Wednesday 14 February 2024

2001–3001 The Clarke Odyssey

I'll cover these in more length than usual. No doubt more literate minds have analyzed 2001: A Space Odyssey to death, but I didn't even know "2061" existed.

In case of sequels, I'll avoid describing story-specific plot points that I consider reveals. But it's of course impossible to avoid describing the entire saga and not "spoil" it.

Arthur C. Clarke: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is not an ordinary "novelization", and neither is 2001 a film of the book. The histories of the film and novel supposedly intertwine, and in any case the story is partly built on Clarke's earlier short stories. The book says it's based on the screenplay by Clarke and Kubrick.

It's not a hard call to say the film that came out of the process is more important than the novel.

The book almost inevitably feeds into the interpretation of the film. After reading the book and other sci-fi, the film events no longer seem all that incomprehensible, even if you don't accept Clarke's interpretation of what happens in the end.

Firstly, the plot loops back into itself. The space-age humans are much like the monkey-men in the beginning, fighting with each other until the other faction has the edge. The Monolith is partly about enhancing the intelligence of those who contact it, but it can also be considered as a prize, a milestone, and a monitor of the race's "worthiness".

The Russians and the Americans compete to reach the Monolith on the Moon, and much like with the monkeys, the other tribe wins and gets the option to reach another signal source at Jupiter. The parallel is clear in the film, but it is even more so in the book. The fighting doesn't end there, though.

The journey to Jupiter is something akin to the pinnacle of human race –⁠ now also including an AI –⁠ reaching to make the important contact. The analogy of a sperm cell (within the phallic ship) trying to reach the ovum (the round and motherly Jupiter) springs into mind, with the Star Gate sequence as the climax. The hardships cull out options, and in the end only Bowman remains.

In the film, both Bowman and HAL 9000 could be considered candidates. With HAL, the human race might have created something more "worthy" than themselves. The book makes HAL seem more of a pragmatic tool that becomes confused, whereas the film is more ambiguous. What are the inner motivations and the status of HAL's "soul"? Does HAL do the things it does because of a logical contradiction in the task statement, or because it also competes for the real goal?

The book makes it clear how the Monolith acts as a teaching aid and intelligence booster for the ape-men. There are said to be numerous monoliths on Earth, which are also crystal-like and transparent, producing psychedelic-pedagogic light shows for the apes. I suppose this gives rise to the idea that the cinematic medium is a comparable device.

Celestia displaying Cassini near Jupiter in 1.1.2001

Clarke gives more narrative meat to the episode on the moon, with more focus on Dr. Heywood Floyd. The moon colony is told to be rather huge, and the expository text dwells on details such as hydroponic farms and zero-g toilets.

Oh, and the journey in the book takes to Saturn, using Jupiter as slingshot. The real-world parallel is interesting, as the Cassini probe from 1997 actually used roughly that window of opportunity, reaching Jupiter just in time for 2001, continuing towards Saturn.

So the year 2001 is not evoked just to give a suitably far-off sounding time, Clarke probably figured it would be a good real world moment to reach Saturn. (In notes elsewhere, he blames the repercussions of Vietnam War and Watergate for making the real 2001 less like "2001".)

Budget reasons are often cited for changing Saturn to Jupiter in the film. It could be the star gate sequence also became more abstract as a consequence. A creative decision or not, simplifying the itinerary is a blessing to the film. 

Should I imagine these are alien ships or accommodations? Or the Galactic Grand Central?

Although the film was a huge leap for cinematic science fiction, a transcendental ending or twist in sci-fi literature was already quite cliché. The trope of immeasurably incomprehensible aliens putting humans in a "zoo" was also a sci-fi staple, witness a number of Star Trek episodes revolving around the theme. Kurt Vonnegut could already use the idea in Slaughterhouse Five (1969) for satirical effect. 

Of course, clichés aren't inherently bad, you just have to use them really well. The poetry and ambiguity of Kubrick's film makes it succeed. The book's spelled out interpretation is just one of the possibilities. The ending could simply be a celebration of life being more magical than whatever gimmicks might propel us to space.

Arthur C. Clarke: 2010 Odyssey Two (1983)

As we remember, Discovery was left on orbit around Io, the moon of Jupiter. Now we learn it is still there, but its orbit is unexpectedly decaying. Before the successor to Discovery can be launched, Anton Leonov, a Russian spacecraft sets out to Jupiter. Americans are generously taken aboard, mostly because only they can operate Discovery. 

What else is still in Io orbit? The Monolith, that is.

Overall, the plot is one somewhat unsatisfying "let's get to Jupiter real quick, and ... uh, let's get back even quicker". The intent and nature of the alien intelligence(s) becomes clearer, gnawing away from whatever mystery was left from 2001 (the book).

The main character is Heywood Floyd, known from the moon trip in 2001. He is an aging science professional who gets the chance of a lifetime to join the crew and visit Jupiter, something he missed ten years prior.

Although Floyd's insight is important to the resolution of the journey, he and the Discovery crew are mostly observers of events rather than protagonists.

