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

It could be any of us

In his 1962 dystopian novella, A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess coined the term “ultra-violence” to characterize the sociopathic ravagings of a young man named Alex and his “Droogs”.  Stanley Kubrick brought it to theatres in 1972.  Exceptionally controversial for the time, I remember seeing it at the Strand Theatre in Shreveport, the weekend before I enrolled at Centenary College of Louisiana.  I was 17.  While it didn’t inspire me to indulge in “a bit of the old ultra-violence”, to drink “milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom”, to listen to “a little of the Ludwig Van”, or to have “her right down there on the floor with the old in-out, real savage” (more quotes), it did nestle into my subconscious, awaiting the proper moment to be find its own way back into the world.

And as much as I found the images from A Clockwork Orange fascinating, I also discovered an awful truth about great books and their creators.  In 1973 or 74, Anthony Burgess gave a lecture at Centenary about Clockwork.  I’m sure it must have been part of a promotional tour, otherwise I doubt he would have ever found the small liberal arts college.  I was in the second or third pew of Brown Chapel in rapt anticipation and there he was at the lectern, the great man himself, about to reveal insights to his creative method and style.

I can still remember my expectation, but more than that I remember my disappointment.  It could have been just an off night, but all I remember is being bored to tears as he droned on and on about whatever it was he was talking about.  I, at least consciously, got nothing out of it except, after years of reflection to realize that while an author’s product may be everything you’d want, the product isn’t the author.  The creation and the creator aren’t the same thing. The book may be full of action, sex, and violence, but the author may be an introverted bore.  Certainly that could go for any author, me included.

There is, certainly, a difference between the author and the work, the creator and the characters, and that difference is what really matters.  And here is where the author comes full round to the subject of ultra-violence.

In my eBook, Any Tomorrow: The Calling, one of the three main characters, Henry Turner, is a sociopath whose development, his “becoming”, is depicted quite graphically.  There are scenes that depict incestuous voyeurism, murder, assault, battery, rape, incest, sodomy, fellatio, terrorism, masturbation, torture, arson, among other things.  While the scenes are intended to make the reader uneasy, they are not intended to titillate and are included strictly as elements integral to the story.

Because I write about a sociopath, am I a sociopath?  I don’t think so, but I didn’t immediately answer a resounding “No!”, did I?  I answered this way because I believe that there is a very fine line between what is normal and acceptable, and what is horrible and repulsive.  All the terrible things that Henry Turner does are horrible and repulsive, but except a slight tweak in genetics and environmental factors, what really separates him from me or you?  Is it because he’s insane and we’re not?  Or is it because we have other channels through which to exorcise our inner demons ― safe, socially acceptable channels?

After reading a draft of Any Tomorrow: The Calling, my daughter-in-law told me that if she didn’t know me so well, she’d really be concerned about me.  Henry Turner disturbed her and the fact that I had created him, could even conceive of him, disturbed her even more.  So I told her what I just told you, given the right genetics and circumstances, any of us could be Henry Turner.   Any of us.  And that is what changes the descriptions from titillating to truly terrifying.

If you have comments about this or any of my posts, please leave a comment by selecting the Leave a comment or Leave a Reply links.  I look forward to your comments.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.