2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Far out, man!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

2001 a space odysseyA tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don’t directly interfere in the man-apes’ existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It’s written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.

From the Kubrick film
From the Kubrick film

We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth’s greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn’t managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.

A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn’t exactly know why, though we’re one step ahead in that we assume it’s something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven’t we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it’s intriguing to compare Clarke’s projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.

2001 moon monolith

The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that’s the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you’re that way inclined. Clarke said…

“…because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in “2001”, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.”

He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn’t aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I’m intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)

Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm… well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it’s one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I’m going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it’s philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I’m pretty sure I’d be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the ’60s, of course.

Film of the Book comparison coming soon… should be groovy!

Psychedelic, man!
Psychedelic, man!

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58 thoughts on “2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

  1. I think that’s one of the most intriguing sets of questions out there, FictionFan. What inspired people to do things like use fire and other tools? What’s out there waiting for us as we learn to explore space? It’s little wonder people have religious explanations; it’s all a bit much to contemplate, really. And I like the way Clarke goes about addressing some of these bigger questions. He doesn’t pretend to have the answers (something I find quite refreshing), and keeps inviting us to really think.

    • Yes, it’s intriguing – especially why humanity thought to cook food – something that is completely unique to our species. I do like science fiction that looks at the bigger questions – the freedom of the genre allows for a lot of specualtion and when it’s done well, it can be very thought-provoking…

  2. Saturn! I would go on a mission to Saturn. I think I might find gold. Maybe even a cave of gold. Everyone is searching for a cave of gold, deep down in, you know.

    Where’d the aliens come from?

    Also…what’s spliff, you naught thing?

    • I’d love to go to Saturn! Oddly, in the film, they go to Jupiter instead. See, you should read Neil Gaiman’s The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – it’s all about a search for a cave of gold!

      Ah, now, see… the question is, were they aliens? Or was it the Creator, carefully nudging the evolutionary process in the right direction? *imagines the Professor’s horror and laughs*

      *laughs* I’m not really cool enough to know! I never did work out what the difference was between marijuana and cannabis. Is my street-cred dead now?

      • Jupiter? Hm. That just seems more boring, doesn’t it? I think Saturn would have a nice jungle or something. You know, I could go live in a hut on the beach, and hunt crabs or something. Maybe even catch a few hornets–but I wouldn’t eat those.

        I completely reject the idea of theistic evolution! *completely rejects it by rolling it up in a ball and tossing it…in the fire, I suppose* That was pretty cool, you must admit. By the way, I think I might evolve into a guitar soon, just so you know, and can be prepared.

        *laughs* I was counting on you! I’ve got no clue… I suppose the only way to find out is to try them. Let’s go have a testing.

        • It does – Saturn’s the one with all the fancy rings, isn’t it? I’d love to see that. So I’ll beam you down to the jungle and remain in orbit for a bit, ring-watching. You can take your jetpack so you can zoom about a bit…

          *laughs lots* I thought you might! I rather like the idea myself – I don’t see why you’re so against it! And see, then, he kinda goes on to show what we might eventually become at the end of evolution… you’d love that idea even more! *chuckles wickedly*

          See, whatever effect it has can’t possibly be as good as eating chocolate, so I think we should have a giant chocolate-tasting-testing instead! *wistful face*

          • It is! At least, I think it is. Okay, it’s a deal. But you have to come to. You must explore it from the inside! Much more cooler, I bet. And fun. And cooler.

            Well…because…well…because it’s wrong! I shall have longs speaks to you one day about it all. And I’ll bore you so much your ears will probably fall off. Then BUS will be soooo cranky with me. Goodness. A superman, maybe? That’d be cool!!

            (Drugs are bad ’cause they kill neurons.) And I’ve lost so many already. Okay, deal. Let’s try the fruit chocolate.

            • Well, since I always want to be cooler… OK! But I don’t think we should take a sentient computer with us… you’ll need to fly the spaceship yourself. I’ll navigate… now, which way is up?

              *laughs* But it might not be wrong! And you have to admit it would explain dinosaurs! I think I’m going to adopt it as my personal belief system, just to annoy you… *wicked face* But if my ears fell off, so would my specs and then I wouldn’t be able to read and it would be all your fault and you’d have to read all the books on my TBR out loud to me…!!! Much worse than a superman, I fear… *chuckles*

              (I don’t have enough left to spare.) Yummy! Can I have the big bit?

            • Up is whichever way you want. *nods* Let’s see how fast this can go!!

              But I know it is! (’cause I’m an epic professor, mind) Yes, but see I can explain everything with my worldview. Hahahahahahahaahahha. You are wicked. But being a theistic evolutionist is maybe a step in the right direction. Maybe. Oh goodness. I’d make you buy audio books then. An orc!!

