The novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke was published for the first time in 1968.
Moon-Watcher and his group of hominids barely survive in the veldt eating the few roots and berries they can find. The presence of other hominids in the area makes their situation even more difficult until one day the appearance of a monolith changes everything. Moon-Watcher and the other hominids of his group learn new things that allow them to dominate the territory.
On the Moon a secret research is investigating a mysterious monolith. Dr. Heywood Floyd goes there on the pretext of a possible epidemic in the human outpost and he’s explained that the object is for sure of alien origin. When it’s brought to the surface and at dawn is hit by sunlight, it sends a signal. The spaceship “Discovery” is sent in the Saturn system, officially on a scientific mission.
In 1964 the director Stanley Kubrick started looking for ideas for a science fiction movie that included the presence of extraterrestrials. Thanks to a common acquaintance he came into contact with the writer Arthur C. Clarke, who immediately showed his interest in working with a director who was already famous.
Kubrick and Clarke discussed various ideas contained in various of the writer’s stories and eventually “The Sentinel”, published for the first time in 1951, was chosen as the basis for the story that became “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The short story contains the idea of the alien artifact that sends a signal when it’s discovered by humans but many more were added in a much more complex story.
The development of the movie and the novel proceeded in parallel but in time they ended up diverging in various ways. The main difference in the plot is that in the novel the the spaceship “Discovery” expedition is directed to the Saturn’s system while in the movie is directed to the Jupiter’s.
A key difference is stylistic: the story is the result of a collaboration but in the end the novel is a work of Arthur C. Clarke and the movie is a work of Stanley Kubrick. The writer is one of the masters of hard science fiction and in his novel the technical-scientific elements are crucial. The director created a movie realistic from a scientific point of view but he was very interested in developing the introspective and existential elements of the story as well through images.
In some ways, the novel and the movie complement each other by providing two different views of the same – or almost the same – story. Also for this reason, this review is about the novel but it’s impossible to ignore the movie. Not surprisingly, every time I read the novel I happen to hear the “Also sprach Zarathustra” music in my mind.
The novel contains elements typical of Arthur C. Clarke with many technical and scientific details regarding space travel. It was written at the time of the Apollo missions, before humans set foot on the Moon and before it became common to see images of astronauts in a space station.
In the part of the novel about the “Discovery” mission, the author explains how astronauts live and work in space in details. An important element concerns HAL 9000, the famous artificial intelligence system: in the movie it’s basically the villain while in the novel it’s explained how it works and the reasons for its actions.
The presence of explanations to the events is one of the novel’s features. Arthur C. Clarke describes the possible technological advances in fields such as artificial intelligence but also the possible consequences of programming systems that humans don’t fully understand.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is also a story about humanity’s evolution. The first part of the story is about the evolutionary leap that led to the emergence of mental skills that can be defined human. The ability to use tools is one of the key elements of that leap and it’s interesting that one of the uses one of the hominids makes of a bone is to hit another hominid.
Homo sapiens is, however, only a stage of evolution and humans can become something much more advanced. The fact that there are alien intelligences so advanced that they use objects such as the monolith in operations that go on for millions of years shows how humans are after all still children in the universe.
From this point of view, in the novel there’s a transcendental element as well which was much more developed in the movie. In the monolith we can see everything we don’t know yet in a huge universe that we have just started exploring. Arthur C. Clarke is overall optimistic about our chances if we avoid hurting ourselves.
The novel’s fame is overshadowed by that of the movie, one of the great masterpieces of science fiction cinema but known and appreciated far beyond the boundaries of the genre. I think that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a very good novel, a must-read if you want to understand some bits that remained obscure in the movie and in general to read because the story is worth it.