An Overlong Review of 2001: A Space Odyssey


Actually, this is less a review and more a rambling, diatribe-laden book report, and it’s brimming with spoilers. I spend a lot of time comparing the book and the movie.

The short version is: Wow, 2001: A Space Odyssey! Great book! Five stars!

I saw elements of many of Clarke’s short stories, including “Holiday on the Moon,” “Rescue Party,” and “Encounter in the Dawn,” and saw a few of the themes from Childhood’s End. Although “The Sentinel” is sometimes referred to as the foundation for 2001, I barely see the connection aside from the lunar setting.

Back in 2016 I listened to a big fat audio book called The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. It’s a good book, you should check it out. Here’s a direct quote from somewhere in that giant tome where a character examining an alien artifact is reminded of something:

“More than two centuries before, in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke had described a black monolith left on the moon by an advanced alien civilization. Surveyors had measured its dimensions with ordinary rulers and had found a ratio of one to four to nine. When these figures were rechecked using the most high-precision measurement technology on Earth, the ratio remained an exact one to four to nine, with no error at all. Clarke described it as a ‘passive yet almost arrogant display of geometrical perfection.’ ”

After listening to that bit, I rewound the audio book and listened to it again. Then I paused the recording and thought, Wait, 2001 was a book? I was immediately skeptical. And look, most of this is ignorance—I’d been reading for pleasure for less than a year at that point, and I didn’t really know who Arthur C. Clarke was. Not really. In fact, the only reason I knew about him at all was because the main character from the video game Dead Space was named Isaac Clarke, and the game studio’s PR material often called attention to the inspiration for his name. So I knew he was a sci-fi author, but that was pretty much it.

I knew that Stanley Kubrick had teamed up with a sci-fi writer for the plot of the 1968 movie, but I’d hitherto not made the connection it was Clarke, nor did I know a book had been written in conjunction with the movie. And even though I could have easily Googled it, I shrugged and figured some hack named Clarke probably novelized the movie years after the film’s release.

Obviously, I was completely wrong. I was comically wrong. As I now understand it, Kubrick read one of Clarke’s earlier novels, Childhood’s End (also a great book, you should check it out!), and wrote him a letter saying, more or less, “Hey I loved your book. You and I should do a movie together.” So they get together and have a number of conversations about where to start, and Kubrick suggests at length that Clarke should first write a novel so that Kubrick could turn it into a movie. Everyone wins: Clarke doesn’t have to worry about how to write a screenplay, and Kubrick will have the source material to write the screenplay himself. They spend many 18-hour days together over a period of time spit-balling ideas, a “130-page prose treatment” is written, and then they both get to work independently—Clarke refining his novel, Kubrick making his movie.

There are probably some more details in there, but you get the idea.

Quick sidebar: My favorite board game is Alien Frontiers. I wonder if I would have been more familiar with Clarke if one of the alien moon’s regions had been named after him? End sidebar.

Part of the reason for my initial skepticism was that, for my whole life, friends and family have had so many varying interpretations of the movie’s ending. There are a bevy of hourlong vlogs on YouTube where people try to get to the bottom of it. We watched the movie in English class once, and afterwards, there was a class discussion about what we thought the last part meant (Was it a metaphor? Something to be taken literally? Did Bowman die—were those bizarre visuals simply Bowman’s neuron’s firing as he flew into Jupiter and got crushed by the pressure?), but the teacher never mentioned that there was a clear and concise explanation in the book, or even that such a book existed.

Quick sidebar: There’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to interpretations of the movie, and a subsection, “Clarke’s novel as explanation,” does throw some shade on idea that the book is an answer key. But after reading the book and following it up with another viewing of the movie… well, it’s hard not to think of the book as an answer key. End sidebar.

Anyway, this has clearly been a long time coming: After reading several other Clarke books—after reading Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and the complete collection of his more than 100 short stories—he’s become one of favorite authors, and I’ve gradually become aware that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a legitimate, classic, beloved novel. So I finally picked it up.

Quick sidebar: My dad apparently loved the movie. I recall that when I was very young, he showed me a seemingly never-ending movie clip where some apes find a creepy rectangle and then beat each other to death. Then an ape throws a bone in the air, and my dad turns to look at me as the bone blinks into a spaceship and then says something like “TAA-DAA!” And I cannot articulate how thoroughly unimpressed I was. He was so disappointed. And now that I think of it, I just said “movie clip” a minute ago but honestly, I’m sure he was watching the whole movie and intended to watch it with me. But, come on, like I was going to watch 30 straight minutes of a guy sleeping on a space plane? I was seven.

