Thursday, April 7, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

Amazon, in their never-ending plot to get me to buy more books, some time ago offered a large number of Arthur C. Clarke e-books for the reasonable price of two dollars. Being a man willing to part with large amounts of money two dollars at a time, I ended up with a small collection of various Arthur C. Clarke books to read, him being the one of the three Greats of science-fiction whose work I've definitely read the least of. (I definitely spent far too many of my teenage years reading my mother's collection of Heinlein and Asimov which gave me some interesting insights to life.) So this month I'm reviewing the entirety of the Space Odyssey series which I've been told is a little easier to understand than the very famous film.

Warning to my Readers: As both the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey have now been out for nearly fifty years, I no longer consider it necessary to avoid ''spoiling'' the story. Especially the more esoteric bits that aren't really explained in the movie. If you have not seen the movie by now, then go borrow it from the library or something, it's not my fault you can't be bothered to watch an old school science-fiction movie every now and then. 

This edition of the book begins with some rather lengthy introductory material from Clarke himself which goes into some of the details about the making of both the book and movie. According to Clarke,  he met with Stanley Kubrick in New York City and they began discussing ideas for a science-fiction movie. Building on a concept from a pre-existing short story of his, The Sentinel (Contained in Expedition to Earth), the duo began developing story ideas for a feature-length movie. 2001 is an odd case where instead of the book being written first and then later adapted to film, or the less common case of a film being created and then later novelized, both the film and book were created in tandem and released at roughly the same time, with Kubrick managing to finish the movie first. There are some slight differences, but they tell roughly the same story. Inevitably, having now gone through both I'm going to be doing a bit of comparison and contrast.

The main difference, though, is the amount of explanation that goes into the novel. The film of 2001: A Space Odyssey is famous for having incredibly little dialog and Kubrick relies heavily on visuals to tell the story. From the monkeys in the beginning of the movie and their encounter with the mysterious black Monolith, he transitions to the scenery porn of space travel in the then still-distant year 2001 and the discovery of a second monolith buried on the moon. There is the tense sequence of events on the ship Discovery as Dave Bowman fights against the incomprehensible mechanical malice of HAL 9000, and then the final bit which...just gets weird. Really, really weird. But the important thing is Kubrick used visuals to tell the story.

Quite simply, unless you're writing a graphic novel, which Clarke was not, you cannot communicate with visuals in a novel. You have to use words. And so while in the film Kubrick leaves a great many things unexplained and up to the viewer's own interpretation, in the novel Clarke goes in the opposite direction and explains perhaps a little bit too much. Intelligent viewers of 2001: A Space Odyssey probably concluded that the Monolith acted as a sort of catalyst for the evolution of our simian ancestors into human beings. Where it comes from, why it's there, what its purpose is, that's all left up to the imagination of the viewer in the film, but in the book Clarke goes into extreme detail.

The monoliths, all of them scattered through our solar system, are the result of a race of aliens experimenting with life and trying to push life towards intelligent forms and report on the success of such an experiment. At times Clarke's descriptions and explanations can be a little bit overwhelming and I find myself thinking less is actually more in this case. His descriptions certainly explain the end part of the movie which is famously the most incomprehensible part, but on the other hand it takes away part of the mystique and tries to make up for the visuals with purple prose which I felt didn't carry as well in text form.

One thing that I did notice was the conflict between the crew of Discovery and HAL 9000 is a much smaller part of the book compared to the movie. In the book it's sort of sandwiched between other parts of the story and happens fairly quickly. It's also heavily foreshadowed in the book and, having seen the movie before, it takes quite a lot of tension out of the situation. In the film, the conflict between the crew and HAL is central to the plot and forms an incredibly tense, nerve-wracking, and memorable story. Who doesn't get a chill at the phrase, ''I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.''? And once again, we get far less an explanation why HAL decides to murder the crew in Kubrick's rendition. Which leaves it to the audience's own twisted imagination or in the realm of perhaps the utterly incomprehensible. In the novel, however, it's sort of blandly explained that having been instructed to tell the crew the truth, but to lie to them as well, it creates stress in HAL's psyche that pushes him to murder the crew to remove the apparent conflict. Which, although concerning in its own right, isn't nearly as terrifying as a computer going wrong and not knowing why.

(I will also make the comment that Clarke's explanation of HAL's name totally not being a one letter substitution for IBM leads me to claim he doth protest too much. The fact that HAL supposedly stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer sounds far too much like a backronym to me. And there are certain other elements of evidence which lend credence to the IBM theory.)

If you find yourself a little bit confused and perhaps irritated by the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey then the novel will definitely help clear things up, although you may get a little tired by the amount of detail that Clarke goes into explaining things. And the book has definitely given me new appreciation for the film. I'd say the book is an important supplement, but I'm left with the feeling the film is possibly the stronger of the two. Next week we'll see how the series continues with 2010: Odyssey Two.

- Kalpar

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