Today I finished reading Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey," after recently watching Stanley Kubrik's movie of the same title.
I'm somewhat embarassed to admit that I've never read this particular novel of Clarke's, although I did read "2010: Odyssey Two" when it first was published. I blame that primarily on Mr. Robinson, the gifted instructor we had for a semester or two back in middle school. Like many other teachers, Mr. Robinson had the unenviable ability to ruin classic works of literature and film for younger viewers and make them inaccessible through his uncanny knack for making his students feel stupid. (Alas, I have little doubt that I accomplished this very thing myself, when I was a teacher.)
"2001," whether movie or novel, has its roots in an older Clarke short story called "The Sentinel," in which lunar explorers uncover an artifact from an ancient and extraterrestrial civilization, buried on the Moon. The artifact serves as an intelligence test set by those ancient explorers; to locate it and probe its mysteries, any intelligent race from the earth first must reach the moon, develop enough of a presence there to locate the artifact, and then harness the power of the atom peaceably, to open it.
The story as developed by Kubrik and Clarke -- the novel and film were developed concurrently, to minimize the differences between the two -- begins roughly three million years ago, when our postulated forbears first differentiated themselves from their apelike neighbors.
The picture in the movie, and in the book, is one of ape-men barely eking out an existence on the earth. Wild animals prey on the ape-men, they engage in noisy but meaningless fights with other tribes over the water, and so on. It's a bleak existence, and in terms of the book, the apemen are on the verge of extinction.
Enter the monolith, a clearly unnatural rock that appears one morning near the cave where the ape-men live. The movie treatment of this is accented by striking music; the book, through narrative, makes the daytime encounter with the monolith of no account, but stretches the night-time encounters over an extended period.
During this encounter, the monolith gives humanity intelligence. In the movie, this is accomplished through mere physical contact; in the book, it comes through the monolith training the ape-men in basic motor skills, and exposing them to new ideas, such as killing animals for food. Regardless of which tack you follow, the monolith triggers a significant evolutionary step by teaching the ape-men to use tools. In no time at all, the ape-men are using these tools not only to hunt but to make war on other ape-men and lay an indisputable claim to the limited resources available.
And at this point, both book and movie skip ahead three million years to 2001, when Heywood Floyd is taking a voyage to the moon base. I love this point of the movie because, incredibly, Floyd is sound asleep on his trip through space. Part of it probably is Kubrik indicating how familiarity turns the miraculous into the mundane, but I think he's also acknowledging that many of his viewers are finding his masterpiece boring and wishing they could fall asleep.
This is the point at which the monolith has been discovered. Its discovery triggers the next phase of the movie and the novel, as it emits a powerful radio signal into the outer reaches of the solar system, where a third monolith is awaiting, a further test of humanity's intelligence, endurance and determination. (Can you follow this signal? Will you endure the long trip?)
Natasha had a horrible time with the movie, which admittedly is not a piece for everyone. One of the chief reasons I hated it in middle school was that it's meant for older viewers who can read between the lines and follow the unspoken aspects of the plot. And you have to not mind that the spaceship moves slowly, that there is only about five minutes of dialogue in the entire movie, and that most of the developments are implied.
Personally, I found it fascinating in the extreme. The monolith, obviously, is meant to trigger humanity's evolution, first from ape-men to humans, and then from modern man to Star-Child in the person of David Bowman. The whole thing is about humanity increasing in intelligence and reaching its potential.
HAL is a bit more puzzling. When Bowman shuts him down, we find out that HAL has been aware of the true nature of the mission since the beginning. But in one of the earliest discussions we see between HAL and Bowman, Hal seems to be fishing for information from Bowman about the mission. Since HAL is so advanced -- and in some ways, more human than the people we see in the movie, who are particularly robotlike -- it could be he's looking for a way to share what he knows with Bowman.
During this conversation is actually when he claims to detect a fault in the communications relay, a fault that the two nonhibernating astronauts on the ship are unable to detect. The movie offers no explanation, although the book has it that the duplicity HAL has been ordered into has given him a guilty conscience and leading him to