Saturday, March 31, 2007

"2001 A Space Odyssey" (novel): On human origins & gods

Cover image & description of novel titled 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C ClarkeThis novel from mid-1960s must easily be among the better science fiction works. Comprises of essentially four different stories carefully linked together, but each could independently exist.

Story summary (spoiler).
First story doesn't last long, but has an outstanding plot that can be basis for a series of novels - if you drop the ET component & may be do a bit more research.

It portrays life 3 million years ago in a colony of apes that are on the verge of discovering stuff that will turn their descendants into humans.

I particularly liked it because it deals with a period of human history about which I have never read another story. And it offers rich tapestry on which to write more stories - though I am not aware if any have been written in 40 years that this book has been around.

But for Clarke, this first story is just a method of introducing ET (extra-terrestrial intelligence - intelligent beings that are not of earthly origin). In this case, an ET surveyor chooses these apes, among a lot of other animals, to slightly nudge them towards a path that will lead to intelligent species; all experiments fail except humans.

There is another Clarke story, published over a decade earlier, that touches on this theme: "Encounter at Down". But I personally find the version in 2001 far more interesting.

Incidentally, Clarke actually marries this story with "Encounter at Down" in a far better variant of the story titled "First Encounter" in "The Lost Worlds of 2001".

Second story is of space flight & of human colonization of moon. Much of the story deals with travel aspects of this subject; ETs enter in later part.

Colony on moon has been doing a local magnetic survey , & find an anomaly - a physical location that has intense magnetic field. They eventually discover an unexplainable object that is obviously not of natural origin. It can also not be human origin because it dates back 3 million years - humans as we know them appeared only 30,000 years back.

When this object is exposed to sunlight accidentally, a major electromagnetic disturbance results that apparently is a signal; simultaneously, the signal is also observed by ships widely dispersed through solar system.

Note there is an earlier short story too where ETs plant a beacon on moon to monitor evolution of intelligence on earth: "The Sentinel". When introducing Sentinel in "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke", he mentions that Sentinel "is the starting point of 2001: A Space Odyssey".

There are two aspects of this story that you find in "Rescue Party", the mother of all Clarke stories:

  1. Essentially benign aliens keeping a watch of development of intelligent beings everywhere in galaxy. And helping them where they can.
  2. Black monolith in this story also appears in all 3 sequels of this novel. I was reminded of it by the black rectangle of apparently infinite depth in the control room of the alien ship in Rescue Party.
Third story is also of space flight - to one of the moons of Saturn (Japetus, also called Iapetus).

Much of the story is a description of the ship, passage off asteroid belt, around Jupiter, arrival at Saturn, & going in orbit around target moon.

This story also includes 3 other common plot elements - I have previously seen 2 of them used in Clarke's other work, third is from Asimov's novels.
  1. A spaceship with a rotating cylindrical element to create artificial gravity.
  2. Moving human passengers long distance in space by putting them in hibernation.
  3. HAL, a robot, or rather an AI, that behaves remarkably like Asimov's robots, except that it can harm humans.
Robot is controlling the ship that is carrying 5 human passengers. 3 of them are in hibernation, 2 are awake. There is a winded juvenile plot of governmental secrecy that is behind 3 sleeping & 2 awake - they have been given different information, & must not communicate with each other till arrival at Saturn.

Midway through the voyage, some anomalous behavior is observed in robot's functioning. There is talk that robot might be shut down. Robot doesn't want to die! So it decides to kill the two humans that are awake.

Robot contrives a technical fault & kills one. Other is suspicious & wants to awaken the sleeping 3. Robot tries killing them all, but our hero survives, & kills robot instead. I found this part rather mundane - better suited for a Cartoon Network show for kids.

OK - so the hero revives the ship with help from command control on earth. Then he is told the mission objective. ET beacon that went off 2 years back on moon had sent its signals clearly for the targeted moon of Saturn. This moon has also been an astronomical oddity, ignored till now. Our hero will have to investigate & learn what he can.

After arriving on target, hero finds a structure that is clearly not natural, & looks like a bigger version of moon beacon. He decides to land & investigate.

There is a remark in "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke" when introducing the short story "Breaking Strain": "'Breaking Strain' was one of the stories incorporated into the film and novel, 2001." Presumably, the accident scene in this third part was inspired by this.

Forth story is of his landing, & is essentially fantasy mixed with religion. As he approaches beacon, it opens to let him. And takes him on a tour of stars with wonderful sights. ETs in question are actually indistinguishable from Hindu concept of Brahm - universal mind or energy. Our hero eventually merges into this brahm, yet retains his individuality - something many in India will identify as moksha, the ultimate purpose of human existence according to preachings of many Hindu sects.

Last paragraph gives a hint of sequel - where this Star Child revisits earth, & is wondering what he should do with it!

See also.
  1. "Space Odyssey series summary".
  2. A discussion of HAL, the AI in third story, but primarily from the point of view of the movie version - its origins, & ideas that drove its design, & some future gazing in AI. Of the two interviews listed - with Arthur Clarke & Marvin Minsky - only one with Clarke is available online when I checked it last (note - it's quite long).
  3. Lewis Padgett's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves": Idea of teaching via smart toys is at the heart of this classic, too. But here, the alien artifacts inadvertently end up in the hands of human children - with unexpected results
  4. "Influences" section of "Rescue Party".
  5. Robert Heinlein's "Ordeal in Space" (1948): The plot element where a spaceman falls off the spaceship, in third part, comes from this older story by Heinlein. This spaceman will be recovered 1000 years later, in "3001 The Final Odyssey", without many psychological troubles! Another very good & off-beat alternative version of this is Clarke's "Maelstrom II".
  6. Robert Reed's "Eight Episodes" (2006), nominated for Hugo Award 2007 in short story category, is a variant of the sentinel part of this story.
  7. Ted Chiang's "Story Of Your Life" (1998): Alien artifacts appear all over modern world to enable humans to talk to aliens. But this story is less about aliens than about language & cognition.
  8. All stories with religion as a theme.
Fact sheet.
2001 A Space Odyssey, novel, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
First published: 1968 (was written during 1964-1968, published in 1968, according to Clarke's introduction to "2010 Odyssey Two")
Rating: A (mostly for plot of first story; story #2 & 3 are B; #4 is C).

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