2001: Space Odyssey

Monday, August 13, 2018


2001: Space Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A classic of genre fiction
Premise: An unknowable force is guiding humanity, and has been since the beginning.

First, I’ve never actually seen the movie. However, I do know all the major beats, because it was basically impossible to grow up when I did and not know all the major beats - monolith and monkeys, I can’t do that, Dave, weird space baby. When I decided to read the book, I had no idea that the book and the movie were so closely related.

So all that is to say that it’s impossible for me to come at this book with anything resembling a fresh perspective. Heck, I actually worked very briefly with Keir Dullea, who played Dave in the movie. (While I can’t blame anyone working on that troubled show for being cranky, that does give me an additional hang-up about this story.)

Partially because of all that, I think this is my least favorite book I’ve read by Clarke. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t actually interesting to read for itself. The ideas may have been mind-blowing at the time, but they became so deeply part of the fabric of modern sci-fi that I can't even find this interesting from a historical perspective.

The thing I most dislike about the book is the actual plot. The characters are fine, even though most only make brief appearances, and the individual action beats that make up the middle of the book are well-handled. But the larger plot is just annoying. Some impossibly powerful force jump-starts the evolution of early hominids into Homo sapiens, and then transforms one human into a godlike being at the end. Nothing any of the characters do has any real impact on this, nor do they understand it in any way.

My dissatisfaction is certainly affected by assumptions about the primacy of agency in story. Today, common cultural wisdom teaches that there is more value in a story when the characters can affect the outcome, but that hasn’t always been the case. However, even in the original Odyssey, humans struggled with the gods, whether or not they could ultimately defy fate.

Despite some lovely description and interesting ideas, I find the unknowable power forcing other species up the same progression that it followed too depressing to be a satisfying read.

Experience: 2 Stars - An Okay Book
Importance: 5 Stars

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