It seems fitting that I should feature another guest post by one of my family members, since the three Offspring have all provided a post at one point or another through the life of the Ramblings. When I mentioned to OH that the 1968 Club was upcoming, he volunteered to review something for it, knowing I might be a little pushed for time as I was away in Edinburgh the week prior. So here is OH’s review of a sci-fi classic which appeared in 1968 – 2001 a space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

Not many books involve a twenty year gestation, as was the case with “2001”, published in 1968 in conjunction with the similarly titled movie (but which gained a colon). The germ of the novel began life as a short story, “The Sentinel”, penned by Clarke in 1948, and when the author began collaborating from 1964 onwards on a screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick the idea was partly resurrected. The eventual “2001” novel writing was credited to Clarke, with an added tag that it was based on the screenplay.

A pair of 1968 hardbacks and paperbacks were published respectively in the US by New American Library and Signet, and in the UK by Hutchinson and Arrow Books. The latter softcover edition (pictured later in this review) is the version I bought after seeing the film, still in my possession a half century later, along with the vinyl soundtrack album. As a small point of detail, each of the books’ cover titles appeared all in lower case lettering.

New American Library and Hutchinson first edition 1968 hardbacks

Clarke’s initial short story dealt with the finding of a strange object on the moon, seemingly deposited by unknown beings from a distant past. The subsequent fully developed book and film built up to the lunar discovery by tracing Earth’s own journey through time, from prehistoric apes to thousands of years later, with advanced technology and space travel. No doubt the race between the US and Russia at the time to be the first to put a human on the moon provided a spur for Kubrick to embark on creating the ultimate cosmic screen experience, with Clarke’s astronomical knowledge and deep interest in science fiction adding the fuel. The two men were even able to present their joint galactic vision a full year before the 1969 moon landing.

In the story, the buried sentinel is excavated and suddenly activates when sunlight touches its surface. The writer’s original concept was a beacon, warning that an intelligent species had at last reached the spot, a remote outpost of whatever civilisation had left behind the sensor. Its signal path is later plotted and an exploration mission is launched. An additional potential source of inspiration might well have been the timely arrival of the 1960s “Star Trek” TV series, its opening narration referring to space as “the final frontier”, with a starship journeying light years from Earth, intending to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

However, in “2001” Clarke’s imagination stretched far beyond the edge of space, the writer crafting a dimension separate from the physical universe, with the notion of beings existing as energy. Such entities would have evolved past the point of any tangible form, having mastered the gaining of absolute awareness and expertise, transcending all worldly needs. Clarke was not suggesting the creation of deities, nor offering any metaphysical approach. His perception was of a future which would one day be reached with an advanced level of technology, allowing Man to gain knowledge and learn from those who passed before.

Signet and Arrow Books 1968 paperbacks

Woven into the story is a murderous on board computer HAL, an intelligence operating on logic and self-protection; Clarke envisioned HAL having a weakness, leading to a dangerous malfunction. In this way, the author was foreseeing today’s challenging debate as to whether artificial intelligence will in the future contain human traits, or develop different ones which cannot be controlled. Interestingly, in the big screen “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) an entity aboard the space vessel regards crew members as an infestation, the humans being viewed merely as “carbon units”. Machine or alien, either could be a threat to Mankind along the way, in the search for a pure life form as the ultimate goal. As Clarke was famously quoted, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

The plot’s main character, astronaut David Bowman, finds himself alone on the mission vessel after a series of calamitous events, leading to his having to depart from the stricken craft in a small escape pod. At the end of the ensuing mind-bending journey, through other dimensions and parallels, the space traveller ‘lands’ in a virtual hotel room, prior to transforming and taking the first step towards gaining the ultimate life form, beyond which there is no further advancement. The visitor has reached a place created and left for him by the Ancients, a departure platform from which the new arrival will travel to the next stage. In this way Clarke compared the millions of years which led to the development of the human race with what could lie ahead, not requiring an infinite amount of time to progress, but simply needing to find the key to whatever celestial door might await future explorers.

Clarke’s space travel fantasy was a creative vision, one of time becoming irrelevant, a perception of a state of immortality, being the norm for ‘bioforms’ able to ascend to the final limitless state. At the end of the book a “Star-Child” appears, having succeeded in passing through the initial galactic portal and materialising above the Earth as a planetary ‘embryo’ embarking upon the next stage of the voyage across space and time. Clarke believed that whenever a truly intelligent computer is made, such a machine will learn faster than humans and adopt new approaches, setting off an intellectual chain reaction. His futuristic confection of extraterrestrials, cosmos and computers was blended with symbolism and an aspiration to emerge as superior beings.

Whether “2001” was the book of the film, or vice versa, or both, for me they created a memorable fantasy which I remember well from a half century ago. Clarke was knighted in 2000 and died in 2008, having written a trio of eponymous sequels, referencing 2010, 2061 and 3001.