Thursday, April 28, 2016

3001: The Final Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

This week we finish up the month with a review of the final book in the Space Odyssey quartet, 3001: The Final Odyssey. And I have to admit, there are some significant changes in the series from the very first book, written in the 1960's, and the very last book written thirty years later. Not only are there differences in technology, scientific knowledge, and cultural references, but the tone and style are changed significantly to the point they almost sound like they weren't written by the same author. And I'm definitely going to say 3001 almost doesn't fit into the series at all, if only because the monolith, so iconic and central to earlier plots, is reduced to the point of being an afterthought. It doesn't make this book bad, just very different from its siblings.

Our story begins as you probably guessed in the distant year of 3001, as humanity is cleaning up celebrations from the end of the third millennium and entering the fourth. A comet-mining expedition out beyond Neptune is informed there's a strange radar signature and they've been asked to go investigate. This mysterious object turns out to be Frank Poole, one of the two crewmen from the original Discovery expedition a thousand years ago. With a little medical treatment and a quick de-thaw Frank finds himself alive, but further from home than he could ever imagine. And certainly, considering the dates involved I was definitely reminded of Futurama, but it seems Clarke came up with the idea first so this may have been one of the inspirations for the tv show. Although the idea of people somehow surviving through a period of time to wake up in a world they don't recognize is a fairly old one with Rip van Winkle and Looking Backwards serving as just two examples.

I said that 3001 is different from its siblings, and I feel it's because in this story you get the biggest dose of ''Hey, it's the future! Check out all these crazy things people are doing, because it's the future! We've got velociraptor gardeners now!'' I mean, if I'm being completely honest there were elements of that as early as the very first book with its extensive descriptions of what ''routine'' space travel from Earth to the Moon might be like, but there's also the plot with the monoliths. In a strange way, I feel like as you go through the series the monoliths end up playing a smaller and smaller role and the fascination with what the space future could be like becomes a much bigger part.

I think I'm only noticing this because it was pointed out to me once what a big deal science-fiction as a genre sometimes makes of fairly mundane activities that wouldn't even be mentioned in other forms of literature. Things such as how people travel, how people eat, what they wear, how their cities are organized, it all becomes part of a writer's picture for what the future might look like according to their own interpretation and imagination. And there are plenty of books like that, some of which are entertaining because of how wrong they ended up being, but it's one of those things where once you notice it you can't stop noticing it. And to an extent I felt that with this novel, the majority of it was showing off Clarke's ideas for where technology and society could go in a thousand years and Frank Poole being amazed by all of it.

One of the main things that ostensibly ties this entire series together is the presence of the monoliths, the mysterious black slabs which act as a catalyst for the evolution of intelligent life, among other manifold and mysterious tasks at the bidding of their masters. But as I said before, in 3001 the monolith almost feels like an afterthought rather than a major part of the story. I'm not really worried about the story being left open-ended, with humanity's fate left uncertain to the future because that's been done elsewhere in other works and it's seen as a generally acceptable way to end a series. What does frustrate me is the fact that something which drove the plot in the very first novel, something which was an absolute mystery and chillingly answered the question are we alone in the universe, becomes little more than a footnote by the end of the series. It's an interesting idea and I personally wish Clarke had developed it more.

Overall I think I'd say this book was okay. It's neat to see some of Clarke's ideas for the future, such as space elevators, the giant orbital ring of shipyards around the earth, genetically modified animals as servants, and direct brain-to-computer interfaces, but I also get the feeling that by the 90's some of those ideas were hardly groundbreaking either and by 2016 they're practically old hat. I think this series as a whole is okay, but it definitely and unsurprisingly goes through quite a few shifts over the years as Clarke came back to it and expanded upon it.

- Kalpar

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