              (Me neither. That’s what happens when you reach my age.) Yes, you can.

            • Oh dear! I fear those may have been Manly-Man’s last words…

              Hahaha! But I know evolution exists, ‘cos otherwise how would women have got to be so much more evolved than men? *strokes hairless chin* And theistic evolutionist sounds soooo cool! Huh! You’d read to me and like it, sir! You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself…

              Goodness! That was easy! LF would have fought me to the death…

            • In that case, I haven’t said my last words just yet. I’ll have to think on them.

              Hahaha. Such a FEF argument. But aren’t the chaps with beards more evolved? Beards are pretty cool. Why, even you wanted one once. But you wouldn’t be able to understand my accent.

              *laughing lots* That’s because you two are so evolved, see.

            • Make them good! Not “I wonder what would I happen if I pulled this lever…” or something…

              Oh, no! The hairier one is, the closer to the chimp! And my beard would be a lovely refined looking thing, not a bush like Julian’s! Hmm… that is a valid point, but my ear would get tuned in eventually. And I’m so glad you’re finally admitting to having one…

              *laughs too* OK, you might possibly have won that one…

            • How about, “It’s a far, far gooder death I might die, if I never try, I’ll never know.” That sounds pretty romantic, now that I think on it.

              The chimp? Hmm…but girls have longer hair than guys! I wish I was as strong as a chimp, then I’d go fight Brock. *nods* Hahahaha…I was only suggesting I had one.

              I think I’ll go ahead and give me the badge anyways… #win

            • Ah, I knew you were a secret romantic! That’s why you should read A Tale of Two Cities…

              Longer? One word – Kenny!!! *muses* Brock may well have a disproportionately high amount of chimp DNA, don’t you think? Too late – you admitted it! But I’d soon have you trained to speak Scottish…

              I still ended up with the chocolate though… #win

            • Oh I am not! I’m a secret filthy thing. That’s the only secret thing about me. That and I’m odd.

              Kenny doesn’t count! And his hair isn’t that long…it’s just…puffy. Brock is stronger than a chimp! #cool I think I might have a very bad Scottish accent.

              Yes…okay. You win half.

            • *tries not to laugh* Oh, I hadn’t realised the bit about you being odd was a secret…

              Think how long it would be if it was straight! It could probably orbit the earth! Brock is indeed chimp-like in so many ways – proof that evolution doesn’t always get it right! #crool Well, so do most Scots!

              *preens*

  3. Ah, yes – a great one this! I read it first as a teenager, when I found it rather funky. Not so sure what I would think of it now but there is no denying that Clarke is a superb writer and thinker.

  4. I loved both the book and the film at the time, but I haven’t read/seen either for years. Might be time to give them another go.

    • Well, at risk of a spoiler for my review, I enjoyed the film a great deal more for having read the book this time round – it’s well worth another watch.

    • Ah, but the film review is still to come! I don’t usually notice soundtracks much but I have to admit this has a great one, and not just Zarathustra…

    • I never managed to get through the film before but reading the book completely changed my view of the film this time round. I love the monoliths too, and I loved spotting the differences between the film and the book…

  5. Fascinating review! It sounds like a unique book. That is curious how the book and movie were a kind of joint venture. I saw the movie a long time ago (as a child) and I think the entire thing flew over my head. All I remember is the monolith, the music and “Don’t do that, Dave” (I think I mangled the quote).

    I’m looking forward to your movie review, too!

    • Thank you! I had no idea about the links between the book and movie – I assumed it was the usual “film of the book” thing. But it was a pretty unique concept, especially with two men so much at the top of their respective professions. I’d never made it all the way through the movie before, but having read the book really changed my opinion of it…

  6. Never saw the movie. Never read the book. Sci-fi just really isn’t my cuppa, you know? Still, I understand it was pretty “far out there” back in the day when it was written. And you’ve done a great job, as usual, with your review!!

    • Thank you! 🙂 I’m not really a huge sci-fi fan either, though I’m trying to get into it more. Some of the classics are great and well worth reading, but there’s an awful lot of pretty poor stuff out there too. This is definitely one of the great ones though…

  7. Your review of this has me wondering why I have never read it. Your “far-outs” and “woo-woos” have me intrigued… I haven’t seen the movie, either. But it makes me think of Planet of the Apes, which I saw when I was much younger (the old, creepy version).