Anyway, 28 years later, I’m 35, and I totally love the movie now. Even though I didn’t understand a lick of it after Hal got shut down, it is mesmerizing how crisp and clear and beautiful that movie is. So after I finished 2001 (the book) a few days ago, I rented the movie on YouTube and I swear, the EXACT SAME SCENE played out with my seven-year-old daughter. I was waiting for her reaction when the bone turned into the ship, and she just blinked and said, “Can I go now?”

Through time and space, my dad and I shared the same heart-sinking moment of dejection. End sidebar.

First and foremost (he says, 1,000 words later), everything you didn’t know about the movie is in here, and it’s unambiguous. It would be difficult not to spend the majority of what follows comparing the book and the movie, so… I’m going to spend the majority of what follows comparing the book and the movie. Heehee.

Part I of the book, Primeval Night, begins millions of years in the past, where an ape (nicknamed Moon-Watcher by the narrator) spends his days hunting for bits of food where he can find it. Berries, roots, that sort of thing. The apes are perpetually hungry, malnourished, tired. There are pigs that scrounge along with the apes (as opposed to tapirs in the movie), but it has never occurred to the apes that these pigs could be a potential source of food. Occasionally, a leopard will get the drop on one of them, and it doesn’t even cross the minds of the other apes to intervene.

One morning, Moon-Watcher awakens and discovers a large milky white crystal of sorts in their living space (as opposed to a monolith in the movie). The thing transmits a sort of instruction to him, and he realizes he can use things like rocks and bones as tools. He kills a pig, the other apes follow suit, and now the apes are all fat and happy, with all the pork they could ever want.

Here’s the first big book/movie difference: In the book, the apes realize they can retaliate against the leopard with rocks and bones. And they do! They take on the leopard and before you know it, the leopard’s life is flashing before its eyes and it tries to retreat. It’s pretty exciting.

In the movie, though, Moon-Watcher realizes he can use bones as clubs and, after he and his group hunt some tapirs, they beat another ape to death over a waterhole dispute. I recognize that it was probably easier to film costumed ape-men play-fighting each other than a real leopard, but this scene always hit hard for me. To see them fight each other, to see them realize they no longer had to rely on shouting and puffing out their chests to intimidate their rivals. It was ugly and animalistic and made even the small cultural advancement of improvised tools seem grey.

You know what happens next. Everyone does. The story jumps ahead to a space-age 1999 almost as abruptly as the movie, but the jump is thrilling—not confusing.

Quick sidebar: One of the film critics who attended the premier of the movie way back in 1968 said in his review, “This prologue is just a tedious basketful of mixed materials dumped in our laps for future reference. What’s worse, we don’t need it. Nothing in the rest of the film depends on it.”

While I can imagine it must have been jarring to witness 20 dialogue-free minutes of film that end abruptly and swaps settings, I disagree strongly that it’s unneeded! The Monolith, bro! That’s what ties the prologue in with everything else. 1960s film critics, amirite?! End sidebar.

Part II, TMA-1, was my least favorite part of the book. It reminded me of a 1951 short story Arthur C. Clarke wrote for Heiress Magazine called “Holiday on the Moon,” wherein a little girl goes on vacation to the Moon with her family. (Micro sidebar: Because this magazine catered to girls and young women, ACC wrote the story under a pseudonym—he was worried it would damage his reputation.) It’s a pleasant story but is mostly a vehicle to explain in painstaking detail things like low gravity and lack of atmosphere on the lunar surface.

Similarly, the scenes where Heywood Floyd travels from Earth to the Moon are… er… they feel like edutainment, or soft advertising. You know those faux travel posters on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland? Kind of like that—“Come fly our space planes and experience zero gravity! Have a layover on a space station!” It’s fine, it’s pleasant, it’s anodyne and completely inoffensive.

And yeah, in the movie, these sections are nearly unbearable. Each cut is just soooooooooooo slooooooow. Watch our spaaaaaaaace plane match speeds with the spaaaaaaace station and then slowly go insiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide.

There is a tiny bit of intrigue built up around Heywood FLoyd’s purpose for returning to the moon. Talk of an epidemic has planet-side individuals worried their lunar friends and family may be in danger. But shortly after Heywood lands, it’s revealed in a meeting that this is a purposefully disseminated cover-up to keep people from the truth: an alien artefact has been excavated from the Tycho crater.

