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Josh Reviews the novel 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke!

April 7th, 2010

My journey through the Odyssey series continues!  Over the past two weeks I have written about 2001: A Space Odyssey the film and the novel, as well as the follow-up novel 2010: Odyssey Two and its film adaptation, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Only five years after writing 2010: Odyssey Two, in 1987 Arthur C. Clarke released the third Odyssey novel, 2061: Odyssey Three.  (This would prove to be the shortest span of elapsed time between the novels. 2001 was written in 1968, and Mr. Clarke did not release the final novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, until 1997.)

Fifty years after Heywood Floyd and the crew of the Leonov‘s journey to Jupiter, and the cataclysmic re-ordering of the solar system that resulted from the wakening of the Monolith they encountered there (I am being vague here so as to avoid spoiling the wonderful ending of 2010), interplanetary travel has become, if not commonplace, at least much faster and more convenient.  Mankind has established colonies on several bodies in the solar system, including the Jovian satellite Ganymede, and the wealthy Chinese tycoon Sir Lawrence has created a fleet of luxurious interplanetary space-liners.  His newest and most elaborate vessel, Universe, has been tasked with an extraordinary maiden voyage: to rendezvous with and land upon Halley’s comet, making its regular journey through our solar system.  Sir Lawrence has invited a number of world-famous celebrities to make the journey on-board Universe, including a very elderly Heywood Floyd, aged 103 (still alive and remarkably fit due to a lifetime spent living in low-gravity environments).  But this scientific (and PR) mission is cut short when news arrives that another of Lawrence’s space-liners, Galaxy, has been hijacked and forced to land on the forbidden world of Europa (go read 2010 for the full story on why mankind is not supposed to set foot on the Jovian satellite Europa).  Now Universe must speed across the solar system in an attempt to rescue the crew of Galaxy, as its crew hopes to avoid another confrontation with the Monolith (and the mysterious entities responsible for their creation).

My recollection, from the first time I read through Arthur C. Clarke’s four Odyssey novels about a decade-and-a-half ago, was that I found 2061 and 3001 to be far inferior to the first two installments.  I was curious if I would still feel the same way, re-reading those novels now.

Sadly, the answer is yes for 2061: Odyssey Three.

Don’t get me wrong: 2061 is an enjoyable read.  Mr. Clarke’s prose is engaging and fast-paced.  Although the novel is filled with Mr. Clarke’s scientific ruminations (about the mechanics of interplanetary travel; the nature of various bodies in the solar system including, in this novel, Halley’s comet; and many other digressions), the text is never dull and the story moves along at a brisk pace.

2061 boasts more of Mr. Clarke’s educated guesses at the progression of our technology, culture, etc. over the course of the next almost-century (from the time of his writing, in 1987).  I particularly enjoyed moments in chapter 3, “Reentry,” in which Mr. Clarke details a wonderfully optimistic prediction for a growing cooperation amongst the nations of the world.  He writes: “By the decade of 2020-30, a major war between Great Powers was as unthinkable as one between Canada and the United States had been in the century before.  This was not due to any vast improvement in human nature, or indeed to any single factor except the normal preference for life over death.  Much of the machinery of peace was not even consciously planned: before the politicians realized what had happened, they discovered that it was in place, and functioning well…”  It’s a lovely, utopian vision.  While Mr. Clarke did not predict the struggles with terrorist groups — groups not necessarily tied to one particular Great Power — that currently occupy a great many nations of the globe today, I certainly hope that, in the long run, his efforts at foresight on these issues prove to be as well-founded as many of his other scientific predictions!

So why do I feel that 2061: Odyssey Three is inferior to 2001 and 2010?  It is primarily a question of scale.  2001 and 2010 were both enormous, epic tales.  Those stories spanned the entire course of human history, and the events in those novels affected the very development of human evolution and the lay-out of our solar system in Mr. Clarke’s fictional universe.  2061 is a much smaller-scale adventure.  The story of a hijacked spacecraft and the attempted rescue certainly make for an interesting basis of a sci-fi story, but those events pale in significance to the cosmic nature of the stories told in the first two novels.

Given the nature of Galaxy‘s predicament on Europa, readers of 2001 and 2010 might be expecting the story to lead to another significant encounter with the Monolith, or perhaps with the entity that was once Dave Bowman.  But that is not the case.  The only encounter with the Europan Monolith is a very brief moment in which two members of Galaxy‘s crew land nearby, late in the novel.  There is one mysterious event that happens (which I won’t spoil here), but it is nothing of any earth-shattering significance.  Dave Bowman appears only once, at the very end of the book, in a chapter that has no real connection to the story being told.  (It’s a great chapter — one of my favorites of the entire book — but it feels more like a set-up for the final novel.)

All in all, the story feels a bit like much ado about nothing.  It’s a slight adventure story set in the universe of 2001 and 2010, but it is not a story with anything approaching the significance of the solar system-shaking events of those two novels.  It’s an enjoyable, quick read, but not much more.

On now to 3001: The Final Odyssey.  I’ll be back next week to let you know how I feel about Mr. Clarke’s conclusion to his saga!

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