Nothing ages like the future.
2001, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, is long past. The future imagined by Clarke and Kubrick has not come to pass – there are no bases on the moon, humankind has not gone as far as Mars, let alone Jupiter or Saturn – but things which they can’t have imagined have occurred, such as mobile phones and tablets and female characters in SF novels. When you read slightly older SF, especially slightly older SF which insists on having a date in the title which a fair portion of its original audience will live to see, you have to accept that much of the narrative will seem dated. Can you imagine Siri doing any of the things Hal does? Of course not. Siri is nowhere near that competent. But then again . . .
Were it not for that date in the title, 2001 would not seem like an impossible future today. True, it would require a revival in the space programme which doesn’t seem to be particularly pending (when is the first manned flight to Mars planned?) but that is a minor point. Also, discoveries and knowledge of the solar system has grown exponentially since the publication of 2001 in 1968 and the Moon landings which followed. I expected this book to feel a lot more dated than it did. As it stands, there is very little in it which (to someone uneducated in astronomy and physics) couldn’t feature in a novel today. The book even features an e-reader, albeit only for newspapers, and not wireless; and is somewhat prescient about the response to such devices:
Despite all the electronic read-outs, there were times when good, old-fashioned printed material was the most convenient form of record.
And so, having established that the story is not hopelessly dated, on with its actual contents. 2001: A Space Odyssey claims to be about the human race’s place in the universe. As such, it begins with the origins of the human race as a tribe of ape-men on the verge of becoming sentient, definably human. From the beginning, it suggests, the human race was guided along the path which it takes, with evolutionary bounds encouraged by those who have passed them before us. Having seen one of these mysterious monoliths guide the apes towards humanity, we leap a few million years in time to twelve years ago, when (mild spoiler alert) another one of these monoliths is discovered on the Moon. Archaeology happens, and it is discovered that this object hasn’t seen light in millions of years – but it has just broadcast a signal deep into the solar system.
After this, much of that story is forgotten for the bulk of the book. We are treated to poetic exposition about the solar system as Bowman and Poole travel past Jupiter towards Saturn; the time, beauty, and also boredom involved in this is conveyed throughout the middle section. Eventually, of course, things start to go wrong. The next events are pretty famous, but still – spoilers. And it is far from the end. The adventure continues as the true meaning of the mission becomes clear – even if the true meaning of the novel never really does.
As far as I can tell, having not seen the film, the novel is a little less ambiguous and seemingly insane than the film. That doesn’t mean it is in any way obvious. Humanity is shown to be remote, insignificant – but potentially of enormous importance. The ambiguity of this ending is similar to that which Ridley Scott achieved in Blade Runner (although it is less obvious what is supposed to be ambiguous) and seems to be exactly what he was hoping to achieve in Prometheus, and failed miserably. There is a short essay at the beginning of this edition of 2001 titled “Back to 2001”, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1989, in which he comments:
He [Kubrick] wanted to make a movie about Man’s place in the universe – a project likely to give a heart-attack to any studio head of the old school, or, for that matter, of the new one. It’s certainly difficult to imagine it being welcomed in Hollywood today.
This may have been true of the late 80s, but it is no longer true. Hollywood produced Prometheus, and showed that it may be willing, it was no longer able. I feel as if I have come across these two narratives the wrong way around, although Prometheus’ apparent lack of knowledge that these topics have been covered before does somewhat suggest that Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott haven’t seen or read 2001. I don’t wish to elevate 2001 too far by comparing it to something so completely inferior; it is an interesting meditation about how humanity’s exploration of the universe may change its very meaning. But because of the ambiguity, the answers really come from the reader, from their disposition. It is an aid to thought, not a place where the answers will be found.
I look forward to watching the film at some point. Perhaps I will have more to say then.
[EDIT] I forgot to say… it is IMPOSSIBLE to read this book without having this as your earworm for days afterwards: