Although I was first exposed to Kubrick’s classic film in high school, I was too sleepy/ dumb/ apathetic to pay much attention. Despite that, I was pretty familiar with it, if only because of the ubiquitous references to it in pop culture (I can remember at least a few just from Sesame Street).
A few years ago, I found myself planning for the last day of summer school, where I would spend the first half of the day reviewing and then administering a final exam, and the second half of the day grading it and filling out paperwork. As the students would obviously be done with the course itself after the exam, an extraneous activity was needed to fill the time while I worked. (Technically, administrations are supposed to have us give the exam and grade it during the second half of the last day, while we’re simultaneously supposed to continue doing regular class work with them–an expectation so impossibly ridiculous that nobody anywhere has ever tried to enforce it).
Not being a fan of time-wasting movies, I wanted something calm and cerebral for them to try. Remembering 2001, I checked it out of the library. As long and slow as it is, (and as much as I was trying to focus on my work, which I mercifully finished earlier than I’d expected to), I was dazzled by it, by all of it: the visuals, the music, the ambition of the story’s epic scope. How could such a simple and simply-told movie be so fantastically overwhelming?
Since then, this has been a landmark of art in my mind. Thus it’s not surprising that, eventually, I’d read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, which he wrote at the same time as he and Kubrick wrote the screenplay.
Bottom line, Kubrick’s movie is even better, but the novel is still well worth reading. Clarke’s novel fleshes out some of the unspoken narrative of the austere film, but still respects both the reader’s imagination, and the importance of narrative cadence: what one reviewer called Clarke’s “styleless style” keeps things moving briskly, giving the story the resonance of the biblical parables it updates. A lesser author would have given in to the temptation to make this story a thousand pages long, which it easily could have been. But there’s a lot to be said for letting wonder remain mysterious.
In the short space of this sparse novel, though, Clarke still manages to rankle at times: references to “future” overpopulation and nuclear tensions stick out like the paranoid Cold War anachronisms they are, but this tendency is more than balanced out by his gift for instilling joyous awe with his tour of our local cosmos and even (though it gets a little too arcane at times, which I struggle with but always forgive in sciencefiction) his infectious technological prophesying.
Even though he gets all kinds of things wrong, he does, at one point, have Dr. Heywood Floyd amusing himself during a shuttle ride to the Moon with a portable electronic device whose screen, at the touch of a series of displayed icons, allows him to access “every newspaper on the planet.” Pretty impressive that, forty years ahead of time, Clarke gives a decent description of an iPhone or Blackberry.
Of course, the best thing about 2001–novel or film–is the magnificent grandeur of its conceit: the tantalizing, audacious tale of an unknown, benevolent, supremely advanced alien civilization that leaves relics–one each in Africa, on the Moon, and on the moon of another planet–that, when mankind grows to the point where he finds and touches each, blesses him with a quantum leap forward in his development. The sheer scale of such an idea is so far beyond nearly anything else ever thought of, outside of scripture, that it practically staggers the mind.
Clarke’s genius vision resonates with things as disparate as Michelangelo’s Adam touching the finger of God and the Latter-day Saints’ “evolutionary” understanding of creation and existence–see especially Abraham 3:24-26 and Abraham chapter 4. (By the way, for a great recent look at the symbiotic relationship between science fiction and religion, check out City Journal’s “How Science Fiction Found Religion.”)
Despite the largely bleak oeuvre of Kubrick and humanistically geeky collection for Clarke, 2001 ends with the inspiring “exaltation” of astronaut David Bowman…a prototypically Adamic hope for us all.