Friday, March 25, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Scroll down and see what I wrote about this one after listening to it as an audiobook. It's a good summary of my thoughts after flipping through the actual pages.

But there is one additional thing that jumped out at me reading it that I didn't pick up on listening to it. In the beginning, when the lead hominid, Moon-Watcher, who has been changed by the monolith, kills One-Ear with the head of the leopard impaled on a branch like a club, Clarke writes:

For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his new victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again. Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And at the very end, when David Bowman returns to earth as the star-child, crossing both space and time with the powers given to him by the same aliens that built Moon-Watcher's monolith, and destroys the orbiting nuclear missiles of earth's protective sheild with his very thoughts, Clarke writes:

Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

It's a good way to bring the novel full circle, to connect the evolutionary leap taken by homo sapiens with the same leap just taken by the star-child, to make us think of his power over humans in the same way we think of our power over the animal kingdom. But the phrase "he would think of something" sends yet another message--that the power, once acquired, is entirely at the disposal of the bearer. The aliens of Clarke's novel may have helped humans take these two quantum leaps, but what humans decide to do with that opportunity is their's and their's alone. To extend into metaphor, there is an intelligent designer, but he only sets us in motion. He does not control our destiny.

FROM MARCH 28, 2005:

The latest audiobook and a decent one, but one whose enjoyment was really enhanced by seeing the movie first. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if I had read the book first, because I think this might be one of those rare instances where the movie is actually better than the book. The book has a little more explanation in it that helps connect some of the dots that seem unconnected in the movie, but it doesn’t really explain it all, which in the end leaves me preferring the more mystical approach offered by the movie.

I know from the movie, for example, that the monolith helps some hominids on the evolutionary path towards humanity, and that it effects the same kind of change a few million years later, moving humans onto an equally dramatic evolutionary plateau. In the book, more explanation is offered, including a brief profile of the beings that created the monoliths and their reasons for tampering with the development of certain species.

That’s fun to listen to and speculate about, but I think I like the movie version better, in which all those details are left out and we’re left wondering how and why the monoliths are doing what they do.
It may be my own personal bias, but the black monoliths of the movie are a lot more like Melville’s white whale, symbols of that unknowable and unconquerable force that exists apart from humanity and operates according to principles we can’t understand. Except here, the whale is not ignoring the tempest of our little lives; here the whale is actually controlling our destiny. Not just Ahab’s, but all of ours. And we are equally helpless to understand or influence it. The movie works very powerfully on that level and the book does not.

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