The regressed HAL is relegated to a side role, as the Indian AI expert Chandra attempts to re-ignite its intelligence. Chandra was mentioned in HAL's deteriorating monologue in 2001. 

I get the feeling that after 15 years Clarke is downplaying the amount of AI development that could happen in the next 20. He's not entirely wrong. Yes, chatGPT can now carry as good or a better conversation than HAL, but not at 2010, and it doesn't really play chess and I wouldn't trust ship systems to it.

The text is replete with popular cultural references reflecting the time of the book's writing. Some of these are science fictional in nature, such as the direct Star Trek references. Indirect mentions go to Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. It's as if Clarke wanted to remind 2001 (the film) was the augur to the blockbuster generation of science fiction.

It's credible, people are entrenched in popular culture, and to Clarke it must have been obvious people would remember these films in the 2010s. Again, he isn't wrong. But it does make a stylistic hodgepodge of what one hopes to be a somber, philosophical journey.

Importantly, not that much was known about Jupiter's moons before Voyager visited them in the 1970s. As Clarke recalls in the short intro to 2061, the Voyager missions inspired him to write a sequel that features these satellites. Future discoveries could no longer radically contradict the findings.

The film version wisely prunes some of the book's sidetracks, such as most of Bowman's spirit-excursion to Earth memory lane and the above mentioned popular-cultural hits and misses. The Chinese craft's race to Europa is something we don't get to see either.

If I recall right, the film made the US/Russia relations more strained than in the written form. Funnily, the technology and displays onboard the Leonov have dated the film more than the comparable tech in 2001. It's a passable 1980s flick, if one is able to stop comparing it to 2001.

Repair Discovery's subsystems in a Colecovision game. What excitement!

There was an attempt at a game-of-a-film-of-a-book tie-in phenomenon that surrounded other sci-fi franchises and films in the 1980s. There's not only one, but two, games for the Coleco hardware. I'm unsure who is the intended audience here.

Anyway, the story is book-ended with Clarke's notes, explaining how this is a sequel to the film rather than the book (using Jupiter instead of Saturn). He reminisces over a few predictions that eerily came true, and a few life-imitates-art situations. Apparently the "Ah, Houston, we've had a problem" of Apollo 13 mission is an echo of 2001's "Sorry to interrupt the festivities, but we have a problem." They were playing Strauss in the module.

Clarke says the book was written on Archives III (CP/M) computer, the WordStar manuscript was sent out on a 5 inch floppy. He also mentions his trusty programmable HP9100A calculator (from 1968).

Arthur C. Clarke: 2061 Odyssey Three (1986)

It's 2061 and hey would you know it, Heywood is still alive! During the after-party of 2010, which took place in 2015, Heywood fell from a balcony and had to be taken to a space station to revive. This silly plot point ultimately made him a total spacer and he can't even return to Earth.

This lifestyle, combined with the deep sleeps he enjoyed during spaceflight, kept him a well-preserved 65 rather than the 100+ he really is. Convenient.

The book was supposed to be inspired by the findings of the Galileo probe, but the Challenger tragedy of 1986 put the probe on hold.

The story rather takes the Halley's comet as a starting point, another timely reference. Which will again become timely as it returns in ... 2061. The comet has already started its way back in December 2023. 

I used to think comets like Halley go back to infinite depths of space, and by some virtue of masterly calculation it is possible to predict when they will return. Well, this is sort of true, but Halley's comet doesn't really go much further than the orbit of Neptune. Which of course is far enough.

But I'm digressing.

Actually, no. The major point of the book is the importance of the Halley mission. If humanity now has effective rocket ships that can travel from Earth to Jupiter in weeks, they could visit the comet pretty much whenever they want to. Ok, it might be more valuable to do so near the perihelion, but I still think the whole premise is a little flaky.

Halley's Comet and the alignment of the Inner Solar System at the end of May 2061

Just as 2010 backpedals from the ending of 2001, the outcomes from 2010 are not instantly revelatory for the human race. The species is puttering about in Ganymede and have operations around the solar system with the improved spaceships.

There's a weird discovery on Europa, related to a mountain that didn't exist before. And despite the ominous warning of not to land there, circumstances will lead people to land there anyway. Some are hungry for scientific merit, some see potential for profit. The discovery is almost immediately guessable, but Clarke keeps hanging on to it until the end.

What with the mountain and Halley's comet stealing the show, the story actually has very little to do with the 2001 saga. It could have been written in some other frame, and I suspect it partly originates from some other project.

For most of the time Clarke is being pedagogical about space, orbits, rocket flight and the solar system in general. There's a Jules Verne-esque entourage partaking with the Halley's Comet mission, as a kind of space tourism. This enables Clarke to have more characters around to have small talk, but they don't do much for the story. 

The discussion can again turn to Star Wars and of all things, Gone with the Wind. Clarke seems to think that Beatles will be forgotten in 100 years, yet that somewhat badly aged film will be revered as a classic still in 2061. Currently it looks like the opposite might become true, but who knows.

As a detail, the story addresses the monolith's resemblance to the UN building.

From 201 min. of A Space Idiocy (1969), perhaps not MAD's finest moments.

