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Conceptual Fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

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Here is a reasonable rule of thumb for sci-fi readers: if the movie came first, then skip the book. But if the book came first, then forget the film and head to the library. This simple guide would (for example) steer you toward Dune the book, and not the feeble movie adaptations, but would allow you to enjoy the Star Wars films without wasting time on the drivel published in the accompanying book series.

But how do we deal with the most famous sci-fi film of the 1960s, and its book — which were made at the same time as part of a rare collaboration between a legendary director and one of the acknowledged masters of speculative fiction? Stanley Kubrick’s movie came out a short while before Clarke’s novel, but was first only by the briefest of intervals, and the two were largely conceived in tandem. Can we afford to skip either of these interplanetary odysseys?

Honestly, you need to tackle both in this instance. Kubrick streamlines the plot so much in his celebrated film that you will hardly understand what is going on if you don’t take the time to digest Clarke’s narrative. Kubrick was always the master of great visual images that are often just a step away from over-the-top excess — think of Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove; the bone turning in to a spaceship in 2001; the “Singing in the Rain” scene in A Clockwork Orange; or Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” in The Shining. They invite parody, but only because they are almost parodies themselves.

Like Hitchcock, Kubrick always preferred what looked good on screen over what made the most sense from the perspective of plot and development. He takes this approach to an extreme with 2001, which transpires for two-thirds of its total length without dialogue. And when words finally appear, the best lines are given to the computer — and you thought outsourcing to the brain-in-a-box was a recent development! As a result, many in the audience for 2001: A Space Odyssey walked out of the theater with great visuals ingrained in their random-access memories, but would have been incapable of explaining what actually happened over the course of the film.

This is a shame — since Clarke devised one of his great plots for this futuristic tale. Clarke, for his part, commented “If you understand 2001 on the first viewing, we will have failed” — a remark that irritated Kubrick, and which some have insisted was merely tongue-in-cheek. But the movie is deliberately vague, and though the power of its individual scenes will ensure its long-term importance, 2001: A Space Odyssey will never be held up as a model of cinematic story-telling.

Nonetheless, the impact of this novel extends beyond literary or cinematic matters. Who, for example, can comprehend the significance of 2001’s linkage with mysterious Toynbee tiles that have appeared in more than two dozen cities in the US and Latin America? The film has inspired everything from a style of interior design to David Bowie’s hit song “Space Oddity.” Kubrick, for his part, offered an ambiguous commentary to his movie adaptation: “You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film.” Various theories — Nietzschean, Homeric, Freudian — have been offered.

The freshness of the story is all the more striking when one considers how often Arthur C. Clarke developed this same theme in other settings. He is, after all, the great master of the “first contact” story — two of the most brilliant treatments of this topic, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama, come from his pen. But many had addressed this theme long before Clarke, and his reliance on this time-honored subject for his collaboration with Kubrick could easily have resulted in the sci-fi equivalent of reheated leftovers. Although 2001: A Space Odyssey falls a little short of these other two “first contact” novels, this is more a testimony to the conceptual brilliance of the latter rather than a criticism of the former. 2001 still holds enough interesting twists and turns to keep the reader engaged in its pages. Even if you have seen the film many times, the book will not be a letdown.

And in HAL, the computer with the guilt complex and a destructive bent, Clarke created one of the great characters of sci-fi, albeit a disembodied one. By the way, Clarke assures us that there is no truth to the rumor that he came up with the name of his dangerous machine by moving down one letter in the alphabet from those used in the acronym of a famous Armonk, New York company. I am less than convinced. But HAL is just as good in print as he was on the screen, and the story loses some of its oomph when he gets unplugged.

I won’t deny that 2001 deserves it status as a classic. No, it’s not my favorite novel by Clarke — if you haven’t read anything by this author, I would recommend you start with Rendezvous with Rama. But given the pressure-cooker environment under which 2001 was written — with Hollywood looking over the author’s shoulder, and all the potential for compromise and dumbing-down that usually entails — the intelligence and integrity of the final work are little short of dazzling. Both the film and book may be associated with a date, and one that now has passed, but neither show the slightest signs of being dated.

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About Ted Gioia