Oh, THAT’S What the Obelisk Is!

I’ve just finished reading the ABC of classic science fiction writers–Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke.  I’m not sure which is my favorite, although Asimov is the one I’m most likely to read more by.  For all of them, I felt I could really see their place in the science fiction canon.  It’s nice to go back and see the originals that have filtered out into the culture in references and inspirations.  Although I read novels by all three, all of them felt somewhat like short story collections.  Maybe it’s a product of being from a time when science fiction magazines publishing short stories were much more prevalent.  Anyway, I feel I have better geek cred now that I’ve read more of the classics–and also because I recently watched Firefly.

But today I actually wanted to talk about Arthur C. Clarke.  Or his novel, that is–I decided to read 2001: A Space Odyssey, mostly because I wanted to see if it made more sense than the movie.  Amazingly enough, it did!  It’s worth reading the book just for that–it’s like being handed the magic keys to unlock the secrets of this classic and utterly incomprehensible sci fi movie.

The book follows essentially the same path as the movie, beginning with primordial man, who sees a strange black obelisk one day, and then picks up a bone and discovers tool use.  But what the book tells you (and the movie doesn’t) is that the obelisk is an unmanned probe sent by highly advanced aliens who are seeking intelligent life.  They see potential in primordial man, and the obelisk actually helps him to discover tool use.

The book goes on as humanity leaps ahead to (a very advanced) year 2001, and discovers an obelisk on the moon.  The obelisk sends a message to Saturn (Jupiter, in the movie), and astronauts are sent out to see if anything received the message.  This gives us the best part of the story, as astronaut Dave battles with his shipboard computer, HAL, who seems to have gone insane.

That’s by far the most relatable part of the book.  When HAL receives a command at one point, he responds with, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  I think that’s been the mantra of every computer since.  I can’t do this thing I’ve always done in the past.  No, I can’t explain it.  I just can’t.  I’ve been tempted to name every computer I’ve ever owned HAL, except I feel it would be asking for trouble.

2001 has some good moments, though it certainly isn’t a perfect book.  Even though it’s about the biggest moments in human history–the discovery of tools, the discovery of alien life–there are still long stretches where nothing much happens.  In that regard, the movie is significantly worse, but it’s an issue for the book too.

If the actual events dragged at times, at least the concepts of the book were fascinating.  I don’t know if they were ground-breaking at the time.  Despite what the cover quote says, I didn’t find it all that mind-bending; I’d already encountered a lot of the concepts by way of Star Trek–advanced aliens who have evolved into noncorporal beings, unmanned probes, aliens helping other races along on their evolutionary path, a future where Russians and Americans work together in space, travel by way of wormholes.  I don’t know if either influenced the other, or if they’re just sci fi archetypes, but there were definitely shared concepts.

The book is not big on humor.  The funniest part was in the introduction.  Clarke was writing about how pervasive 2001 has become, and mentioned talking to the astronauts who were the first ones to circle around to the far side of the moon.  They told him they had considered radioing back that they were seeing a giant black obelisk, but thought it would be ill-advised…

2001 is a good book if you want to delve into sci fi’s history, and even more so if you care about finding out WHY there was a baby floating in space at the end of the movie (there really is an explanation).  I enjoyed it for those reasons, but otherwise I’m lukewarm.  Though it does give me a great framework for relating to my computer.

Author’s site: http://www.arthurcclarke.net/

6 thoughts on “Oh, THAT’S What the Obelisk Is!

  1. I’m with you on the computer references. Whenever we have computer or server malfunctions at my job, we always joke that HAL doesn’t want to cooperate with us today! And what’s a little bit scary is how far computers have advanced already so that we can, sort of, have arguments with them! What does the future hold THERE?

  2. ensign_beedrill

    It’s like being handed the magic keys to unlock the secrets of this classic and utterly incomprehensible sci fi movie.
    Oh, gosh, it’d be worth reading it just for that. The movie is supposed to be this awesome, classic film. I watched it for the first time a few months ago and found it boring, disjointed, and, yes, incomprehensible. Guah.

    1. Yes…boring, disjointed, and incomprehensible. I’m not sure why it’s a classic either, although my dad keeps saying it’s because the effects were new and exciting at the time. (I don’t care if no one had watched a space ship dock before–we still don’t need to spend five minutes watching it!) It actually reminded me a lot of the first Star Trek movie–too much time spent on ship scenes and glowing lights!

      The book is a bit disjointed too, since it’s also episodic, but I felt like it made sense. Some things were still mysterious, but not in a confusing way, just a…the universe is full of mystery…way.

      1. ensign_beedrill

        Yeah, like the first Star Trek movie! Have you seen sfdebris‘s Star Trek reviews? He makes the comparison in his review of The Motion Picture, though he tries to make the point that the long sequences in 2001 are actually meaningful. I can see where he’s coming from, but still don’t really agree.

        I think I could handle a disjointed book more than a movie. Especially if it explains things more. I think that’s where the movie suffered… it’s mostly a lot of images and I had no clue what was going on or why.

        1. I didn’t use to be familiar with sfdebris, but I just went and investigated, and I anticipate spending all too much time here in the future… 🙂

          The 2001 book is still disjointed, but less so, and the actual explanations tie things together much better.

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