Book Name: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
First Published: 1968
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke is 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 was the recipient of numerous Hugo and Nebula awards.
Clarke was born in Somerset, England and grew up in Bishops Lydeard on a farm, spending 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 became the chairman of the Institute.
During World War II, Clarke 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 in radar, then 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, Clarke 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 geosynchronous 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 a 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 between 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 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.
Clarke was 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 lived in Sri Lanka until his death in 2008 and 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 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 monolith’s first appearance on Earth appears in ancient Africa four million years ago where it helps a group of proto-humans 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. Floyd attends a meeting where another monolith is discovered, this one is the first known in human history. How it got on the moon is a mystery. Floyd and a team of scientists are viewing the monolith when the sun touches 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 Astronauts David Bowman and Francis Poole. Their ship is guided by a computer, HAL 9000. 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 on an 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 safety, but also 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, Bowman learns that his mission is not just to explore Iapetus 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.
I 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 cannot deny the impact that this “big three” author has had on the genre. If you read science fiction, you simply must read a few of Clarke’s books.
I was introduced to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in film school. Stanley Kubrick is a much studied and renowned filmmaker and his collaboration 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 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 better 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 grand master 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.