2001: A  Space Odyssey
by Arthur C. Clarke

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Here is a reasonable rule of thumb for sci-fi readers:  if the movie
came first, then you can skip the book.  But if the book came first,
then forget the film—and head to the library.   This simple guide
would (for example) steer you toward
Dune the book, and not the
feeble movie adaptations, but would allow you to enjoy the
Star
Wars
films without wasting time on the drivel published in the
accompanying book series.

But how do we deal with the most famous
sci-fi film of the 1960s, and its book—which
were made at the same time as part of a rare
collaboration between a legendary director
and one of the acknowledged masters of
speculative fiction?  Stanley Kubrick's
movie
2001: A Space Odyssey came out
a short while before Clarke's novel, but was
first only by the briefest of intervals, and
the two were largely conceived in tandem.  
Can we afford to skip either of these inter-
planetary odysseys?

Honestly, you need to tackle both in this
instance.  Kubrick streamlines the plot so
much in his celebrated film that you will
hardly understand what is going on if you
don’t take the time to digest Clarke's narrative.  Kubrick was
always the master of great visual images that are often just a
step away from over-the-top excess—think of Slim Pickens
riding the bomb in
Dr. Strangelove; the bone turning in to a
spaceship in 2001; the “Singing in the Rain” scene in
A
Clockwork Orange; or Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” in
The Shining.  They invite parody, but only because they are
almost parodies themselves.   

Like Hitchcock, Kubrick always preferred what
looked good on
screen
over what made the most sense from the perspective of plot
and development.  He takes this approach to an extreme with
2001,
which transpires for two-thirds of its total length without dialogue.  
And when words finally appear, the best lines are given to the
computer—and you thought outsourcing to the brain-in-a-box was a
recent development!  As a result, many in the audience for
2001:  A
Space Odyssey
walked out of the theater with great visuals ingrained
in their random-access memories, but would have been incapable of
explaining to a bystander what actually happened over the course of
the film.  

This is a shame—since Clarke devised one of his great plots for this
futuristic tale.  Clarke, for his part, commented “If you understand
2001 on the first viewing, we will have failed”—a remark that
irritated Kubrick, and which some have insisted was merely tongue-
in-cheek.  But the movie is deliberately vague, and though the power
of its individual scenes will ensure its long-term importance,
2001:
A Space Odyssey
will never be held up as a model of cinematic story-
telling.  

Nonetheless, the impact of this novel extends beyond literary or
cinematic matters.  Who, for example, can comprehend the
significance of 2001’s linkage with mysterious
Toynbee tiles that
have appeared in more than two dozen cities in the US and Latin
America?  The film has inspired everything from
a style of interior
design to David Bowie’s hit song “Space Oddity.” Kubrick, for his
part, offered an ambiguous commentary to his movie adaptation:
“You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and
allegorical meaning of the film.”  Various theories—Nietzschean,
Homeric, Freudian—have been offered.  

The freshness of the story is all the more striking when one
considers how often Arthur C. Clarke developed this same theme in
other settings.  He is, after all, the great master of the “first contact”
story—two of the most brilliant treatments of this topic,
Childhood’s
End and Rendezvous with Rama, come from his pen.  But many had
addressed this theme long before Clarke, and his reliance on this
time-honored subject for his collaboration with Kubrick could easily
have resulted in the sci-fi equivalent of reheated leftovers. Although
2001:  A Space Odyssey falls a little short of these other two “first
contact” novels, this is more a testimony to the conceptual brilliance
of the latter rather than a criticism of the former.
2001 still holds
enough interesting twists and turns to keep the reader engaged in its
pages.  Even if you have seen the film many times, the book will not
be a letdown.  

And in HAL, the computer with the guilt complex and a destructive
bent, Clarke created one of the great characters of sci-fi, albeit a
disembodied one.  By the way, Clarke assures us that there is no
truth to the rumor that he came up with the name of his dangerous
machine by moving down one letter in the alphabet from those used
in the acronym of a
famous Armonk, New York company.  I am less
than convinced.  But HAL is just as good in print as he was on the
screen, and the story loses some of its oomph when he gets
unplugged.

I won’t deny that
2001 deserves it status as a classic.  No, it’s not my
favorite novel by Clarke—if you haven’t read anything by this
author, I would recommend you start with
Rendezvous with Rama.   
But given the pressure-cooker environment in which
2001 was
written—with Hollywood looking over the author’s shoulder, and all
the potential for compromise and dumbing-down that usually
entails—the intelligence and integrity of the final work are little
short of dazzling.  Both the film and book may be associated with a
date, and one that now has passed, but neither show the slightest
signs of being dated.
Back to the home page
conceptual
fiction
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian
Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading
List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.