Book Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Book Name: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
First Published: 1968

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke was considered one of the “big three” founders of the genre of science fiction, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Issac Asimov. He was a British science fiction author, futurist, inventor, undersea explorer and a television series host. He is the recipient of numerous Hugo and Nebula awards.

Clarke was born in Somerset, England and grew up in Bishops Lydeard. He grew up on a farm and spent his youth stargazing and reading old American science fiction pulp magazines. As a teenager, he joined the British Interplanetary Society and proposed a satellite communication system idea that later won him the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal and other honors. Later in life, he would go on to become the chairman of the Institute.

During World War II, he served in the Royal Air Force as a radio specialist. His work in the early warning radar defense system helped contribute to the RAF’s victories during the Battle of Britain. He also served in the ranks, starting as a corporal instructor on radar and then was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and later as a Flying Officer. By the end of the war, he was the chief training instructor at RAF Honiley at Warwickshire with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

When the war ended, he returned to school and earned a degree in mathematics and physics from King’s College London. It was during this time that he wrote many articles about telecommunication relays and geostationary satellites. He wrote many non-fiction books describing the technical details and implications of rocketry and space flight. In recognition of his work in the field, the geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the equator is known officially as a Clarke Orbit.

In 1956, Clarke emigrated to Sri Lanka, the official reason was to pursue his interest in scuba diving. He discovered the underwater ruins of an Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee. Although it was not made public at the time, Clarke had become close to a Sri Lankan man, Leslie Ekanayake, whom Clarke called his “only perfect friend of a lifetime” in a dedication in one of his novels.

By this time, Clarke had written many books, both technical non-fiction and science fiction. However, his crowning achievement would be a movie that brought his work into the mainstream. 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a 1968 movie developed in concert Clark and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Both developed the story as the film was shot, but in the end, only Arthur C. Clark was credited with writing both the film and the movie. The story is based on various short stories by Clark, but the one used the most was The Sentinel of Eternity (1948), a story he wrote for a BBC competition. Although Sir Arthur C. Clarke has published well over 100 novels, many of them winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, he is most famous for this novel and the accompanying movie. It is an enduring classic film that has stood up to the test of time.

The author lived in Sri Lanka until his death in 2008, being knighted in 2000 by Queen Elizabeth, although he was in poor health and could not receive the honor in person. He was also awarded Sri Lanka’s highest civil honor, Sri Lankabhimanya in 2005. Clarke chose to be buried with Ekanayake in the Colombo central cemetery upon his death. Although he had been married to a woman for a short time in 1953, it is thought that he chose to emigrate to Sri Lanka where homosexuality was more tolerated at that time. He had no children.

“He was moving through a new order of creation, of which few men had ever dreamed. Beyond the realms of sea and land and air and space lay the realms of fire, which he alone had been privileged to glimpse. It was too much to expect that he would also understand.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is a series of vignettes about an ancient and unknown race of aliens that use a device in the shape of a monolith to encourage the development of intelligent life. The first occurrence on Earth appears in ancient Africa four million years ago where it helps a group of proto-humans to invent tools. The clubs they develop help them kill animals and thus allow them to eat meat and survive.

The book then moves ahead to 1999, showing Dr. Floyd’s journey to Clavius Base on the Moon. He attends a meeting where another monolith is discovered, this one is the first known in human history. How it got there on the Moon is a mystery. Floyd and a team of scientists are viewing the monolith when the sun touched upon it. The monolith sends a radio transmission to one of the moons of Saturn, Iapetus. The scientists decide to investigate further and plan a mission to the moon.

The next vignette features Astronaut David Bowman and Francis Poole. Their ship is guided by a computer, HAL 9000 who is an AI. HAL tells Bowman that one of the units in the ship is faulty, but when Poole goes to check on it, he finds that there is nothing wrong. Bowman and Poole consult with Earth and are told to disconnect HAL for analysis. The instructions on how to do this are interrupted by a broken signal and HAL informs the two astronauts that the same unit has malfunctioned.

Poole goes EVA to remove the malfunctioning unit and is killed when his spacesuit is ripped. Bowman is suspicious that HAL may have had something to do with Poole’s “accident”. He decides to wake the other three astronauts who are in deep sleep, not only for their safty, but because he feels he needs help. As he starts their awakening process, HAL opens both airlocks. Bowman manages to escape in an emergency shelter and from there he is able to shut down the AI’s consciousness.

Upon contacting Earth, he learns that his mission is not just to explore Iapetus, the moon around Saturn, but to seek out the aliens that created the monolith on the Moon. The astronaut discovers that there is another monolith on the Iapetus, but it is much larger than the one that had been buried on the Moon. As he approaches it, the monolith opens up and swallows him. The last message Bowman sends back to Earth is, “The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God! – it’s full of stars!”

What happens next is astonishing and you’ll have to read the book to find out all the details.

2001 A Space Odyssey book coverI have not read many of Clarke’s novels. They always seemed to be a little dry to me, more high concept than character driven. Yet, I can not deny the impact that this “big three” author has had on the genre.

I was introduced to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey at filmschool. Stanley Kubrick is a much studied and renown filmmaker and the collaboration he did with Clarke created a piece of cinema that is a stand-alone classic that should be seen. Until I researched this book review, I had not realized that Kubrick and Clarke had worked as partners on the story and I believe this accounts for the highly visual and emotional impact of both film and book. The details of Clarke’s novel are similar to the movie (the book goes to Saturn and the movie to Jupiter), but the science is more explained by Clarke and the ambiguous ending of the film is not a part of the book. Clarke gives you a resolution worthy of a grandmaster of science fiction. I am glad that I have read 2001: A Space Odyssey and seen the movie. Both are classics that every lover of science fiction should partake.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey”

  1. While Sir Clarke, Heinlein and Asimaov are indisputedly a huge contributors, I’m very surprised that Jules Verne was not deemed a founder of the genre… perhaps THE founder.

    1. The term “big three” rose up in the 1950s when these three authors commanded the genre. Each one has dozens of titles to his name and all their books were considered the leading edge of the formation of the genre. You are right that science fiction existed before. HG Wells and Jules Verne are victorian authors of great repute and their work has also stood the test of time. I would consider them founders indeed. 🙂

  2. Hi! WOW! Love this .. (to bits and pieces)! Do you think there was though put into the words HAL used? What if he didn’t say “I’m afraid I cannot do that” and instead said “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.” Do you think that would have impacted the story in any way?

  3. I believe that the words that HAL used were developed to make him sound human, but in a way that was a little more formal to give him a remoteness. To this day, the voice and language of HAL 9000 gives me chills.

  4. It gives me a warm feeling to see Clarke getting the attention he deserves and had throughout his long life. It’s natural that dead authors are forgotten to some extent. It’s ironic he’s known mainly to younger readers or fans for one movie and the robotic HAL which is almost completely a departure from his earlier work that made his name in the sf community. If you want to glimpse the true ‘Sense of wonder’ that early sf engendered, read “childhood’s end,” about the end of the human race and the rise of something greater or “the city and the stars” about the birth of the first human being on an old, tired earth in ten million years. Once read, they will never be forgotten. Clark reinvented himself two or three times during his life, but virtually any sf author would have been proud to have been the author of any one of his works.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I have read the two books you mentioned, but they simply are not favorites of mine. I’m sure that they appeal to others, otherwise Clarke would not have been so widely regarded! I certainly mean no disparagement of this author or his work. Of the “big three” he was my least favorite, but I won’t discount the impact Clarke had on the genre of science fiction and on science itself. I feel that his works should be read as hallmarks of the genre.

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