Book Review : 2001 A Space Odyssey - Arthur C Clarke  

Posted by CK in ,

I have just finished another book and this one is quite the contrast to my recently completed Wodehouse classic. 2001 A Space Odyssey has been called one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time and one of the greatest movies of all time. Just as well because both the book and the movie were written almost simultaneously.

Both the book and the movie are based on Arthur C. Clarke's short story, The Sentinel. The Sentinel is the story of an artifact that is found on the Moon's surface that is surrounded by a force field. The artifact is sending out a signal to the stars and the moment the force field is breached, it stops emitting. The story hypothesizes that it is a warning of some kind to a race beyond this world that another space-faring race that has just emerged.

Stanley Kubrick is one my all time favorite directors. His movies that I have seen thus far have been nothing short of genius. I've seen A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining and a few more and I've loved each and every one of them. I've only seen the first few minutes of 2001 and for the life of me, I can't remember why it is I didn't complete watching the rest of the movie.

I'll give the movie its due when I do get around to watching it but for now, I want to focus on the book.

The book starts with the dawn of human evolution (about 3 million years ago) when ape-men were no different from all the rest of the animals out there. Sociologists and anthropologists have theorized that it was around that time that "men" in their basest form started using tools, discovered fire, etc. And the rest is history. Sweeping across the globe, we are now the dominant species for the time being. The story goes that the ape-men were no different from the rest of the animals with the exception of walking upright. One day a giant "rock" or monolith appears that starts giving them intelligence. Now, I'm not talking about dodo to Einstein but basic thought like picking up a bone to defend themselves. And this monolith was just one of many around the world trying to induce intelligence in to different species around at that time. It made a few adjustments and took a few chances, rolled the die, if you would. And then it disappears. The ape-men are the first to take to this experiment and show progress. One among them, Moon Watcher, the leader of one tribe is able to more ably handle tools and hunt and he becomes the first step of the next stage of human evolution. He is the master of the world.

I have always wondered about the theory that life on this planet had extra-terrestrial origins. Every science fiction story has some kind of a mythology about it in some way. Benevolent higher beings run around the galaxy seeding life on different planets, as an experiment, to preserve their essence, to ensure life doesn't end with their extinction. But I don't necessarily agree. I think the Earth has a few 100 billion species to boast of. A lot of which evolve in just over millenia to become something new and never before seen. I think  we're just on one of those lucky planets and we won the evolutionary lottery to take first place... for now.

We jump forward 3 million years to the year 1999 when a doctor is called to the moon colony under a top secret cover stories of a plague (explaining the news blackout from the moon base) and is told that while digging, they uncovered a black column that is perfectly symmetrical and adheres to a 1:4:9 ratio in its construct and is hence, artificially created. They have no idea what it does but it is carbon-dated to be 3 million years old. This is the first sign of intelligent life outside our world and there is obvious excitement. And just as they are examining it, there's a sunrise on the moon and just as the rays of sun shine on the monolith for the first time in a few million years, a sharp burst of energy shoots from it in to outer space.

Now, again, we jump a few years to 2001. David Bowman and Frank Poole are two astronauts aboard the spaceship Discovery on their way to Saturn via Jupiter for extra-planetary study. They have 3 more members in "hibernation" or suspended animation. And their on-board computer is a marvel of technology, the HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer). He maintains life aboard ship and the astronauts are just caretakers.

The story follows the life aboard and the wonders, fears, doubts and exhilaration of inter-planetary travel. The two men are honored and excited at being the first two to venture in to the unknown like the sailors of old, but at the same time, go through feelings of immense loneliness that comes with the realization that the next human other than the 5 on board are a few hundred million miles away.

Both Poole and Bowman fall in to a routine that, if all goes well, will not be disturbed for a few years until they hit Saturn orbit. Then the remaining astronauts are woken up and research commences. But, of course, something goes wrong. HAL starts malfunctioning and reporting errors when there are none. When the two, after much deliberation, decide to disconnect HAL, the computer takes matters into its own hands and kills Poole when he ventures outside the ship for some repair work. Bowman who is inside tries waking up another astronaut for help, at which time HAL opens the airlocks and vents the ship's atmosphere trying to kill Bowman and hence protect himself. Bowman manages to survive and disconnects HAL.

Here, you have your Frankenstein complex come into play. Man builds something more advanced than he is but it eventually turns on him and it is his own undoing. Now, with HAL no longer a threat and the remaining astronauts are all dead, Mission Control tells him that the purpose wasn't just a study of Saturn but that it was a mission of paramount significance. The monolith, before it fell silent, had sent one strong burst of energy in the direction of Saturn and to Japetus (a moon of Saturn) in particular. It was kept hush-hush but the hibernating astronauts were trained to study whatever it was the monolith was trying to communicate with. With the usual human paranoia, they wonder if it's an alarm sent out setting into motion an advancing army of aliens or just a simple signal. Since he's the sole survivor of the mission crew, he must find out what is out there, in the name of humanity.