Clarke progresses the story with ease, with nearly cinematic organisation of changing viewpoints and short expository chapters.

By the way, why did 2061 not receive the film treatment?

Apart from the fact the plot doesn't live up to even 2010 standards, I believe Halley's comet hype became very old very quickly, especially as the comet wasn't all that impressive. It would have been a mistake to release a film about Halley after it had passed.

There's now less talk of AI, computers and networks, and what little is there can be weird. Surprisingly, even rudimentary Google-style keyword searches take minutes or hours of expensive computer time in 2061. I recall Asimov was also somewhat prone to similar underestimations. But, just maybe, maybe, there's so much more information in 2061 that 20th century scientific papers and popular culture needs to be dug up from some deep strata.

In the short postscript Clarke mentions apparently having moved his writing to a more "portable" Kaypro.

Arthur C. Clarke: 3001 The Final Odyssey (1997)

This was already hinted at the epilogue 2061: something wonderful would happen in the year 3001. This story then mostly unpacks that epilogue.

Clarke was about 80 when this book came out. It serves as a sort of anniversary and perhaps a final hurrah for the author, who mostly wrote collaborations after this novel.

I sometimes forget that one aspect of the original was to showcase the world of 2001, its space stations, moonbases, computers, video calls and nuclear drives. 3001 does this in abundance, and for this far-away year Clarke can pull out all the stops and just describe one imaginative thing after another.

But it's also not that imaginative. What's on display is an Arthur C. Clarke greatest hits tour, with space elevators, space drives and other future innovations. Clarke gets self-referential and knowingly acknowledges the future world finally looks a little like the pulp cover art of early 20th century. Asimov and Heinlein are indirectly referred to.

Late 20th century popular culture features, too, as Clarke would now have witnessed Jurassic Park, CD ROMs, the fledgling cyberspace and the internet. These are retroactively inserted into the history of the first novel and Clarke knows very well the timeline doesn't make much sense.

An AI collage to match the book stylistically

Amusingly the world of 3001 can be a weirdly nostalgic extrapolation of late 1990s suppositions of how the future might turn out. Climate change, major wars, religion and killing animals for food seem to be a thing of the past. If Clarke was here to see the 2020s, he might have been less optimistic.

There's a curious sense that humanity is on its way developing the technologies that the Monolith entails... but I'm less eager to reveal plot points here, although the book is more than 25 years old by now.

Speed of light cannot be beat, and it looks like the alien entities responsible for the monoliths might have received their initial data on Earth's encounter with the Jupiter monolith and cooked up a suitable response. Based on data from the 20th century. Uh-oh. 

But didn't Bowman use a Star Gate in 2001 to visit the Galactic Grand Central, defying space and time? There's a stronger sense here that perhaps Bowman did not visit another star system after all, but that everything happened within a simulation inside the monolith. Well, again, Clarke readily admits the books do not form a coherent whole.

What disappoints me is the inclusion of slightly edited repeats of long passages from 2010 and 2061. Apparently Tsien's final message was so poignant it had to be included three times in the books.

With these repetitions alongside lazy "e-mail" type chapters give artificial length to the tome. There are some interesting ideas about the role and the morality of the Monoliths and their builders, but the closure to the Space Odyssey saga isn't very satisfying.

In the extensive end notes, Clarke reveals he has progressed to an IBM laptop, again trying to discredit the idea that HAL was meant to be one letter off from IBM...


Clarke liked to use real-world predictive possibilities for laying out his plots, such as known windows of opportunity for space missions. In this series, he seems to have preferred not to write about worlds if there was no observations to base speculation on.

He was eager to see opportunity for life thriving in every crack, crevice and cloud of the solar system, despite the apparent barrenness and hostility of it all. 

In parts he seems to have been vindicated, as complex organic chemistry and water crop up nearly everywhere. But actual extra-terrestrial life seems to still elude us, and the 20th century idea of living just at the cusp of this great discovery, seems to be dwindling. I felt it also reflected in the sequels of 2001, each one taking a step farther from the original's premise.

1 comment:

  1. Recently re-watched 2010 after some thirtysomething years -- it premiered in the theaters the same time as David Lynch's Dune back in '84, so that was a rather memorable week for this kid.

    Yeah, the Cold War tensions were absurdly ratcheted up (the director had this real chip on his shoulder about Reagan, if memory serves), and so dated the film far worse than anything else, methinks. Performance-wise, it was also hard to reconcile 2001's Heywood Floyd with 2010's; Roy Scheider is basically doing "Chief Brody in Space"

    On the other hand, I also remember thinking "oh, obvious outrageous concept car" in that scene with Floyd jogging with his son... and that sleek machine passing them now looks positively average today. Kudos to Syd Mead there, likewise the more primitive controls for the Leonov were consistent with his assessment of Soviet technological development and their scrappier, more "hands on" approach towards space ventures.

    The film did pretty well at the box office too, so why there wasn't a 2061 follow-up to coincide with Halley's remains a mystery. And as disappointing as the once-in-a-lifetime comet was, it still deserved acknowledgement more dignified than sexy Lifeforce space vampires or funny Bloom County cartoons...