Top positive review
It goes on forever!
on April 28, 2016
Most sci-fi makes the universe feel... well, mundane. Few authors of science fiction actually convey the haunting wonder of the cosmos, and the mysteries that we may never grasp.
But Arthur C. Clarke clearly did not have that problem, as evidenced by his legendary "2001: a Space Odyssey." Written concurrently with the famously artistic (and glacially-paced) Stanley Kubrick movie, this is a hauntingly expansive, mysterious story that looks toward the strange, almost mystical expanses of the universe, from computers gone mad to mysterious aliens of almost godlike power. And yes, it's full of stars. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
The story begins millions of years ago, when a tribe of starving hominids encounters a mysterious black monolith. This strange object somehow affects their development, allowing them to develop tools and start killing for food and dominance. Fast forward to 1999: Dr. Heywood Floyd travels to the moon colonies for a meeting, and learns of a magnetic disturbance on the crater of Tycho. A strange black slab of mathematically-precise proportions has been unearthed there, designated TMA-1, and upon being found sends a signal towards Saturn's moon Iapetus.
Then we switch to the Discovery One mission, a sleeper ship that has been launched towards Jupiter; three crewmen are in suspended animation, while Frank Poole, Dave Bowman and the AI computer HAL 9000 run the ship. At first, all is well. But when HAL begins exhibiting strange behavior, Frank and Dave begin to suspect that something is seriously wrong with him -- and Dave's seemingly mundane exploration mission turns out to be just the beginning of a far stranger experience, which will take him past the edges of human existence.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" is rightfully considered one of the greatest, most compelling works of science fiction of the twentieth century, which is even more impressive when one considers that it is still overshadowed by Kubrick's movie. Admittedly a few facets of it are a bit dated (the rather adorably zeerust depiction of typewriters on the moon, an all-male astronaut crew). But the heart and backbone of the book is exquisitely timeless; knowledge of scientific phenomena (the physics of low gravity) mingles beautifully with the transcendent quality of the universe's mysteries.
Part of this is that Clarke was a masterful writer. While "2001: A Space Odyssey" has a fairly straightforward plot, the elements of cosmic mystery keep it from ever being dull or predictable. The monoliths, the mysterious creators of them, the signals sent towards the stars, the transformations -- Clarke doesn't overexplain anything, instead allowing the strange, almost mystical aspects of the story to link together organically.
And he had a writing style that could exposit at length about the futuristic society (including a paragraph on how they eat in zero-G), then switch over to luminously beautiful descriptions of space travel ("A ghostly, glimmering rectangle had formed in the empty air. It solidified into a crystal tablet, lost its transparency, and became suffused with a pale, milky luminescence"). In fact, the last quarter of the book is dominated by the lonely Dave Bowman zooming through space, seeing the wondrous beauty of the planets and moons around him. It's basically astronomy porn.
Speaking of which, Dave is probably the closest the story has to a main character -- while he's emphasized to be specially trained and highly intelligent, Clarke writes him as a fairly ordinary guy who quickly finds himself in a strange situation that no human being could be prepared for. And while everyone remembers HAL 9000, he's actually only in the book for a relatively brief time, but he is a childlike yet chilly presence who acts in an oddly logical manner, despite going a bit nuts.
Few science fiction books have the majesty and mystery of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- and it's even more impressive when you realize it was just the first part of Arthur C. Clarke's four-part series. Spellbinding, gripping and beautifully written.