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Clarke at 100: 2001, A Space Odyssey

By / July 31, 2017 / no comments

1968 marked something of a sea change in the life and career of Arthur C. Clarke.

Before that date, he was one of the giants of science fiction, though the iconoclasts of the New Wave were already identifying him as one of the dinosaurs whose time was past. To a probably lesser extent he was known in the realm of space science and technology, largely for his ideas on communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit. But he was hardly a household name outside of these two bubbles.

After 1968, he was a household name, invited to comment on the Moon landings of the following year and on subsequent Apollo missions. He hosted television series on the paranormal, created foundations in his name, funded awards for science fiction and for space science, and eventually received a knighthood.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe hinge about which this change in his renown and, one presumes, his fortune turned, was the release in 1968 of Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001, A Space Odyssey. This was immediately recognised as one of the great science fiction films, it won awards, and still stands up today.

Clarke’s own novel, 2001, A Space Odyssey, followed a little while after the release of the movie. It is probably the book for which he is now best known (though it is not by any means his best book).

2001: a Space OdysseyThe title page of the book bears the following words: “A novel by Arthur C. Clarke, based on the screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick”. This has led to the misapprehension that the book is simply a novelization of the film; a mistake compounded by the fact that there was a delay between the release of the film and the publication of the novel. In fact the original plan had been to release the two works at the same time, a recognition of the strange, symbiotic relationship that existed between the two.

The Lost Worlds of 2001Kubrick had first approached Clarke in the early 1960s with the idea of collaborating on what Kubrick referred to as the “proverbial good science fiction movie”. After some toing and froing, they settled on Clarke’s 1951 short story, “Sentinel of Eternity” (subsequently retitled “The Sentinal”), as a basis for the film, though they would incorporate bits from other Clarke stories and an awful lot that was entirely original to the film. Clarke and Kubrick would collaborate on the story and the script, with Clarke writing the novel in parallel. In The Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke describes this process as a sort of feedback loop, with each element influencing the other.

In the end, however, the book was very far from being the novel of the film. Although novel and film follow the same trajectory and retain many of the same elements, the novel contains much that Kubrick cut, changed or simplified for the sake of the film. Some of these differences are quite minor, others are very major. Indeed, the novel is generally most interesting where it differs from the film.

Let’s begin with the most famous image from the film: the black monolith. This appears four times in the film: near the beginning, when it kick starts human evolution by turning the apeman Moon-Watcher and his clan into killers; on the Moon, when its discovery sends a signal out into space; floating in orbit around Jupiter, when it opens the Star Gate for Dave Bowman; and at the end of the film, hovering over Bowman’s deathbed when he is transformed into the Star Child. In the novel, the monolith appears in roughly the same places, but with one exception either the context or the character of the monolith have changed.

The first appearance is to Moon-Watcher and his clan, but it is not a black monolith; rather, it is crystal, transparent. And rather than simply render the apemen into weapon-carrying killers, the interaction between proto-humans and monolith is slow and complex. The apemen are tested, those who show ability to grasp and handle different objects are tested further. Over a long period of time they begin to learn the rudiments of hunting, of tool use, even the first inklings of abstract thought. The confrontation with a rival tribe at the waterhole is part of the story, yes, but it is neither as climactic nor as brutal as it is portrayed in the film.

The second section, which follows Dr Heywood Floyd as he travels to the space station, encounters a Russian friend who enquires about a quarantine that has closed off that part of the Moon under American control, then continues on to the Moon where the top secret Tycho Magnetic Anomaly turns out to be the second monolith, is the part of the novel that most closely parallels the film.

The next and longest part of the novel, the slow journey of Dave Bowman, Frank Poole and the computer Hal towards the outer planets, is actually the part that differs most markedly from the film. For a start, the destination is different. In the novel, the Discovery is heading first towards Jupiter, where it will use the sling-shot effect to speed it on towards Saturn and the mysterious moon if Iapetus (spelled Japetus in the book). For the sake of simplicity, Kubrick truncated this, setting the climax of the journey among the moons of Jupiter.

