Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This review contains spoilers.

Like that of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I reviewed here a few weeks ago, the legacy of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey precedes it. Like Androids, it’s associated with a classic SF film that’s gone down in the annals of cinematographic history. From it we have cultural touchstones you’re probably aware of even if you’ve never seen the film or read the book: cavemen clustering around a monolith; the homicidal computer Hal, possibly the best-known AI in genre history. It’s always a weird experience encountering such cultural touchstones in their native habitat, as it were: they’re never quite what you expect. If you’re lucky, their context amplifies their resonance, confirms why they’re as enduring as they are. But the much likelier outcome, at least when we’re talking vintage SF, is a vague sense of disappointment. The genre’s developed so far in the last 50 years that these classic texts appear quaint, underdeveloped and often wildly demographically problematic.

Clarke’s novel – which actually post-dates Stanley Kubrick’s film; the two works were developed in parallel and their plots are very similar – is a novel of ideas; there are no real characters, just puppets being moved around in service to the story. I suppose you could say that humanity is the real central character: the novel is fundamentally interested in evolution, proceeding episodically through various stages of human progress. The aforementioned cavemen are tipped into sentience by the aforementioned monolith, a mysterious alien artefact sending out mysterious alien signals. Thousands of years later, a scientist visits the Moon to investigate a similar monolith that’s been excavated there, an object that gives off an enormous burst of radio waves the moment that sunlight falls upon it for the first time. Next, a spaceship carrying the aforementioned Hal plus a five-strong human crew follows that signal to Saturn’s moon Japetus (Hal attempting to slaughter the crew along the way thanks to an irreconcilable conflict in his programming); and, finally, Bowman, the last member of that ship’s crew, becomes a Star Child like the monolith-makers, a transcendent and immortal being.

Caveman, human, AI, Star Child: for Clarke, evolution is a process that is not yet finished, and moreover it is an inherently progressive process, a process that inevitably leads humanity to higher things. (Even Hal, who’s been left psychologically unbalanced by competing mission objectives, is, with his complete control over the spaceship, a step on the way to the near-omniscience of the Star Children.) On display here is the novel’s fundamental optimism about the possibilities of space, which we can see further in its sensawunda approach to the monoliths, especially the one on the moon. There is something almost sublime, in the Romantic sense, about these monoliths: their unbelievable age and yet apparent sophistication renders them both terrifying (what is waiting out there for us, in the deep dark of space?) and thrilling, and gives us a dizzying, yawning sense of deep time.

Bowman’s ascension, as the closing event of the novel, amounts to a promise that we, even we, can become the inheritors of those vast stretches of time and space, masters of the universe, if you will. It’s a promise that harks back to the colonialist origins of science fiction, those fantasies of exploration and subjugation exemplified by the novels of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard. (Is it a surprise that every character who appears on-page in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a straight white man? It is not.) These unacknowledged colonialist predilections are one reason why the novel feels out-of-date today (in a way that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a novel published in the same year as 2001, does not); another is its untempered optimism about the state of humanity as a whole, which, in an age grappling with climate change and the rise of the far right, feels naïve at best. I would, I think, still quite like to see the film, which, from what I’ve read, sounds like it could be more suggestive, more subtle than Clarke’s novel, with its rather utilitarian prose and largely non-existent approach to character development. As it is, I don’t know that I’ve really gained anything from my encounter with the text which I could not have gained from reading the relevant Wikipedia article.

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