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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke

Of the two science fiction epics featuring human actors in monkey suits that came out in 1968, I much prefer Planet of the Apes to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I would even argue that, despite its camp and the other's fairly universal acclaim, PotA is the better movie.  In addition to the social commentary that's still powerful and relevant, the awesomely discordant soundtrack, and the sheer entertainment value of Charlton Heston's scenery-chewing, at heart it's a very moving -- very human -- story.  It even has, I would argue, a feminist icon in Dr. Zira, the totally badass chimp scientist.


2001, despite being nominally about the ascent of man, is a cold and almost totally inhuman story.  The most relatable character in it is the computer HAL, and he's a homicidal psychopath.  And the only woman with a speaking part is the stewardess.  An intergalactic monolith with mind-control powers is one thing, but the idea that women might hold positions of prominence in the future was apparently too ridiculous to contemplate.


Before picking up the book this week, I hadn't seen the movie since I was a child, and I wondered if my impression of it as boring, pretentious, unbearably long, and almost completely nonsensical, was the result of having been too young to understand it.  After all, people call it THE BEST MOVIE EVER MADE.  I figured I'd rewatch it after finishing the book, and hoped that the book might clarify some of its weirder scenes.


After all, the book is always better, right?


Well, in this case, I think it's kind of a wash.  I hadn't realized that the film isn't based on the book; they were more or less developed in tandem.  The book is a bit more straightforward and comprehensible than the movie and differs a bit in some details, but it's not enough to really distinguish it as "better than" the movie.  Where the movie really excels (the inspired use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and "The Blue Danube"; the iconic shots of sun, moon, and earth aligning with the monoliths; HAL's creepy monotone) the book has no counterpart.


It's kind of strange that I enjoyed the book as much as I did, given how void it is of plot and characters.  Like the film, much of it is taken up with painstaking descriptions of the technology.  Everything from the minutiae of spaceflight to the functioning of the hibernation chambers to the mathematical dimensions of the monoliths to the size of Floyd's iPad-like Newspad (foolscap-sized, if you're wondering) is diligently explicated.  This kind of "hard" science fiction would usually leave me snoozing, especially with how dated it is, but I was immersed.  It was amazingly prescient for its time.


Like the movie, the book is divided into several sections, and the most famous is by far the best.  The astronauts' confrontation with the psychotic HAL computer is really the only exciting, plot-driven section of the book, and it's over far too quickly.  And after all that buildup, from the dawn of man to the distant future, what's left at the end of the book (and movie) is just a bunch of psychedelic, pseudophilosophical garbage, culminating in the monolith-building aliens transforming Dave into a gigantic Space Fetus.  At which point, he apparently (spoiler alert!) nukes the planet Earth.




I don't get it, and I'm not really convinced there's anything to get.  The godlike monolith-builders have some kind of bizarre interest in elevating primordial apes into men, and then they wait around for 3 million years to implement the next step in human evolution, which is... planet-obliterating jumbo-infants?  Well, okay.  This is clearly a masterpiece of science-fictional philosophy.


But then, it's not the 60's, and I'm fresh out of magic mushrooms, so what do I know?


(Actually, it's somewhat ambiguous as to whether Space Fetus nukes the earth or simply destroys all the nuclear weapons.  But that interpretation is even stupider - humans have to evolve into giant telekinetic brain-babies before we can grasp the profound concept of "war is bad"?  That's, um, asinine.)


I read the book as part of my cult novel project, and it's no mystery why this one inspired a cult following.  A lot of those 60's philosophical SF novels really blew some hippie minds back in the day.  There's this one, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse-Five...  Of all of them that I've read, 2001 is probably my least favorite.  It's not bad, it just doesn't have much of anything to say to me.


I think I'm gonna go watch Planet of the Apes again....


(2014 #14)


PS: I still want a monolith action figure...