Category: Fiction/Sci-Fi – Paperback: 252 pages – Publisher: Orbit Books (Now part of Hachette Livre) – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1968
Last month I decided to be adventurous and pull out a wildcard from my book jar and got Arthur C Clarke – definitely a wildcard for me since I think I’ve only ever read two or three hard sci-fi books in my life. Clarke’s name was in the book jar because I had read a few of Clarke’s essays and heard him interviewed before, and been rather entertained by his worldview, but I’d never tried his fiction.
2001: A Space Odyssey seemed the obvious place to start because I’ve never seen the film (though I have seen the infamous scene with Hal several times because hey, I’ve been online for over half my life and there’s only so many times you can dodge it) and because it is the title Clarke’s most famous for. So I borrowed a copy from the library a couple of weeks ago and over the weekend I read it in one sitting.
The only bit I didn’t know, the opening chapters where ape-men in Africa three million years ago are given a lesson in hand-eye co-ordination and have the concept of hunting explained to them by an alien surveying device that looks like a shiny obelisk, was an interesting opening if depressingly ‘other’. I’ll be honest, any fiction that tries to claim evolution is a result of outside interference, whether by gods or aliens, tends to annoy me since it reminds me of this cartoon.
However, cultural osmosis means I knew this wasn’t all that relevant to the rest of the story so I kept reading. :)
And lo, another obelisk, too old to be of human origin, is found on the moon and a futuristic Odysseus-like figure with the clankingly obvious name of David Bowman (who also lists The Odyssey as his favourite book in case the readers at the back of the class missed the tip-offs) sails off to Saturn on secret mission with only some cryogenically frozen colleagues, one live colleague and a scarily smart but unusually moralled computer called HAL to keep him company and argue over airlock doors with…
And it was all described in beautiful, unceasing detail.
In 250 pages of novel there only three, possibly four, two-way conversations. All other dialogue is presented as one-sided or as a memory. Which means that the rest of the vast interior of this novel is description. Description of different light effects in space, description of rocks, description of gravity on space stations, the Moon and on board the Discovery (the ship sailing off to Saturn), descriptions of how toilets work in zero gravity and description of how astronauts pass the long, contemplative hours of their journeys.
That’s not to say all the description is boring or to deny the ideas and concepts scattered throughout the descriptions are really interesting. There’s the idea of commuting to the moon and doing paperwork on the flight, handheld ‘newspads’ downloading headlines every hour, the perils of A.I. etc. But I kept finding myself zoning out because damn it, I wanted to use my brain too, Clarke.
I’m told there are more blanks in the film for the audience to fill in or wonder about but in the book everything is laid out for you. There are no blanks. None. You know everyone’s motivation at every point, every angle of every event and the author doesn’t even trust you to picture the rocks properly on your own. If there is little dialogue between the characters there’s no dialogue at all between the author and the reader; every time I closed my eyes I could see Clarke stood behind a lectern, giving me a PowerPoint presentation of his limited plot but the very big ideas underpinning it.
There were enough ideas and quirks to keep me reading, especially since it is only 250 pages long, but I can’t imagine ever needing to re-read it. I simply can’t imagine the book changing as I grow as a reader or revealing any layers – it’s all shiny, simplistic surface.
Perhaps the lack of dialogue, in both senses, is down to the joint production of the novel and the screenplay at the same time? After all, sci-fi films are not known for lengthy navel-gazing conversation, they’re known for wide-screen visions of The Galaxy As Man Has Never Seen It Before. Or perhaps it’s because the ideas came from a couple of his short stories which were then woven together rather than it all being conceived as a larger, more cohesive work?
Either way I find myself reserving judgement on Clarke as a novelist since it doesn’t seem fair to assess him on this very untypically produced book. I do hope Childhood’s End, which I’ve also borrowed from the library to balance out my experiment, is more nuanced and intellectually engaging though. And I’d love a less tacked-on, acid-trippy ending too.
Buy the book: Book Depository