When I was in college, I fell in love with movies and delved headfirst into trying to understand and appreciate the medium. 2001: A Space Odyssey served as a graduate course of my exploration. I sort of taught myself how to appreciate what would have previously been impenetrable.
In a diluted way, I think I’m doing something similar, but with novels. I’m reading far more than I ever have before, and am branching out into areas that were often intimidating or bewildering. So it’s only natural that I make time to read 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Though I enjoyed the book immensely, it isn’t serving to bookend my current exploration. It’s good, but not life changing.
Written concurrently to the film, 2001 spans millions of years. There’s an unknown alien force that is driving human evolution, beginning with the development of tools 3 million years ago. Their agent for spurring our development is a giant black monolith, which we encounter three different times – first as ape ancestors, then on the moon, then again on Iapetus, the Saturnian moon. At it’s core, 2001 is a story of human advancement. But the story we all know is actually the third part: HAL.
It’s weird, to me, that this is such an iconic story. On its face, its a fairly simple tale: humankind’s development has been aided by an alien race for reasons that aren’t explicated. We see our ascent from starving apes to master of space travel, and end as we are about to make our next great evolutionary leap, presaged by the Star Child. But beneath the superficial simplicity, there is the absolutely masterful film by Stanley Kubrick. Though the story was written by Clarke (based off an older short story of his: The Sentinel), I think it’s the film that turned this good story into an icon. And as impenetrable as the film can be, it still holds up.
Which leaves this book in a weird kind of limbo. This isn’t a novelization, but it’s not the source, either. The film and novel were always intended to complement one another, but while the movie adds some amazing visuals and aural brilliance, the book doesn’t do much to expand the story or meaning. And the characters are just as flat and undeveloped as they are in the movie.
So I’m left having enjoyed the book, but no more than I would a re-watch of the film, I think.
However, if you haven’t seen the movie – or can’t bare to sit through three hours of orchestral music paired with graceful space choreography, the book may be a welcome alternative. If it is nothing else, it certainly requires less work to get through than the overly long and hypnotic (let’s be honest: dull) movie.