Quick Sidebar: I seriously doubt this is the first book to contrive a government conspiracy, but it was interesting the lengths ACC went to to justify it. These days, aliens or alien tech or alien relics are always at a government facility, and the fact that it’s TOP SECRET is pretty much taken for granted. Here, the widespread-panic-inducing radio dramas of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds is cited as a reason why the monolith should be kept secret. I liked that. End sidebar.

So Heywood and a small crew travel to the dig site and check out the monolith nicknamed TMA-1. What tipped spacefarers off that something might be buried there was a magnetic survey taken of the moon:

“It looked like a contour map, though it showed magnetic intensity, not heights above sea level. For the most part, the lines were roughly parallel and spaced well apart; but in one corner of the map they became suddenly packed together, to form a series of concentric circles—like a drawing of a knothole in a piece of wood.”

So they get there and take a short ramp down to the dig site where the monolith stands. They look at it, they touch it, they line up to take photos with it, and then an ear-splitting ringing in everyone’s helmets causes them to double over in pain.

This was something I never understood in the movie; because the monolith from the beginning caused Moon-Watcher to have an epiphany about tools, I used to think the ringing in the crew’s ears was just another epiphany being delivered. After all, 18 months later, they’re en route to Jupiter with a newly developed artificial intelligence. But that wasn’t it—the book describes the same scene, but makes it clear that as the sun touched the black rectangle for the first time in millions of years, it powered the monolith up and sent a radio transition that caused feedback in the communication systems of their helmets. “Some immaterial pattern of energy, throwing off a spray of radiation like the wake of a racing speedboat, had leaped from the face of the Moon, and was heading out toward the stars.”

Of course, the movie does explain this, kind of, but it’s the very last sentence in the entire movie, right before Bowman leaves the ship in his pod, spoken by a figure in a pre-recorded message: “Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four-million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.”

Another thing that surprised me (especially since I’d been under the impression the second monolith provided the astronauts with the epiphany to build and A.I.) was that the trip to Jupiter had already been in preparation for several years. The signal from the monolith merely updated the purpose. “It had begun, five years ago as Project Jupiter—the first manned round trip to the greatest of the planets. The ship was nearly ready for the two-year voyage when, somewhat abruptly, the mission profile had been changed.” Instead of going to Jupiter, they’d now be flying to Japetus, one of Saturn’s moons.

Quick sidebar: Of course, those who have seen the movie know that the mission indeed went to Jupiter, but this was a movie-only decision. Arthur C. Clarke tells us: “Why the change from Saturn to Jupiter? Well, it made a more straightforward story line—and, more important, the special-effects department couldn’t produce a Saturn that Stanley found convincing.” So there you go, fun movie/book difference. End sidebar.

Thus begins Parts III (Between Planets) and IV (Abyss). They’re my favorite parts of the movie, but not the book. These parts play out pretty much exactly like the movie: Bowman and Poole, the pair of astronauts originally intended for Project Jupiter, carry out their duties while three additional astronauts hibernate in cold sleep. Just as in the movie, we never see them, never hear them speak.

Hal, the onboard A.I., alerts the crew that something’s gone wrong with a part of the ship, but an EVA hot-swap reveals that Hal made a mistake—the part was fine.

Where the two mediums differ slightly is the delivery. In the book, Bowman and Poole discuss the mishap, but they do so with an air of lighthearted embarrassment—like they’re worried they’ll hurt Hal’s feelings by talking about it. Poole shifts uncomfortably and suggests Hal might be a bit of a hypochondriac. This is in stark contrast the movie’s expressionless, dull dialogue where the two of them talk in circles like they’re adlibbing the script. I mean, for reals, let’s examine a snippet of the dialogue from the movie:

“Well what do you think?”
“I’m not sure. What do you think?”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about him.”
“You do?”
“Yeah, definitely. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”

Granted, I know things spice up a bit right after that line, but I’m trying to make a point here! Here’s how the characters in the book have the entirety of the conversation (I’m cutting a tiny bit of the prose, btw, just to highlight the dialogue):

“Mission Control has just dropped a small bomb on us.” He lowered his voice, like a doctor discussing an illness in front of the patient. “We may have a slight case of hypochondria aboard.”
“Oh—I see. What else did they tell you?”
“That there was no cause for alarm. They said that twice, which rather spoiled the effect as far as I was concerned. And that they were considering a temporary switchover to Earth control while they ran a program analysis.”
They both knew, of course, that Hal was hearing every word, but they could not help these polite circumlocutions. Hal was their colleague, and they did not wish to embarrass him. Yet at this stage it did not seem necessary to discuss the matter in private.

