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Josh Reviews the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke!

March 24th, 2010
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On Monday I wrote about Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

After re-watching that film last month, I was driven to pick up Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey off my book-shelf to re-read that as well.

I had read all four of Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey novels many years ago, back when I was in college.  After so thoroughly enjoying seeing 2001 the film again, I was excited to take another look at the novel.  As Mr. Clarke explains in the introduction (to the 25th anniversary edition, which is what I have), the novel and the film were created simultaneously.  Neither was an adaptation of the other, which is pretty unique.  Instead, Kubrick and Clarke developed the story together.  Then, while Mr. Kubrick assembled his film, Mr. Clarke crafted his novel.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a terrific read.  It succeeds as an engaging creation in its own right, and also as a fascinating companion to Mr. Kubrick’s film.

The novel and the film share many similarities.  Since they were created simultaneously and in partnership, the basic structure of both tales is identical.  There are none of the dramatic revisions found in even the best film adaptations of novels, which is refreshing.  The themes and “tone” of both works are remarkably similar.

The novel also shares some of the film’s, er, more challenging aspects.  There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of “plot” that actually happens over the course of the tale.  And the somewhat episodic structure (in which the story is divided into several distinct parts, set in different locations and wildly differing eras of human history) is unusual, to say the least, and provides something of an obstacle to the narrative building up a full head of steam.  (Just when we’re “settling in” to one setting and group of characters, the story moves away from that location, never to return.)

There are also a number of interesting differences between the novel and the film.  In the film, Discovery‘s ultimate goal (and the location of Dave Bowman’s encounter with the Monolith) is Jupiter, whereas in the novel it is Saturn.  (Indeed, Mr. Clarke devotes a decent chunk of time towards describing the mechanics of Discovery‘s journey through the solar system towards Saturn.)  One of the film’s most iconic sequences, in which Dave and Frank discuss their concern over HAL’s increasingly erratic behavior while hiding in one of Discovery‘s small pods (in an attempt prevent HAL from hearing their discussion which proves fruitless when HAL reads their lips) never occurs in the novel.  There’s also a lengthy stretch of time, in the book, in between the final confrontation with HAL and Dave’s decision to leave the ship to investigate the Monolith.  In the novel, it seems, Discovery is still a ways away from its final destination when things go wrong with HAL, so several chapters are devoted to the next few months in which Dave must attempt to control Discovery on his own in order to arrive at their final destination.

What’s really interesting to me is the way the novel sheds light on some of the film’s more enigmatic aspects.  Whereas Kubrick used, for the most part, a combination of imagery and music to tell his story (and very little dialogue), Mr. Clarke, of course, must rely on his descriptive narration.  As a not-surprising result, Mr. Clarke’s telling of the story brings a lot of clarity to the elements left more mysteriously open-ended by the film.

In the “dawn of man” segment, for example, 2001 the novel makes clear that the Monolith was studying, and eventually influencing, the development of early man.  There’s an intriguing sequence in the novel in which we read of several stages of the Monolith’s experiments on these early apes.  In the chapter entitled “The New Rock,” we read: ”They could never guess that their minds were being probed, their bodies mapped, their reactions studied, their potentials evaluated.”  Thus what is implied in the movie is spelled out more specifically by the novel.

The enigmatic end sequence of the story is also significantly clarified by the novel.  First of all, the title of the novel’s final section, “Into the Star-Gate,” clarifies that what Dave Bowman encountered in orbit of Saturn (Jupiter in the film) was, in fact, a star-gate.  (The trippy lights Bowman witnesses in the film could be interpreted many different ways.)  In the novel, what Bowman encounters is much closer to what Elie Arroway encounters in Contact: a sort of Grand Central Station in deep space — a complex system of interstellar gates that shunt him indescribably far from his solar system of origin.

What happens next to Dave Bowman is elaborated significantly from the glimpses we were given in the film.  This elaboration is one of my favorite parts of the novel.  Not only do we get a more fully fleshed-out culmination of Dave’s journey, but also Mr. Clarke’s prose connects us more strongly to him and what he is thinking and feeling than did the film.  This provides a powerful grounding to the incredible things that happen to Dave once he travels through the star-gate.

I also enjoyed the novel’s brief, but tantalizing, glimpses into the nature of the powerful, ancient entities who created the monoliths.  The film leaves this entirely to our imaginations.  One could make a strong argument that that is a STRENGTH, rather than a weakness of the film.  I would probably agree.  Nevertheless, it is fun to get a little bit more information in the novel.  Chapter 37, “Experiment,” gives us some wonderful hints.  Here’s an excerpt, describing these entities: “And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere.  They became farmers in the field of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped.  And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.”

In my review of 2001 the film, I discussed the significant portions of the film’s run-time that Stanley Kubrick devoted to immersing us in the realities of the world that he was creating (such as all the logistical ins-and-outs of Heywood Floyd’s journey from the Earth to the moon).  Arthur C. Clarke does that as well, and more.  Part of the fun of 2001, the novel, is the way in which Mr. Clarke delves deeply into the details of the extrapolated reality of the near-future.  Mr. Clarke’s scientific background and keep intellect allowed him to posit some very educated guesses about life in the future — from the nature of the Jovian satellites (and remember, the novel was written before man had set foot on the moon!!) to the technological advances that we would achieve by the end of the 20th century.

(Chapter 9 contains both a terrific example of Mr. Clarke’s educated guesswork as well as one of the few things that he guessed wrong about — well, other than our not having moon-bases by the year 2001!  He describes Heywood Floyd’s small “newspad,” an electronic device that Floyd uses to scan all of the world’s newspapers, even while traveling.  This newspad sounds remarkably similar to the many pocket-sized devices that we use today to access the internet from any place we choose.  So where did Mr. Clarke go wrong?  He writes that “the text was updated automatically on every hour” — whereas we all know that internet headlines can be updated every minute!)

It was a delight to dive back into Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It’s a quick, engrossing read — heady, cerebral sci-fi at its best.  I enjoyed re-reading the novel so much that I have decided to revisit Mr. Clarke’s three sequels as well.  I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on 2010: Odyssey Two!  (And I guess I’ll probably take another look at the film adaptation of that novel as well, while I’m at it!  Should be fun!)  See you soon…