Book Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

I’ve seen the movie many times, including when it first came out, but I never got around to reading the book. The movie had a big influence on me, particularly the use of music. Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) by Richard Strauss, came to be known as the theme from 2001. And watching the space ships floating around to the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz was amazing. 

The introduction by the author tells us that the book was written as a prelude to writing the screenplay. It was written in order to make a movie out of it, not the other way around. I found this disappointing in some way, but I got over it.

I never understood what was going on at the beginning of the movie. I got that the ape man figured out how to pick up the jaw bone and use it as a weapon. But I never understood what the monolith had to do with it.

Similarly, I failed to see the significance of the monolith on the Moon. Now I understand it all. Given the length of time that the book and the movie have been out, I don’t consider what I’m about to say as spoiler, but if you want to be surprised, don’t read the next part. 

Alien visitors to Earth two million years ago planted a monolith that affected the DNA of the nearest man ape, sending him on his way to becoming human. The other monolith was planted on the Moon as detector. If the first monolith was a success, then sooner or later the results of this experiment, i.e., modern man, would make it to the Moon. But not just make it there. He would be there long enough to do a magnetic survey of the Moon, which would reveal a magnetic anomaly. Man would, of course, dig it up. When it was exposed to the sun, the monolith would send a signal through space to those who had planted it. That was the loud noise they all heard when they were standing around looking at it.

Now we move to the spaceship Discovery. It never occurred to me to ask what they were doing there. I figured it was a spaceship on a space mission with a computer (HAL) that went haywire and killed the other members of the crew. Turns out that HAL knew the real reason for the mission, which had been kept secret from the crew, and that keeping the secret bothered him so much that he developed some kind of psychosis. Bowman had to disconnect HAL and continue the mission by himself.

There came a point where he was close enough to one of the moons of Saturn that he was able to see a huge monolith on its surface. Investigating this was the secret purpose of the mission. He decided that he ought to investigate in one of the space pods, which happened to be round and white. When he tried to land on it, it opened up and he was sent flying through a tunnel. Bowman, shooting through this hole and its connected tunnel in his pod, was essentially a piece of jizz sent to impregnate an egg. The result of this union was the Star Child, which I take to be a new step in evolution. A step toward a super race. Not a coincidence, then, that the theme music was Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is the title to one of the most important works of Friedrich Nietzsche, wherein he put forth the idea of the Übermensch, or Super Man.

Although I found the story to be interesting, the writing was anything but inspired. He told the story well enough, and the pacing was all right, but there was nothing particularly interesting about the writing. In one scene he must have used the word “presently” ten times. Presently, he did this; Presently, he did that. He would have gotten a demerit in any writing class. Maybe a good story is all that’s needed. I suppose it’s better to have a good story and bland writing, than a bland story with brilliant writing. What I like to see is great writing and a good story. 

If you are a science fiction fan, this book is a must read. I nicked it a star for the quality of the writing. The story, though, is very imaginative and worth the read.

4 out of 5 stars.