Although I favor the book’s dialogue to that of the movie, the way the movie handled the scene was far superior in my opinion. Apparently, the actor who played Poole read the script and complained to Kubrick that it was terrible (Kind of like how Harrison Ford sort of famously told Lucas regarding Star Wars, “You can type this sh*t, but you sure can’t say it!”). So Kubrick sat down with the actor and told him not to complain, but to instead bring an idea to the table—and his idea was to have Bowman and Poole go into one of the pods and have their conversation in private. Despite the bland dialogue, the revelation that Hal could read their lips was almost frightening. Bonus points for the movie here.

Quick sidebar: Speaking of the book’s dialogue, there are little human touches all over Clarke’s novel, little bits that make the world feel a tad more lived in and less sterile. My favorite example of this was when Heywood Floyd entered the conference room on Clavius Base:

“The briefing took place in a large rectangular chamber that could hold a hundred people with ease. It … would have looked like a model conference room but for the numerous posters, pinups, notices, and amateur paintings, which indicated that it was also the center of the local cultural life. Floyd was particularly struck by a collection of signs, obviously assembled with loving care, which carried such messages as PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS … NO PARKING ON EVEN DAYS … DEFENSE DE FUMER … TO THE BEACH … CATTLE CROSSING … SOFT SHOULDERS and DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS. If these were genuine—as they certainly appeared to be—their transportation from Earth had cost a small fortune. There was a touching defiance about them; on this hostile world, men could still joke about the things that they had been forced to leave behind—and which their children would never miss.”

Isn’t that nice? For comparison, the same scene from the movie was a featureless room with floor-to-ceiling light panels… which, I admit, makes it a bit harder to date, since there’s nothing (aside from the characters’ clothes) tying it to a specific time period. End sidebar.

The details vary, but the book and movie are similar enough. Poole goes on another EVA, and Hal freaks out and kills him, then kills the hibernating crew, and then Bowman disconnects Hal. What the movie is missing, in my opinion, is any sort of explanation about WHY Hal went off the deep end. The book explains this with economical prose (and I’ve made a few cuts for even more brevity):

“For the last hundred million miles, [Hal] had been brooding over the secret he could not share with Poole and Bowman. He had been living a lie; and the time was fast approaching when his colleagues must learn that he had helped to deceive them. The three hibernators already knew the truth—for the were Discovery’s real payload, trained for the most important mission in the history of mankind. … It was a secret that, with the greatest determination, was very hard to conceal—for it affected one’s attitude, one’s voice, one’s total outlook on the universe. … [Hal] was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity—the truth, and the concealment of truth. … He had begun to make mistakes, although, like a neurotic who could not observe his own symptoms, he would have denied it. … [H]e might have handled it … if he had not been faced with a crisis that challenged his very existence. He had been threatened with disconnection … To Hal, this was the equivalent of death.”

There you go. Hal was asked to keep a secret from Bowman and Poole, and because that went against his design, he began to malfunction and eventually had a complete breakdown. The last chapter of Part IV is titled “The Secret,” and in it Heywood Floyd sends a frank transmission to Bowman. He explains why the real mission was kept secret and, while tacitly acknowledging that Bowman is as good as dead, prays that he will still provide Mission Control with his observations. It’s pretty chilling stuff, and Bowman seems resigned to his fate almost immediately.

Part V, The Moons of Saturn, isn’t in the movie at all but it’s obvious why it was skipped. It’s a series of short chapters that illustrate exactly how alone Bowman felt on the Discovery. He finds much to do, carrying out all the duties he used to share with Poole and that Hal used to handle. His tastes in music evolve rapidly until he can only listen to instrumentals—any lyrics ruin the experience for him, since they deal with Earth problems that seem entirely mundane. After all, what is relationship drama or politics to a man who is completely alone, hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth without any hope of return?

