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

Before God

The first contact was quiet, obscure, and by any conventional standard quite unremarkable.  It required only a breath.  Whatever concept scientists, writers, and other visionaries of the ages may have had about the event, this wasn’t it.

I wouldn’t call it serendipitous, that first contact.  It was not, by definition, random or by chance, and it was not necessarily a happy circumstance.  Whether or not it was beneficial would be for later generations to decide.  But there was the fact that when contact did occur, it was carried on the wind to a child.  And that was the significant thing.

Children, especially very young ones, are non-binary. Binary thought is something children have to be taught.  Binary thought doesn’t come naturally to children, but it seems essential to adults.  The reason it is essential, of course, is that it helps adults establish the spatial and temporal boundaries in their lives.  Yes/no, true/false, in/out, black/white.  All ones and zeros.

The binary structure is carried on through all legal and religious paradigms.  Legal/illegal, saved/unsaved, living/dead, heaven/hell, start/finish, beginning/end.  To have a binary relationship, of course, there must be an incompatible opposite.  So if there is an alpha, there must also be an omega.

Furthermore, for whatever state we are in, we must have a beginning and an end, such as birth/death.  For this reason, the Bible begins with “In the beginning” and concludes with the end of the world.  In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, scientists developed the theory of the “Big Bang” and theorize about the death of the universe.  If the universe began, therefore it must also end.

Now besides having a compulsion to categorize their existence in binary terms, humans also share a compulsion to codify their categorization.  They did this first in the form of storytelling, then in writing.  So when they codified their understanding of the genesis of the universe, they rightfully attributed its design and complexity to something other than themselves.  This something other, they called God.

Because they knew that they weren’t capable of creating the universe, and they also weren’t capable of conceiving of an entity that was completely unlike themselves, the God they created was given human attributes.  God could be possessive, angry, jealous, creative, loving, gentle, forgiving, brutal, and even genocidal.  In other words, God is us.

And we look at the universe through the filter of “us”.  We search for planets like ours.  We hunt for alien life with characteristics from our own experience.  We have a difficult time conceiving of an entity or a space that is boundlessly infinite.  And yet.  There it was.

Lighter than breath and older than our universe, from before even God existed, it drifted down from the infinite cold of boundless space to find a mind that had yet to know its limitations.  From that moment, the girl was something more.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

God And Space

Yesterday I read an article that said that the Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1979, is now 11 billion miles from the sun.  Eleven billion miles.  That’s 11,000,000,000 miles.  A very long way from home.  Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adds some perspective:

“Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

 And that got me thinking about God.  I mean, if God created everything and the human race was the reason, why did he create billions and billions and billions of other things, like planets and stars, spread across billions and billions and billions of miles of space?  Did He create them just to keep us entertained?  Or was it just because God likes sparkly things?   Don’t you think that we could have survived just as well on a world with nothing beyond except for God?   Wouldn’t that have been enough?

As a thinking Christian I find it impossible to conceive of a Creator that is so intentionally self-limiting.  I mean really, can anyone possibly believe that out of the entire vastness of space, that is, our universe and all the other universes that may exist, He would chose to focus everything on what is little more than a speck of cosmic dust?  That would be like going to Vegas and betting your entire life savings on one pull of a penny slot machine.  The payoff would be puny and the loss would be devastating.

Even so, this is the party line.  Human beings are it, the top of the line, the ultimate and best, the chosen by God himself with no other cosmic competition.  Of course, there are other opinions.  Science disputes religion and is often condemned for it.  Logic and faith are continually at odds.  Logic tells us that, given what has been determined by science to be verifiable about the development of our world and analysis of other worlds, there is very likely life of some kind out there in the cosmos.  Faith, however, is anchored on the firm foundation of the Bible and if the Bible doesn’t say it, it isn’t, it can’t be, true.  The Bible makes no mention about life beyond the Earth.

I defer now to my personal policy of full disclosure.  A quick search of the KJV through biblegateway.com provided results for three terms people have been speculating about since the Bible was written.  The search showed 11 results for the term giant, as in “there were giants in the earth in those days”.  (Note: giants are called The Nephilim in other versions of Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33.)  Sons of God, as in “the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men”, generated 11 results.  Angel, as in “the angel of the LORD” yielded 238 results.  I will leave it to you to parse through the results and decide for yourself if any of these references peak your interest.  Personally, I’ve been curious about these particular terms ever since I first read Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? way back in the late sixties.  Although I consider Von Daniken’s research to be pseudoscientific, some of questions he asked have stayed with me and influenced my theology.

The Bible says that we are the ultimate in His creation, but isn’t God greater than that?  Can it possibly be true that the Bible contains everything that needs to be known about the universe?  The way I look at it, there is no reason not to believe in God, accept the Bible, and embrace science.

I believe that God created the universe.  He set everything in motion.  When necessary, He even intercedes on our behalf.  But science, especially physics, explains how the creation He spoke into existence works, what the rules are.  God provided the social rules for Earth, but physicists explain the mechanics.

Is there life out there among the stars?  If so, did our God create it?  It is possible that extraterrestrial life exists, but was created through evolutionary processes and not by God intentionally.  It might also be that extraterrestrial life exists and it is our responsibility to bring the “Good News” to the entire universe.  If this is true, I certainly hope humanity does a better job with extraterrestrials than they did with their fellow human beings, because it seems that the traditional Gospel package always seems to include disease, hatred, intolerance, war, and ultimately genocide.

Personally, I hope there is life out there in the vast cosmos and that they will be intelligent enough to keep humanity from saving them.

If you have would like to share your ideas about what I’ve written, feel free to contact me either on the blog or using other social media.  Thanks.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.