A Writer Considers Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey Series

One of the advantages of reviewing an older series of books is that unless your readers have been living under a rock, they already know the basic storyline: Dave Bowman and Frank Poole fly to Jupiter and HAL, their hyper-intelligent computer, tries to kill them.  Pretty straight forward, or is it?

When it came out in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was mandatory viewing for anyone who grew up believing in the endless promise of space exploration.  At the age of fourteen, the graphics—cutting edge at the time—impressed me enough to read the novel.  I don’t remember whether I caught the inconsistencies between the two story lines at that point, in fact I’m sure I didn’t.  Critical literary analysis wasn’t at the top of my list.  For me it was just entertainment.

Recently I caught parts of Kubrick’s masterpiece on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and thought I’d like to revisit the novel—actually, the series.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was actually unaware that Clarke had written a four book series.  Here are the novels and their publication dates:

There is no doubt that these books are, and will remain, icons in the halls of science fiction, so do not let any of my comments make you think that I have anything but the highest esteem for Clarke’s genius.  With that said, from a writer’s perspective, I want to point a few areas where his writing doesn’t really work for me:

  • Having a novel released after the movie. In his introduction to 2001, Clarke went into great detail about his collaboration with Kubrick.  He confronted the belief, held by many at the time, that the novel was written after the movie was released, and written to the movie plot.  This belief, although wrong is not entirely unnatural because the novel was released shortly after the movie.  In reality, Clarke fed Kubrick the novel as it was developing, but Kubrick changed the plot for the movie.
  • Writing the sequel to the movie instead of the novel. In Clarke’s Author’s Notes to 2010, he addresses this issue by stating that the sequel while fed by the first novel, takes place in a different universe.  This causes a problem for the reader, of course.  If you somehow missed the movie and/or skipped the Author’s Notes and jumped right into the story, there are areas that just don’t synch.  And, of course, that out of synch feeling would carry on through all the sequels.  In fact, had Clarke stuck to the original plot, 3001 might not have been possible.
  • Reuse of material throughout the sequels. Throughout the sequels, Clarke drew heavily on pre-published material.  For instance, 3001 contained whole pages from the previous three novels.  2061 contained whole portions from the previous two novels, and 2010 contained verbatim text from 2001.  This technique upped the page count, helped with consistency, and saved Clarke from creating more original content.  Personally, I believe it’s fully acceptable for a technical paper or thesis, but not for fiction.  As soon as I came to those chapters (yes, some whole chapters), I skipped over them and moved on, hoping for more original content.
  • A little science goes a long way. All four novels are, for the most part, built on credible science or scientific theory.  Clarke even included detailed references and notes at the end of each novel.  That’s what makes his novels science fiction.  They include science and scientific detail.  To my mind though, the science makes these novels cold—unless that’s what he intended.  Space isn’t exactly touchy-feely.  While I have been engrossed with science, especially physics, since I was young, in the end it just didn’t work for me in these novels.  Science-based fiction should inspire the reader to further research the themes and concepts from the story, without inhibiting the momentum of the plot.
  • The information is dated. There is always a certain amount of risk in tying the plot to a specific date in the future.  Eventually that date arrives and what seemed prescient in 1968, seems anachronistic in 2001.
  • Lack of empathy for the characters. I found it very difficult to empathize with the characters in these novels.  I really can’t explain why, other than to say that Clarke introduced some side characters and themes that he failed to adequately expand upon.  The universe Clarke created is about more than just Dave Bowman and Frank Poole.
  • The monoliths are straight-jacketed by the science. I will tread around this carefully, because if you haven’t read 3001, I’d hate to ruin it for you.  Let’s just say that I was disappointed in the explanation, descriptions, and capabilities of the monoliths and those who controlled them.  I find it difficult to believe that our understanding of the universe is so parochial as to believe that everything in it is governed by the laws we have defined.
  • An ending without a punch. As I finished 3001, I kept waiting for the brilliant finale, something that made fighting through hundreds of pages and thousands of words worth the effort.  Instead, it was just, well, the end.  Perhaps, after all the hype, I expected too much.

What Clarke did right, was to accurately describe the immenseness of the universe.  Perhaps that is the thing that makes these novels so special.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

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