The cinematic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey is widely considered one of the best films ever made, and certainly one of the high points of Kubrick’s career1; slightly less known—or perhaps just as well known by a much different demographic?—is Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name. Uniquely, one was not a novelization or screen adaptation of the other, but rather were written at the same time in a partnership between Kubrick and Clarke. The differences between the two have more to do with changes made by Kubrick for budgetary or stylistic reasons.
When one thinks of the film, the vivid images that come to mind are the opening scene of hominids surrounding a monolith as Strauss trumpets; the red, unblinking eye of HAL9000 calmly questioning “Dave” (Bowman); the last recorded transmission of Bowman… “My God… it’s full of stars!” The middle item, that of HAL9000, the malfunctioning AI, is perhaps the most iconic part of the film, and it launched a whole genre (that of the “malfunctioning robot”), though it’s really only a small portion of the film, and an even smaller portion of the book.
Clarke’s book tends to be a little slower in its rising action; it spends several chapters alone on the hominids, for instance, which foreshadow the meaning of the monolith, even if it doesn’t do much to expand the story. The importance of Clarke’s long introduction here are to instill in his readers a sense of the biological and philosophical evolution of Man, since the state of our humanity, both in absolute terms and relative to the posited intelligences of the galaxy, becomes a major theme of the novel.
In Clarke’s vision, there are three primary sections, each focused on a particular individual. In the first—that of the hominids—we follow the exploits of Moon-Watcher, a man-ape who, seemingly endowed by an alien monolith with the capacity for higher thought and the use of tools, becomes the great-grandfather to the generations of man to come. If you’ve seen Mel Brook’s excellent History of the World: Part I, you’ve seen both the iconic monolith scene from the film and the concept of tool-discovery itself lampooned, and it’s about this much care which is dedicated to the notion in Clarke’s novel. That is to say, the implication is self-evident, and the dedicated of several chapters to material suitable for a single one is perhaps indicative of the meandering, tangential and altogether unfulfilling path the rest of the book will take.
Fast forward millenia and ages named after their iconic building materials, and Clarke presents us with a curious interstitial section about Dr. Heywood Floyd, a scientist who leaves Earth on a top-secret government mission, arrives at a way-point, and then travels to the moon, where a team doing a routine magnetic scan has discovered, deep beneath the surface, an alien monolith, which we as readers are given to understand is of the same variety that sparked intelligence in Moon-Watcher. Clarke spends time describing Floyd’s trip from earth, his meaning with a colleague on the moon, and other general character-building exercises for reasons I still cannot fathom, since Floyd will soon be used no more as a character aside from a name-drop during a later chapter. It’s as though Clarke subscribes to Stephen King’s “Why Not?” school of writing, giving backstories to throwaway characters and details to dead narrative branches.
It is only once we get to David Bowman (100+ pages in), on board the spaceship Discovery One along with his colleague Frank Poole and three others in suspended animation for the trip, that any pertinent narrative begins. I don’t believe it’s overstating the case when I say that everything preceding this point could have been condensed into a single chapter of exposition without undue harm to the narrative. Granted, Clarke doesn’t have the power of visuals: Kubrick’s famous monolith scene accomplished, more or less, in a relatively few frames of film what Clarke accomplished in forty pages of text.
So begins Bowman’s infamous trouble with HAL9000, the powerful, apparently self-aware onboard computer, who either accidentally or purposely kills every other inhabitant on board. Based on HAL’s proportion of the film’s iconography, one would expect the conflict between Bowman and the rogue AI to last longer, but like most things, it represents only a small chunk of subplot in the book. In fact, had this conflict been the primary theme of the novel, it would have made for excellent intellectual fodder: the nature of machine intelligence, the natural rights allowed to sentient and semi-sentient forces, &. It is rather brusquely run through, like fast-forwarding through a tape, after which point Bowman reaches the moon of Saturn, Japetus2, gets sucked into some plot device resembling a wormhole, and the rest of the novel circles around a drain of cosmic unintelligibility, the nadir of which is Bowman’s transformation into a post-matter being.
Clarke’s implication in all this is that the evolution on intelligence on a universal scale is relatively fixed: ape-men → intelligent tool-users → cyborgs → beings of pure energy. Or something to this effect. It’s a rather simplistic and starry-eyed bit of science-fiction yarn-spinning, though I suppose perhaps forward-looking when it was written. Of course, if some species of alien, long since evolved into pure energy, is responsible for the creation of intelligent civilizations across the universe (a sort of technological panspermia), that rather puts on a damper on the notion that there’s a predictable or inexorable pattern to the rise of life; brain-warping monoliths are a strange voodoo, and while they made constitute a perfectly valid point of plot, they don’t jive well with Clarke’s grandiose “Star Child” culmination or solemn intonations about civilizational parallels. If you’ve any doubt of the general pusillanimity at work, you’ve only to read Clarke’s sequels, which fail to even keep an internal consistency with the original (while simultaneously evaporating any of its mystery), underwhelming though it was.