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
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
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
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
over what made the most sense from the perspective of plot
and development.  He takes this approach to an extreme with
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,
A Space Odyssey
will never be held up as a model of cinematic story-

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,
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

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.
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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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