I'm not quite sure how, or why, Arthur C. Clarke's magnum opus eluded me over the years, but at long last I finally got my hands on his 1968 novel, the mind-bending, genre-influencing companion to the movie of the same name. As seminal a work as it is, my knowledge of it extended to nothing more than a few HAL jokes and "My God, it's full of ads!" on Futurama. Now, book in hand, the time had come to go beyond the infinite.
Three million years before homo sapien walked the Earth, a starving tribe of hominids find a large, crystalline monolith near their dwelling, which scans their minds and pushes them along in their first evolutionary steps. Eons later, scientists discover a large black slab buried in the Moon, mathematically perfect and precise in its architecture, and well over three million years old. Eighteen months later, in 2001, the Discovery One spacecraft sets out to explore Saturn, the ringed planet. On board is Dr. David Bowman, Dr. Frank Poole, three hibernauts and a sentient computer named HAL.
My ignorance of 2001: A Space Odyssey greatly benefitted my reading it. As Clarke narrated the struggles of the tribe of Moon-Watcher, many times did I glance at the cover of the book to confirm what I was reading. Why was a book, ostensibly about space travel, going into significant depth and detail about a tribe of pre-humans? But Clarke makes it so fascinating - from Moon-Watcher's inability to feel grief at his father's passing, to the daily struggle for survival against starvation that characterized his tribe's lives.
Then comes the monolith, which controls their minds and forces their clumsy, thick fingers to tie the first knots, to pick up rocks to kill animals, to fashion weapons to kill a rival tribe, and to know, for the first time, that they never need be hungry again. There begin the first of many disturbing implications in 2001: A Space Odyssey - what if human evolution was really the result of extra-terrestrial influence? Would we not have developed into the human race today? Would our ancestors have starved to death, with deer and pigs all around them?
The very concepts put forward in the novel stagger the mind, and effectively so - this is the hard science fiction of orbital mechanics, eating and relieving oneself in zero gravity, suspended animation and incredibly long journeys. No wibbley-wobbley here. Some of it does make for dry reading, but when things begin to go wrong on the Discovery One, it makes the claustrophobia all the more real.
I was surprised that the showdown with the HAL computer was a relatively shorter part of the novel. So much has been made about his murderous meltdown in popular culture that I fully expected it to be the climax of the story. Again, this probably worked to my benefit, as David Bowman's lonely journey to Saturn was made all the more interesting. Again, the implications of what he finds on - and beyond - Japetus is enough to make you look at the stars and honestly (and a little worriedly) wonder what - or who - is out there.
2001: A Space Odyssey was meant to be read alongside Stanley Kubrick's similarly well-received movie of the same name, and I look forward to seeing how Clarke's vision was realized for the screen. The book alone is enough to throw you for a loop. It is fiction, of course, but just the theory it proposes - that our evolution was not our own, and what's in store for us beyond the physical nature of our bodies - makes not just the movie, but the other novels in the Space Odyssey series, incredible prospects.
4.5/5.0: In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey changed the face of science fiction. Forty-three years later, it's just as epic, stunning and brilliant.