Bowman, amazed at first, accepts this and again falls into a routine till Saturn orbit is achieved. He's overwhelmed by the fact that he is to be the representative for all humankind, for better or for worse. As they approach Japetus, Bowman keeps wondering what awaits him and he finds out soon enough. As he hits orbit, he finds something that is nothing short of astounding.

On the surface of Japetus is another monolith far larger than its little cousin on the moon. This one is 2000 feet high and proportional in every other way to the moon monolith. And as Bowman flies towards it to investigate, it awakens after 3 million years of waiting. It accesses its instructions as to what to do when this eventuality happens and opens up to let him in. It is a Star Gate.

Bowman falls through sending one last signal to Earth before he vanishes. He says, "The thing's hollow - it goes on for ever - and - oh my God - it's full of stars!"

He is then transported through sights and sounds that defy human comprehension. He passes stars, galaxies, nebulae and astronomical phenomena that are beyond our wildest dreams. He sees ancient abandoned space ports and ship yards until finally, he falls into a star. A red sun where he sees brilliant lights and lands in a hotel lobby. It's a perfect recreation of what a hotel would look like in any city in America. At closer inspection, he sees that it's all fake. A phone book with nothing inside, cereal boxes that outwardly look like Earth brands but filled with an alien substance. He believes that if the aliens would wanted to have killed him, all they needed to do was to let space take him. He lies down after a while and as he sleeps, his entire life flashes before him in reverse order. He dreams with clear vividness, all the important events in his life and realizes that all his memories are being drained and stored and he feels himself changing. The same creatures that created the monolith are probing him the way the monolith did to the ape-men and Moon Watcher but this time with a different objective. To push man to the next stage of evolution. He opens his eyes as a being of pure energy. He is the Star Child.

He exists in space and time as a being that is both immortal and omnipotent. He then encounters other energy beings that show him how to jump through space and all its dimensions (not just three) with ease and he realizes that the Universe is his playground.

He returns to Earth and as he approaches, the nations of the world panic and launch their nuclear warheads at this new entity that is coming at them. With a thought. he destroys all the warheads on the planet. And just like Moon Watcher before him, he's the master of the world and wonder what he will do next. "I'll think of something.", he says to himself.

I find the entire story and premise fascinating. I have always thought (like other sci-fi fans, I'm sure) that when the human potential is completely realized (we utilize 100% of our brain), we will achieve something akin to Godhood. We will be capable of acts and feats that, right now, we attribute to the supernatural and impossible. I would love to be David Bowman and achieve control over mind & matter and have all the knowledge of the stars at my fingertips.

For anybody who loves science fiction, don't miss it.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 11, 2009 at Friday, December 11, 2009 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Sounds interesting. Got to watch the movie...

"the theory that life on this planet had extra-terrestrial origins"

An interesting yet intriguing premise. Could be true... who knows... ???

I for one... do not subscribe to the widely acknowledged "Darwin's theory of evolution". Even though it was the one I had to study as a part of my curriculum...

Too many loopholes... big enough to have several tuskers pass through them. Comfortably.

It came out shining... 'coz Dr. Leakey's theory was quite preposterous...

December 11, 2009 at 10:12 PM

How do you figure evolution is wrong? If that's your stand, that means you don't believe in evolution? It's an observed scientific phenomena. You take two identical beings from the same species, you put them on two islands with differing conditions and if their lifespan is short enough and they can go through a few generations relatively quickly (like insects or birds) you will notice each adapting to their environment and if a few mutations are present simultaneously, only the "stronger" more suited for the conditions will dominate and the other evolutionary chain will die out. It happened with Cro-magnon man and the Neanderthals.

December 14, 2009 at 11:39 AM

You have misunderstood/misinterpreted my views.

All I have said... is that, both Dr. Leakey's as well as Charles Darwin's theories are filled with loopholes.

i.e., the human species/race having evoled from a single/common ancestor... the Great Apes.

In science, nothing is final. Nothing is... the last word. Earlier it was widely held... that the earth was flat. Later we figured out... that it was not so.

We may come up with newer and better theories regarding... how and why the Humans came about.

December 14, 2009 at 12:04 PM

Interesting review, movie is good but cannot supersede the book.
Btw, another Kubrick fan here, Loved the Clockwork Orange and Shining. Have to check out others!

November 24, 2010 at 8:45 AM

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