When I first read this book as a teenager I hated it, I thought it was so dry and impenetrable. I loved the Kubrick movie for its weirdness though. Clearly I was not one of the brighter kids of my generation. Having said that while I like it very much on this reread I can see why I could not appreciate it in my teens. Clarke’s scientific expositions can be very detailed but I would not call them dry now because I find them quite fascinating. The fact that when you are on the moon Earth is the moon, the details about the composition of Saturn’s ring and the description of Jupiter and its moons are clearly explained, interesting and (gulp!) educational. They really facilitate visualization of these planets.
What I particularly love about Clarke’s writing now that I did not appreciate in my foolish teens is the wonderful minutiae of his descriptions of various aspects of the space faring life. For example the practical design of the toilet on a spaceship for zero gravity conditions (a badly design toilet would mean getting shit all over you). Also things like the thick sticky sauce on pork chops and salad with adhesive dressing to keep food from floating off the plate during dinner. After dinner the velcro slippers are great for walking around the ship without levitating.
I have only mentioned the minor details so far, the main plot is of course absolutely epic though it is so well known it is hardly worth describing. 2001: A Space Odyssey
gets off to a rollicking start during 3 million years B.C. The first five chapters basically tells the story of how ape-men were “uplifted” (to use [a: David Brin|14078|David Brin|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1352956147p2/14078.jpg]’s term) by dogooding aliens from silly primates to sentient “people”. Then the story jumps forward to the (cough) future of 2001 AD where a mysterious monolith is discovered on the moon. This main section of the book is entirely set in space so we don’t know if Clarke would have predicted iPads and Tumblr.
The middle section of the book where astronaut David Bowman is battling crazed and homicidal AI HAL 9000 (of “Daisy Daisy” fame) is my favorite. The short section of the narrative told from HAL’s point of view is particularly wondrous. After dealing with HAL with extreme prejudice Dave has a lonely and depressing “Major Tom” period marooned in space. Fortunately he soon embarks on his famous trippy trip through a stargate.
If you are puzzled by the Kubrick movie this book may help to clarify almost everything for you, except that according to Clarke Kubrick and himself had different idea of the story they wanted to tell and Clarke’s answers are not necessarily the correct one! I have no idea how much input Kubrick had on the novel, only that he helped to develop it. The book is – however – entirely written by Clarke. The last couple of chapters are less surreal and psychedelic than the film but relatively understandable yet quite mind blowing for all that.
While he is a sci-fi legend to this day Clarke is often derided (along with Asimov) for his journeyman prose but I am always quite happy to defend Clarke’s style of writing. He used the right tools for the right job and his science expositions are accessible and a pleasure to read. He is also quite capable of some dry wit. Characterization is not Clarke's forte, he preferred to concentrate on the epic plot development instead, which is fine for me as he succeeded in his storytelling aim. Having said that both Dave Bowman and HAL 9000 are two of sci-fi's most memorable and enduring characters.
If you like the film adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey
but have not read this book you should. Ditto if you have not seen the film. It is deservedly a classic.
Star rating: Oh my God! – it’s full of stars!