When he finally does reach Japetus, he sees the final monolith erect on the Jovian moon’s surface. What the movie doesn’t give us is the immense scale of the object; the thing we see Bowman approach orbiting Jupiter in the movie is more than two kilometers long, believe it or not. Another thing we don’t get form the movie, probably because it would have demystified everything, is this little tidbit:

“[T]he long wait was ending. On yet another world, intelligence had been born and was escaping from its planetary cradle. An ancient experiment was about to reach its climax. Those who had begun the experiment, so long ago, had not been men—or even remotely human. But they were flesh and blood, and when they looked out across the deeps of space, they had felt awe, and wonder, and loneliness. As soon as they possessed the power, they set forth for the stars.”

So Bowman gets in his pod and lands on the top of the monolith… and then sinks into it. He describes what he sees for the people back on Earth, and the final transmission he sends is: “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God!—it’s full of stars!

Quick Sidebar: The impetus for this far-longer-than-normal “review” is that I didn’t recall a single person in my life ever mentioning the book, and that I didn’t even know the book existed prior to reading Liu’s The Dark Forest. Still, somehow, I’m familiar with the above quote even though it doesn’t appear in the movie at all. Odd how that transcended the book, probably because the quote showed up in an online meme somewhere superimposed over Keir Dullea’s face (the actor who played David Bowman). A friend recently shared a Facebook post asking friends to post their favorite lines from sci-fi movies, and one friend answered, “My God, it’s full of stars!” End sidebar.

So here we go: Part VI, Through the Star Gate. I was so confounded by this part of the movie that I recall laughing at several points. I saw it once as a child, once as a teen, once as a young adult, and then once again right after finishing the book—and it’s still looks, mostly, like a bad acid trip. It is stunning, certainly. It is beautiful. But until Bowman blinks in normal color, it’s also incomprehensible. And it’s not like it becomes any clearer once he’s in the hotel room.

But I digress. Bowman’s pod sinks into the monolith, and it becomes a “star gate” that jettisons him through space at an unimaginable speed. He looks through his window and sees alien architecture whiz by, all of it in various stages of decay. He passes “through a Grand Central Station of the Galaxy.” Whole worlds passed before his eyes. A short excerpt:

“The pierced and faceted planet slowly rolled beneath him, without any real change of scenery. He guessed that he was about ten miles above the surface, and should be able to see any signs of life with ease. But this whole world was deserted; intelligence had come here, worked its will upon it, and gone its way again.

“Then he noticed, humped above the flat plain perhaps twenty miles away, a roughly cylindrical pile of debris that could only be the carcass of a gigantic ship. It was too distant for him to see any details, and it passed out of sight within a few seconds, but he could make out broken ribs and dully gleaming sheets of metal that had been partly peeled off like the skin of an orange.”

And he continues on, faster and faster, until:

“[N]ow he was sure he was not returning to the Solar System, and in a flash of insight that might have been wholly spurious, he knew what this thing must surely be. It was some kind of cosmic switching device, routing the traffic of the stars through unimaginable dimensions of space and time. He was passing through a Grand Central Station of the galaxy.”

So he continues in his little pod, on and on and on and on and on, until he’s suddenly in a fancy hotel room. At length, he leaves his pod and begins to examine the objects around the room. One really interesting thing he notices is that everything is out of focus—the titles on the book and the text within are of a low resolution, as if they’ve been generated by a computer with only a small photograph for reference. There are various containers of food and beer, but they contain only an odd blue dough that doesn’t taste half bad. And Bowman waits. And waits and waits, until a monolith appears in the room. And then, in the blink of an eye, he is excised from his own body.

Rather than state exactly what happens after that, let me go all the way back to Chapter 37 and explain what happened to the beings who placed the monoliths:

“And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers … had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic. In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships. But the age of Machine-entities swiftly passed. … They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter. Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselves; and on a thousand worlds, the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rust.”

And so, in then end, I’ll repeat that it’s hard not to view the book as an answer key.

But this book is more than that—it doesn’t have to be a companion novel. This book was a masterpiece. I was so delighted to learn Childhood’s End is what prompted Kubrick to reach out to Clarke, because the themes are so similar! After all, it’s in that book that people evolve beyond the need for flesh and become spirits.

It was a lot of fun to spot themes and styles throughout this book similar to Clarke’s various short stories.  “Encounter in the Dawn” seems to have led to Part I, “Holiday on the Moon” seems to have led to Part II, “The Sentinel” surely led to Part III, and Part VI seems to be a mishmash of ideas from Childhood’s End and “Rescue Party.”  Even if you already know every plot point of the movie, this book is worth reading.  I loved it.