2001: A Space Odyssey

As if trying to read 52 books in 52 weeks wasn’t time consuming enough, I added to the challenge by vowing to review each book I read. That’s on top of working up to three jobs at any given time. Sometimes, I suspect I may be a masochist. So, it’s no real surprise that I’m behind both in reading and in writing about reading, which means this review of a book I read a couple weeks ago could get interesting, or rather, very unspecific as I flounder along trying to remember what happened…

Anyway. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. The number one thing I remember thinking while reading this (actually, I listened to it) was: “I guess I’m just not a fan of science fiction.” I wasn’t planning to write a scathing review of the book, per se, but certainly a disinterested one. Then, I watched the movie. The long, tortuous movie with the great music, but horrific sound effects that made me want to fly back to Idaho, steal my father’s guns, fly back to Virginia, and shoot out my TV’s speakers. I know all about the innovative techniques and technological insight that made that movie great, but none of them made me enjoy it. On the contrary, the movie gave me a new appreciation for the book.

What the movie distinctly lacked was an emotional connection, and that’s where the book shined. The start of the book, with the apemen, was a section of the book that I loved right from the start. Clarke made me care about what happened to the apeman’s family. When the apeman dreamed of a life in which his family was well-fed and happy, I wanted that for him too. I guess I also have a slight sci-fi bent because I loved the idea of a benevolent alien race using a monolith to jiggle around with the apemen’s minds to teach them to think more creatively (I also know I have that slight sci-fi bent because I love Doctor Who, but I digress).

Later on, I was able to connect to the struggles of a man traveling to the moon with a great secret that he couldn’t discuss with any of his friends or colleagues (though apparently I didn’t connect enough to remember his name…). And then there was the Saturn mission with Dave, Frank and HAL. I felt for Frank and Dave and the loneliness they must feel. I was devastated by what happened to Frank. I even felt for HAL, the computer. I don’t know if it was intended, but there’s an interesting dichotomy between the man traveling to the moon with his secret and HAL’s attempt to keep his own secret. Clearly humans are better at dealing with nuance than computers…

Admittedly, the ending is strange in both book and movie, but at least in the book, enough is explained that the reader is left with genuine questions about what is God and humanity, rather than viewers of the movie who are just left with questions like, “WTF?!”

My major issue with the book is just the level of unnecessary description, especially on the spaceships. Early in the book, and perhaps because we already have an idea of what paleolithic man was like, the description serves to enhance the story. Once the space journeys begin, the description of every little detail of the ship and what the space-travelers see is mind-numbing. This issue was likely exacerbated by listening to the book rather than reading it, which meant I didn’t have the option of skimming past superfluous writing.

With a few weeks between writing this and having read the book, enough time has passed to allow the struggles I faced reading it to ease, and I can say with 100% certainty that I recommend this book. Though I recommend it more as an interesting assessment of human nature than as a science fiction novel. Also, if you read it, let me know if you’re equally impressed by how well Clarke anticipated we’d be getting our news by 2001!