Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thoughts upon Completing the Space Odyssey Series

2001 may well be the masterpiece it proclaims itself to be. I was amazed by the descriptions that made me feel as if something was actually happening, page after page of ecology and climate during which no human acted nor any change took place felt as if it were vitally important.

The mystery unfolded into greater clarity than the movie would allow. Kubrick told the end in images, but Clarke laid it all out for us through the perspective of David Bowman. In this, the film may qualify as a myth while the book would be literature, if we define myth as that genre of narrative that comes closest to music because it requires a great deal of intellectual investment on the part of its audience. We all come out of music, as we all come out of myth, with our own interpretation based upon our own mood and history. While this is certainly true of all narrative, the mode of myth is particularly good at it. So while Clarke's description of Bowman's journey through the Monolith is fascinating and compelling, it is also clearly delineated. Bowman doesn't reveal much about those who created the monoliths, but we know all that he knows.

Which is not true of the film.

2010 is pretty good, too. There's stuff going on. 2061, however, was a huge disappointment. The mystery is never resolved to any interesting point, and the compelling component of the series is barely present. 3001 does little to advance it, preferring the plot to the idea. The ideas come in the form of futurity; of world-building and speculation. That's not why I read that book, and even though some reviews I dug up prepared me for a lack of answers, I was still annoyed. The interesting aspects of the story were perpetually deferred. There was little compelling in terms of character, though that is true of the series as a whole, aside, perhaps, for HAL.

Interestingly, Clarke revisits the same passages throughout. His chapter of 3001 called "The Firstborn" occurs in all four books, if I'm not mistaken. And while he proclaims that these repetitions are heavily edited, I'm not willing to check that statement. We revisit the firstborn, the depths of Europa, and the atmosphere of Jupiter, and a dying Astronaut's final words.

I began this series, as you may recall, as part of a study of science fiction versions of the "uplifting" of humanity by aliens. I'm fascinated by the idea that aliens came to earth long ago and tampered with people to make us somehow better, according to their standards. 3001 is the first book in this series that postulates a negative connotation to this idea. The aliens may not be entirely benevolent. They may lack a certain emotion, which might cause them to exterminate us because they don't like the way we've developed. The ideas are put forward, but never really explored. Towers stretching to the stratosphere, on the other hand, are described in great detail. But I wasn't the least bit interested in the towers.

That might have been to do with my own agenda, reading more for the aliens than for the vison of the future; but I doubt I am alone in this. And so, when the epilogue comes round, short and sweet ("'Their little universe is very young, and its god is still a child. but it is too soon to judge them; when We return in the Last Days, We will consider what should be saved.'"), I was more interested than in the 246 pages that preceded it.

What an evocation. It rivals and perhaps betters "My God, it's full of stars" from from the film. Note that it's a quotation. Something is saying that to something else.

We're given few clues. 3001 brings religious themes into the foreground far more prominently than the others. For the first time, the monoliths--especially the first one, from the African hominid chapters of 2001--are cast in a religious light: "This was where--in time and space--the human species had really begun. And this Monolith was the very first of all its multitudinous gods" (56).

There's a character, Theodore Kahn, whose sole purpose is to inject religion into discussions. And then there's Frank Poole's conversation with David Bowman, where Bowman says that "twice I have--glimpsed--powers...entities--far superior to the Monoliths, and perhaps even their makers. We may both have less freedom than we imagine" (233) .

It's not specifically a religious statement, but when freedom--or free will, as Poole formulates it--comes up, religion can't be far behind. Clarke has some interesting thoughts on religion in the future, which has all but vanished in the wake of the curing of mental illness.

So the effort to push humanity to sapience (or Mind, as Clarke first puts it) might be misguided in the end. But humanity fights against extinction. Everything seemed so optimistic in the first novels. By 3001, the violence of the twentieth century becomes the instrument of humanity's potential destruction. In the novel's timeframe, people have moved past such violence, but the length of time it takes messages to travel through space renders irrelevant the advancements of the third millennium. Clarke's message is clear: We can overcome our current insanity, but it might already be too late.

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