    • Yes! There is a sort of similarity to Planet of the Apes, not in story but in the kind of basic idea of trying to work out what is humanity. That’s when I love sci-fi – the big all-action blockbusters leave me pretty cold, but the ones that use it to make us think about some of the deeper questions can be great…

  8. I’ve never read this! Not sure why. Perhaps because I saw the movie and didn’t care for it. (I’m not usually someone who would prefer to watch a movie over reading a good book. I love science fiction. Just didn’t get around to reading this book.) But your review makes me want to read it.

    Not long ago, a friend and I were discussing the current science fiction craze in young adult books. So many people have complained about the lack of hard science in these books. And I’ve heard people complain about that issue in some adult books too. So, it’s interesting to go back and read books like this that were written back in the day.

    • I didn’t like the movie either when I tried to watch it before, but I must say reading the book totally changed my reaction to the film. I don’t know why I hadn’t read this one before either – my sci-fi reading has huge holes in it.

      Yes, when I started reading sci-fi again for the blog, I really intended to read lots of new stuff. But I got tired of it quickly – so much of it now is more about fantasy or magic than science – fine, but not to my personal taste. That’s why I seem to have ended up going back to read some of the old classics either that I missed first time round, or as re-reads. I’m sure there’s good sci-fi out there, but it’s hard to find…

      • I didn’t like the movie either when I tried to watch it before, but I must say reading the book totally changed my reaction to the film

        I had this exact experience, too. Did not like the film at all when I watched it my “I’m going to watch all the classics” teenage years, and it put me off trying any of Clarke’s writing. Eventualy got to Clarke via Rendezvous with Rama, The Fountains of Paradise and others, discovered that I loved his writing, and then bit the bullet on this one.

        Still not completely convinced about the ending of the book, but it feels more like an accommodation of Kubrick’s ideas than something Clarke would write if left to his own devices. In all other regards it is wonderful, however. Must try the film again at some point but have so many other books and films to try for the first time!

        • I hadn’t realised the book and film were done together. I’m useless at surreal stuff on films – I can never work out what’s going on and so I get bored. Whereas with books, I’m much better at working out what the author’s driving at. So having read the book gave me the “understanding” I’d lacked when I’d watched the film before. It was astounding to me just what a difference it made to the experience of viewing. Review coming soon! Yes, I was initially disappointed in the ending of the book, but it hung around in my head for a while and I decided in the end that I rather liked it – it made me think.

          I’ve read almost nothing else of Clarke’s – a couple of short stories maybe – but I’ll certainly be reading more of him in the future. Ha! I know what you mean – trying to get the balance right between new stuff and re-reads or re-watches is almost impossible. Two heads, that’s what we need!

  9. The movie is so weird. It’s INCREDIBLY slow in that style Kubrick has. I mean, The Shining is super slow, but I love it, so I’m not an impatient movie watcher. But in the movie I NEVER got that the object was delivered by aliens nor that it was communicating with the ape population. It’s just there…even though the book sounds wacky, it also sounds like it makes more sense than the film! Does Clarke talk about why HAL malfunctions? Like, does it have something to do with the aliens? ARE THERE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN ANYTHING!?

    • Haha! Your viewing experience sounds just like mine! I don’t see how it would be possible to know what was going on just from watching the film, but while the book is still wide open to interpretation it provides enough info to mean the whole thing makes a kind of sense. Wait till you read my review of the film – all the points you raise are the ones I’ve raised too… and yes, the book does explain why HAL malfunctions. *chuckles wickedly* But I’m not tellin’ so you’ll just have to read it! 😉

  10. It’s hard to believe so many of the commenters — in fact, yourself, even, have not seen the movie. The film is an absolute masterpiece — it’s top 5 for me. It’s true that you have to have a long attention span to get through it, which might be tough for the current generation, because unlike the book, it takes it’s time. The visuals, however, are stunning, and every bit as impressive as CGI. I loved that the book and film, while written concurrently, are so different. The book explains a lot more than the film does but somehow still manages to inspire awe and majesty. The film has very little dialogue and exposition but has a hypnotic, otherworldy vibe that the book lacks. It’s a tribute to the genius of both Kubrick and Clarke that both work on their own terms.

    • My regular commenters really don’t like sci-fi – I’m carrying out a one-woman campaign to convert them! 😉 I had tried the film before but just couldn’t get into it. But I watched it after reading the book, and wow! Because I wasn’t trying to work out what was going on, I was able to just relax and go with the flow – it blew me away! I don’t know if you spotted that I did a follow-up post comparing the book and the film… https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/film-of-the-book-2001-a-space-odyssey/

      As you’ll see, I’m now a complete convert, and totally agree – it’d be top 5 for me too now. I’ve never had the experience of book and film working so well together – an amazing experience!

      Thanks for commenting. 😀

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