2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

Book # 389

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


2001I must confess to never having watched the entirety of the film, of which this novel is the precursor and close colleague, so the story was entirely new to me.

The novel, according to Clarke, started with his 1948 short story The Sentinel as the base and was expanded to include ideas from five other short stories in turn.  Adding in a whole lot of new material and there the novel developed in to it’s final form.  The whole work was intended as a precursor to Stanley Kubrik’s movie from the outset.  As Clarke puts it:

Because a screenplay has to specify everything in excruciating detail, it is almost as tedious to read as to write. John Fowles put it very well when he said: “Writing a novel is like swimming through the sea; writing a film script is like thrashing through treacle.”  Perhaps because Stanley realised that I had a low tolerance for boredom, he suggested that before we embarked on the drudgery of the script, we let our imaginations soar freely by writing a complete novel, from which we would later derive the script.
This is more or less the way it worked out, though towards the end novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions.

For those familiar with the film, the basic storyline revolves around large alien monoliths.  The first section, Primeval Night, deals with the man-apes’ contact with the giant monolith which turns up near them one day.  Moon-Watcher and his tribe come down from their caves one morning to find the New Rock.

It was a rectangular slab, three times his height but narrow enough to span with his arms, and it was made of some completely transparent material; indeed, it was not easy to see except when the rising sun glinted on its edges.

This becomes the stepping stone in human development as the man apes are captivated and manipulated by the strange monolith, leading to Moon-Watcher’s experience of feeling dissatisfaction with his life and his subsequent stretching in to new ideas.

It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy – of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.

We then skip forward to a time when man has a base on the moon, and space flight has become a part of life.  In this case we follow Dr Heywood Floyd on his special trip to the moon in order to see TMA-1.  In one of those wonderful precursors to real life, Clarke describes Floyd’s access to technology on his flight.

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth.  One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers, he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad.  Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.  Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle world expand until it  neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort.

Yes, here is a seed for the internet and the iPad.

Once we have met TMA-1, and have heard the scientists explanations for what it means, we are then transported to the spaceship Discovery and it’s two crewmen – David Bowman and Frank Poole.  They are part of Project Jupiter, a two-year voyage to the giant planet.  After TMA-1 is discovered, their mission is added to. No longer just heading to Jupiter, but on to Saturn as a one-way trip.  Five years would be spent in hibernation before being rescued by a still unbuilt Discovery II.

We follow the voyage of Discovery and meet it’s onboard computer, a HAL 9000, or colloquially to the crew – Hal.  In light of the recent film release “The Imitation Game“, it’s interesting to note Clarke’s reference to Alan Turing and his ‘Turing test’.

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.

And Hal’s thinking becomes one of the focal points of the middle of the story.  Without this, the latter denouement is unlikely to have occurred as Bowman would not have had sufficient motivation to make the choices he does.  But I will leave you to find out the fate of Bowman, Poole, Hal and their hibernating colleagues on your own.

It is quite an quick read at a touch over 200 pages.  Not having watched the film, I struggle to see how this story could turn into a feature length piece, but now have some incentive to see it in comparison to the novel.  The language is straightforward, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s usual forward-looking style, he gives us an interesting idea to ponder on how we evolved and where that might take us in the future.
I have to note that there are little snippets that annoy – such as the odd overt sexist throw-away comment that belies the novel’s age and the author’s world-view – but on the whole it is a pleasant and relaxed read.

Happy reading.

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