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Josh Reviews the novel 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke!

April 12th, 2010

Whew!  At last, today, we come to the end of my journey through the Odyssey series of films and novels by Arthur C. Clarke.  Over the past several weeks I have written about 2001: A Space Odyssey the film and the novel,  the follow-up novel 2010: Odyssey Two and its film adaptation, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and the third novel in the series, 2061: Odyssey Three.

I mentioned in my review of Odyssey Three my recollection that, when I first read this series of novels around 15 years ago, I didn’t enjoy 2061 or 3001 nearly as much as 2001 and 2010.  I wondered if my opinions would have changed now, many years later.  That didn’t turn out to be the case with 2061 (which had some fun bits but that didn’t, I felt, add anything to the epic story begun in 2001 and 2010), but I had high hopes that I would enjoy the saga’s conclusion, 3001: The Final Odyssey, more upon my rereading.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The novel starts out strong.  There’s an intriguing hook — the body of Frank Poole (believed to be long-dead as a result of his murder by HAL 9000) is found and resuscitated, and through his eyes we are introduced to the astounding developments of human society a millennia in the future.  I have commented before about how much I have enjoyed the scientific speculation that Mr. Clarke has woven into his Odyssey novels, in which he takes the time to explore his ideas about how science and technology might progress in our future, and how that can explain some of the sci-fi activities found in the stories.  Mr. Clarke goes to town during the first 100 pages of 3001.  As Frank learns about life in the year 3001, so too do we.  There’s a lot of fun to be had as Mr. Clarke fleshes out this world of tomorrow, and I relished all of the fascinating scientific speculation.

Unfortunately, all of that interesting set-up never leads to a story that goes anywhere.  In my review of 2061, I commented that I didn’t feel there was much significance to the goings-on in that novel — the rescue mission that provided the main thrust of the book’s plot paled in comparison to the cosmic story-lines of 2001 and 2010.  Sadly, 3001 has even less plot to speak of.  (I tried to keep things vague, but some SPOILERS are ahead, gang, so beware.)

I kept waiting for the book’s story to kick into gear, but every-time it seemed like something interesting was about to happen, things stopped cold.  After Book I (3001: The Final Odyssey is divided into six “books”), when Frank Poole once again finds himself on a ship heading for Jupiter, I started to get excited.  But hardly anything happens in Books II & III.  We get caught up a bit more with human colonization of the solar system in the year 3001, and we are provided with a lot of information about the moons of Jupiter that feels familiar and repetitive to readers of the first three novels in the saga.  Finally, at the end of Book III, Frank makes contact with the entity that once was Dave Bowman.  Aha!  Here at last things are picking up, I thought.  The confrontation between these long-separated former shipmates is going to be potent stuff, and maybe will lead us towards some definitive answers about what Dave had become, and the true nature and larger purpose of the Monoliths.

Unfortunately, after Frank and Dave exchange their first words, Mr. Clarke cuts away, shifting to a first-person narrative in which Frank recounts his meeting with Dave to one of his new colleagues.  Throughout the novel Mr. Clarke chooses to advance the plot by having one character — usually Frank — tell another what has happened.  Shakespeare was able to pull that off pretty well — Arthur C. Clarke, not so much.  I found that this device totally deflated any dramatic tension.   (Since Frank is alive and well to recount the story, clearly everything turned out OK.)

Then, before we learn anything new, Book III ends and Book IV picks up the story THIRTY YEARS LATER.  I was stunned by the total lack of consequence, significance, or impact of Dave and Frank’s meeting in Book III.  Nothing happened as a result of their encounter — clearly the universe had continued peacefully apace for three decades.

Then in Book IV, Frank receives a message from Dave — a warning.  A thousand years earlier, the Monolith transmitted a message about humanity to its far-off masters and now, at long last, the Monolith has received a reply.  Dave, who still maintains a small connection to his human origins, is afraid about what actions the Monolith might take next.  OK, I thought, maybe the whole novel to this point has been a prelude to this plot twist that would lead to much larger, universe-shaking events, and perhaps provide to some of the greater mysteries of the series that I alluded to above.

But again, this goes nowhere.  The scant information that Frank (and we the readers) learn from Dave about the Monolith were long-ago clear to careful readers of the original novel, 2001.  The terrible danger about which Dave warns Frank never seems to materialize.  And the plan that Dave and Frank devise to render the Monolith harmless to humanity is so ridiculously simplistic as to be laughable.  (Hint: Independence Day has the same ending.  That’s a bad sign.)

I have only the highest of praise for Arthur C. Clarke’s novels 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two.  But I advise readers to stop there.  2061 is a decent story but one with zero significance to the larger Odyssey storyline, and 3001 ends with a stunning anticlimax.  I expected a novel whose subtitle is The Final Odyssey to be filled with cosmic drama on the level of the first two novels, and I had hoped that we would be provided with some answers to readers’ lingering questions in a way that would bring closure to the saga.  But that was not to be.  What a letdown.

Despite my disappointment with 2061 and 3001, it has been great fun to revisit this epic film and novel series!  I’ll be back next week with another book review, of an entirely different sort: my thoughts on the new book Looking for Calvin & Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip.  See you there!

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