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Josh Reviews the novel 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke!

March 31st, 2010

Last week I wrote about Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the novel by Arthur C. Clarke!  I enjoyed both of those so much that I decided to continue onwards with the rest of the series of novels (as well as the film sequel).

2010: Odyssey Two is one of my very favorite science fiction novels.  It’s my favorite of Mr. Clarke’s Odyssey series, superior in my opinion even to the original novel 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The disastrous Discovery mission of 2001 gave mankind no answers about the mysterious Monoliths and the ancient extraterrestrial entities behind their creation.  So, after several long years of work, a new mission towards Jupiter is finally ready — a joint US/Russian endeavor aboard the Leonov (named after cosmonaut Alexei Leonov).  Their mission: find the Discovery, determine what went wrong with HAL 9000 and what happened to astronaut David Bowman, and find some answers about the enormous Monolith floating in space.

Aboard Leonov is a familiar character from 2001 (the novel and the film): Heywood Floyd.  As one of the architects behind the Discovery mission, Floyd has long felt responsible for the lives lost on that doomed expedition.  He hopes that his involvement in this follow-up mission will allow him to finally answer some of the questions that have been gnawing at him for a decade, since his first glimpse of TMA-1 on the moon, and to help in some way to set things right.

Leonov is crewed with an extraordinarily skilled mix of Russian and American officers, but their journey is complicated when they learn that the Chinese have also launched a mission to Jupiter, one that will beat them to Discovery by several weeks.  When the entity once known as Dave Bowman returns to Earth, and the Monolith in orbit of Jupiter begins to multiply, the successful completion of Leonov‘s mission might take a back-seat to the preservation of their lives.

2010: Odyssey Two is a ripping yarn.  It is a much faster-paced tale than 2001, one filled with a lot more narrative twists and turns.  In addition, I enjoyed Mr. Clarke’s increased emphasis on character development in this installment.  The Leonov has a large, diverse crew, and over the course of the novel I felt that we got to know each member of the team better than pretty much any character in 2001.  Also, 2010 is, I think, superior to 2001 in that it has a central protagonist, Heywood Floyd, who readers can invest in and follow through the tale.  Now, 2010: Odyssey Two isn’t a character study, that’s for sure.  It’s clear that Mr. Clarke’s interest lies far more in the science fiction story being told than he is in delving deeply into the inner lives of his characters.  But I enjoyed getting to know the crew of the Leonov, and setting up Heywood Floyd as the main character was a smart decision.

But the great joy, of course, of 2010: Odyssey Two is the way it answers many of the intriguing questions left hanging by 2001.  Whereas 2001 was the set-up, 2010 is the follow-through.  We get to learn a great deal more about what exactly happened to Dave Bowman after his encounter with the Monolith.  Even more intriguingly, we learn the purpose of the enormous Monolith floating out by Jupiter.  (This is one of the novel’s biggest twists, and I still consider it a kicker even when re-reading the novel knowing what’s coming.)  After the monumental and famously cryptic 2001: A Space Odyssey, it would be all-too-easy for a sequel intended to answer some of those famously unanswered questions to be a let-down.  I am happy to report that that is not at all the case here.  No midichlorians to be found.

As with 2001, here in Odyssey Two Mr. Clarke puts his apparently extensive scientific knowledge to use in telling the story.  2010 takes the reader on what is essentially a tour of the solar system.  In particular, Mr. Clarke spends a great deal of time describing the environments on the various Jovian satellites, around which much of the major action of the story is set.  Written in 1982, much of this description is pure extrapolation — Mr. Clarke’s highly-educated guesswork based on the knowledge available at the time.  That he hit so close to the mark in so many places is astounding — and what few guesses have been proven wrong don’t detract in any way from the descriptions in the novel “feeling” right.

The only aspect of the novel that took me somewhat aback was its inconsistency with Mr. Clarke’s original 2001 novel.  In his introduction, Mr. Clarke writes that where 2001 the novel and the film differed, he decided to make 2010 consistent with 2001 the film.  I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense, as probably more people saw the film than read the novel.  But reading 2010 immediately after finishing reading 2001 was a weird experience because of those inconsistencies.

I mentioned in my review of 2001 the novel that one of the areas in which the novel and the film differed was that in the film, Discovery’s destination (and the location of the Monolith) was Jupiter, whereas in the novel it was Saturn.  Here in 2010, the Monolith is described as being located near Jupiter as seen in the film — and all references to the Discovery mission refer to Jupiter not Saturn.  Additionally, over the course of the Leonov crew’s investigations into what went wrong with the Discovery, there are a lot of references to Frank and Dave’s confrontations with HAL.  Many of these references describe events that occurred in the film but not the novel (such as Dave’s use of explosive decompression to re-enter Discovery when HAL refuses to open the pod bay doors).  This was a bit confusing for me, and I was surprised by Mr. Clarke’s choice to contradict his own novel in favor of the film version.

But this is a minor quibble overall.  2010: Odyssey Two is a towering work: big and bold and epic.  Mr. Clarke brings the wonders of our solar system, and the exciting potential of space exploration, to vivid life.  It makes me a little sad, frankly, that the world of interplanetary travel as described by Mr. Clarke is still, now that we’re living in the year 2010, quite a ways away.  Luckily, we still have our science fiction.

I’ll be back on Wednesday with my thoughts on Peter Hyams’ film adaptation of 2010, and next week I’ll be here to tell you about Arthur C. Clarke’s 2061: Odyssey Three!

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