One of the things I’ve noted in this re-read of Clarke’s work is that he repeatedly showed space travel to be as routine as travelling on a bus. This is something that is, and indeed should be, dramatic and exciting only when something goes wrong. This was something that NASA discovered for real a couple of years after 2001, A Space Odyssey appeared, when what had rapidly become public disinterest in the space race was suddenly and briefly rekindled by the Apollo 13 incident. “Houston, we have a problem,” echoing Hal saying to Frank Poole: “Sorry to interrupt the festivities, but we have a problem.” Before that problem occurs, however, Bowman and Poole are blandly competent technocrats. I don’t know if this is something that comes from Clarke or from Kubrick, but these are characterless individuals, lacking the humanity that Clarke had managed to convey in his earlier novels. And it was something he would struggle to regain in later works, another indication of the sea change that book and film represented in his life and work. Even Hal is a less interesting character than in the film.

The moment when drama does erupt on the journey, rescuing us from the tedium of not much happening at all, is also different in the novel from the film. The scene in the film where Hal lip-reads a secret conversation between Poole and Bowman does not occur, indeed, Poole remains blissfully ignorant of any suspicion of Hal right up until the moment Hal takes control of the pod and sweeps him away in the middle of outside repairs. Nor does Bowman leave the ship to rescue his comrade; instead simply reflecting that Poole will be the first human to reach Jupiter. So, instead of the dramatic scene where Bowman has to battle his way back aboard the ship, we have a dramatic scene where Hal breaches the integrity of the ship and Bowman has to race to find a spacesuit and oxygen. But the disabling of Hal (who would be an AI if this were being written today) is pretty much the same, right down to the pathetic singing of “Daisy, Daisy”.

In both novel and film, this occurs on the approach to Jupiter. In the film this leads directly into the journey through the Star Gate; in the novel, Bowman still has to pass Jupiter (cue lots of atmospheric description) and then undertake the months-long journey to Saturn, so tedious that even Clarke passes it over in just a few pages. Now there is the third appearance of the monolith. In the film it appears to be simply floating in space in the orbit of Jupiter; in the novel it is significantly placed right in the middle of the large white spot on Iapetus that has long intrigued astronomers. In both versions, however, it is massive and black and Bowman, with a last cry of “oh my God – it’s full of stars!” is swept helplessly into the Star Gate.

This is the most visually spectacular part of the film, of course, a psychedelic sweep of odd colours and shapes that, in the counter-culture 60s, prompted audiences to believe it should be watched under the influence of drugs. Clarke, of course, was never going to do anything so trippy. The most psychedelic part of the book is an interstellar switching device that appears like “a photographic negative of the Milky Way”. Beyond that, however, everything experienced on Bowman’s journey is explained and comprehensible: a dying red sun, a derelict parking lot for space ships.

In the film, the end of Bowman’s journey is a set of sparsely furnished Baroque rooms where, in a series of haunting tableaux we see him age steadily until, lying on a huge bed, the black monolith appears before him. In the book the rooms are a rough and incomplete copy of a hotel room taken from an Earth film. Bowman explores, discovers that the air is breathable, that the packaged food is all “a slightly moist blue substance”, but it is edible. And then he encounters the monolith, which is again crystal like the one that appeared to Moon-Watcher, and again the purpose of the monolith is educational. Unlike Bowman in the film, who advances through life to extreme old age, in the novel Bowman’s life is stripped away, backwards through time, until he becomes a baby once more, the Star Child. But this Star Child is not as inactive as in the film. Upon appearing above the Earth its first act is to reach out and destroy all the nuclear weapons. Only then could it start to think what it might do next.

The novel version, therefore, is fuller and more explained than the film. We are told what is happening and why. But the film, with its sparse dialogue, lack of explanation and imagistic transitions still works better. 2001, A Space Odyssey marked the mid-point of Clarke’s career; from this point on he was better known (and 2001, A Space Odyssey is undoubtedly the best known of all of his books), but I can’t help feeling that in some way he was a lesser writer than in some of those early novels.

Buy 2001, A Space Odyssey on Amazon.

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