2001: A Space Odyssey

Today’s topic is 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

The first words that come to my mind are brilliant, visionary, a Jules Verne of the 20th century. Arthur C. Clarke has a marvelous imagination, and by logic and from his physics degree he just accurately predicts a very likely to be future. The book is an exercise of imagination, starting from artificial intelligence, human evolution, extraterrestrial forces, or evolution in physics.

I can tell you that 2001 is the most realistic science fiction novel I ever read. The author imagines a world where space travel is possible, but with realistic devices and speeds. The shuttle Discovery takes few years to reach Jupiter and Saturn, while their crew follows a very tight schedule and most of them are suspended in cryostate. The two main characters , Dave Bowman and Frank Poole have a very strict life aboard the ship, while the most powerful artificial intelligence ever created, HAL 9000, stirs up the plot and eventually tries to take control over the vessel. HAL 9000 is depicted with clear observations, and is the dark figure of the novel. HAL 9000 is a genius, it can play chess better than any human being, it can logic and reason, however his main fault is not being human, and it takes decisions over life and death as easy as moving a pawn on the chess table. HAL is strong, merciless, and deceiving. HAL is a combination of power in wrong hands and a child. As the child of humanity, HAL returns to its roots by singing the Daisy Girl song, which in the end proves that HAL itself is a child out of control, and that humankind needs to nurture it’s children more before letting them go. The last act of HAL also changes the public opinion about him, HAL becomes weak, innocent and cannot be blamed for his evil actions.

The relationship between an artificial being and a human being is depicted very clear: Dave doesn’t know how to talk to HAL in certain points. He was used with a docile machine, but is astonished when the perfect HAL proves faults. HAL builds an atmosphere that is about to explode, with a very predictable end. However nobody on the ship realizes that. Clarke uses cinematographic scenes, to make the people hold their breath waiting for the resolution. Dave proves himself very cold blooded and manages to disable HAL even though he witnesses the death of all his flight mates, including his long time friend Frank’s jettisoning. Dave proves a bravery out of common, by moving ahead with his mission despite the central command hiding the true nature of his expedition, the deaths of his comrades, and the need for him to pilot the ship alone.

The action is then built across the black monoliths which have changed the human history, and are the main enigma of all the space odyssey series. The discovery of alien structures is more impressive than third degree meetings in contemporary literature or movies. The Black Monoliths do not say anything, do not have a heart, do not want to do us harm, but still they are there and this is very frightening. The idea that a civilization was present in our solar system in a very far away past is astonishing. This civilization even contributes to the evolution of human kind. Even if the monoliths look dead, they have the power to turn Dave into the star child.

Clarke explores various themes that have been previously untouched by any other writer, which make him a door opener for modern science fiction. Starting from artificial intelligence, which he depicts as an eventual threat to human kind, and ending with alien presence in the solar system, Clarke presents a very believable world, sometimes even more believable than reality. His book doesn’t focus on characters, but on human attitude as a species and as a whole, and on engineering traits that make the novel a pleasure for an engineer or a physician. Space travel has never been as real as in Clarke’s novel.

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