Science fiction and fantasy                                            

2001: A Space Odyssey

by Arthur C. Clarke


What would a truly advanced civilisation be like? And what would they make of us? In 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke imagines the answers to our questions about mankind's place in the wider universe.

The action begins deep in the past, when primeval man-apes struggled against starvation and predators. Extinction seems likely, until they are visited by a black monolith. Somehow it alters their mental development, changing the course of evolution. Clarke is dealing with some of the grandest themes, and this novel has a scope and timescale to match that ambition.

In 2001 Dr Heywood Floyd is preparing to visit the moon. Although this book was published 33 years before that date, it has a good mixture of uncannily accurate predictions and wildly extravagant technologies. This is the vision of a very well-informed optimist. It's not that sending one man to the moon on a twenty-passenger spaceship is impossible, after all (although the lunar landings were still a year off when this was written) . It's just shockingly profligate.

In this version of the year 2001 there's an established base on the moon. People have visited Mars, and the exploration of the rest of the solar system is under way. Everything sparkles with the gleam of new gadgetry and sophisticated machines. But Clavius Base, the lunar colony, is under a quarantine so hush-hush that Floyd can't be told any more about it until he arrives to investigate.

Meanwhile David Bowman and his colleague, Frank Poole, are making a pioneering journey to the far reaches of the solar system. In their charge are three hibernating passengers who are not due to wake until they reach their destination. All of them are in the care of HAL 9000, an advanced supercomputer which plots their course and ensures that everything runs smoothly. It should be an exceedingly uneventful mission. But when HAL starts to develop curious glitches it slowly becomes clear that this trip will be anything but routine.

A tight, suspenseful atmosphere builds up as Bowman's voyage nears its destination. 2001: A Space Odyssey has one of the odder and more imaginative endings to be found within the science fiction genre, yet the novel at least comes with plenty of explanation about non-humans. It's a universe that's almost crowded with life, but life that's not in the least bit like ourselves, or even the little green men sometimes depicted in science fiction. The author's vision is accompanied by a clear logic that makes the strangeness of this story all the more dazzling.

However the main weakness of this book is the characters. Whilst HAL is full of sly menace, the humans are bland enough to seem interchangeable, and their thoughts and personalities remain largely unexplored. It's as though the author is more at home writing about machines and tackling issues like the ultimate destiny of mankind than he is talking about people. This makes the novel drier than it could be, and it ends fairly abruptly. But for all that, this story has a powerful and dramatic conclusion, and the accuracy of its depiction of space travel can't fail to impress, even now.

Book Details

Decade: 1960s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

If you like this, try:

Inconstant Moon cover    

Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven
Space exploration features heavily in this collection of short stories.

Protector cover    

Protector by Larry Niven
An alien arrives with one goal: to protect his species. But what will his mission mean for mankind?

2001: A Space Odyssey cover    

2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick
Mankind is making its first steps out into space. But will that journey be made alone?

4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

Read more about Arthur C. Clarke