2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke 3 – 3.5 stars

Another entry in my occasional forays into classic SF and I’d have to say this one was definitely a success. The Big Ideas in this one are sufficiently big and yet handled deftly enough that they don’t completely overshadow the story. The prose and characterisation, as I generally expect from ‘classic’ SF, were unexceptional (one might say ‘workmanlike’), but I didn’t find them to be off-putting as I often do when I try dipping into earlier examples of the genre where the ‘big idea’ seems to be the only thing worth reading the book for (I’m afraid Asimov and Niven tend to fall into this category for me). Approaching the book these days could also be seen as risky given that it occurs, as the title indicates, in 2001 (it was published in 1968) and posits some egregiously incorrect and incredibly optimistic views on where we would be in regards to both space travel and the development of AI by that time. I found, however, that I could get around this by looking at it as a work of not only SF, but also as alternate history and while there were a few elements that seemed dated (a reference to the palatial residence and “all the fittings and status symbols of the typical $50,000 a year head of a department” was particularly glaring to me), there were others that seemed fairly prescient (particularly a reference to an internet-like news data stream and a computer tablet analogous to an iPad).

I imagine everyone knows the general story either from the book itself or (slightly modified) from the accompanying movie by Stanley Kubrick. Suffice it to say that mankind is making its first giant leap into the wider expanses of the solar system under the secret impetus of discoveries made on the moon and Saturn (changed to Jupiter in the movie) which imply the existence of extraterrestrial life and its possible tinkering in the evolution of humanity. We have four main characters who take centre stage: Dr. Heywood Floyd a senior scientist in the Space Administration who is a primary mover and shaker for the mission of the Discovery to Saturn; David Bowman and Frank Poole, astronauts on-board the Discovery whose routine ‘babysitting’ phase of the mission becomes something much more dangerous as a result of the actions of our fourth main character the irrepressible AI computer HAL 9000, who is in essence the onboard brains of the Discovery and whose psychological progression throughout the mission showcases the SF chestnut surrounding mankind’s fears about the inherent dangers and possibilities of artificial intelligence.

I found myself almost compelled to read from the first page and the plot certainly carried me forward at a rapid pace without any lagging interest on my part. I knew the basic story before ever approaching the book, but I didn’t find that this hampered my enjoyment of it at all and I liked the extra details that the novel was able to include (at least in regards to my hazy recollection of what the movie covered…definitely time for a re-watch). I have to admit, though, that I thought the movie was better able to ramp up the suspense when it came to the game of cat-and-mouse between Bowman and HAL, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and thought its exploration of a possible vision for humanity’s further evolution was great. The apparent linkage between the technological (technophilic, really) and a strange flavour of mysticism was also interesting. One thing that certainly struck me about the tone of the book was its unabashed optimism (as I guess as is to be expected from the SF of its era). Indeed, despite the difficulties and dangers that arise in regards to technology in the story this is first and foremost a work that looks to the future with a sense of hope and awe and a high level of faith in our species’ ability to use technology as a lever for evolution.