial region of the pressure sphere – the slice, as it were, from Capricorn to Cancer – enclosed a slowly rotating drum, thirty-five feet in diameter. As it made one revolution every ten seconds, this carrousel or centrifuge produced an artificial gravity equal to that of the Moon. This was enough to prevent the physical atrophy which would result from the complete absence of weight, and it also allowed the routine functions of living to be carried out under normal – or nearly normal – conditions.”
And that’s just one example of his description of the spaceship’s workings. Here’s another example, this time about HAL:
“Whether Hal could actually think was a question which had been settled by the British mathematician Alan Turing back in the 1940s. Turing had pointed out that, if one could carry out a prolonged conversation with a machine – whether by typewriter or microphones was immaterial – without being able to distinguish between its replies and those that a man might give, then the machine was thinking, by any sensible definition of the word. Hal could pass the Turing test with ease.”
One of the weaknesses I can think of for this book is that at a few parts it did pass a bit too much into exposition that slowed the pace of the story down. We’re not talking anywhere near the levels of previous books on my list, just one part near the start of the story and one part around the middle.
I don’t know if it’s the conditioning of our modern world on me, or just the fact that the past few books I read were all quite slow and so I had to stop reading them, but my tolerance for anything that hinders the pace of a story is so low now. Thus even the couple of times it happened in Space Odyssey really stood out to me.
The second weakness I’d mention is that there’s no real character development. Other than Bowman becoming a star-child, of course! Though you could argue that’s actually a huge development! The lack of character development though is probably due to the fact that the story isn’t really about them, it’s about HAL, and it’s about the monoliths and the mystery surrounding them.
All that being said, I still quite enjoyed Clarke’s writing style. He was undeniably a good writer and a good storyteller.
The movie adaption is a really interesting work because, first, it’s not really an adaptation at all. The book and the movie were developed simultaneously by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrik. Second, the film is celebrated as a cinematic masterpiece and for accurately depicting space flight and life on such a space ship.
I thought the movie was really technically well done, that’s undeniable, but man, Kubrik really could have cut the run time. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. There are many sequences that are many minutes too long. It’s an extremely slow movie, but Kubrik apparently really wanted to put the focus on the special effects and technical production.
Another interesting thing is that the second book in the series, 2010: Odyssey Two, basically retcons the story to fit with the movie. For example, in the book, the Discovery is tasked with going to one of Saturn’s moons, whereas in the film the mission goes to Jupiter. Then in 2010, Clarke starts writing as if the first book had the mission going to Jupiter as well. So he changes things in the second book to actually fit with the movie, not with the first book. That’s just a fun bit of trivia for you.
So overall I highly recommend 2001: A Space Odyssey as a must-read in the canon of science fiction, and in movie-watching. As I mentioned up top, I’ve already read the second book, which I enjoyed as well, and am excited to read the rest of the series to find out what happens with the characters and with the monoliths. It’s a far cry from the experimental sci-fi of the New Wave era. Space Odyssey is a proper story with characters and a coherent plot and stakes and events that make you want to keep reading.
That’s all for now. Next up is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Clarke, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ace, 2000. Kindle Edition.
Author: Arthur C. Clarke