Tuesday, August 25, 2009

226. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

June 2009
History: This book was published in 1968, and was written along with the screenplay for the movie. The story is based in part on various short stories by Clarke, most notably "The Sentinel" (written in 1948 for a BBC competition but first published in 1951 under the title "Sentinel of Eternity").
Plot: In the background to the story in the book, an ancient and unseen alien race uses a mechanism with the appearance of a large metal monolith to investigate worlds all across the galaxy and, if possible, to encourage the development of intelligent life. The book shows one such monolith appearing in ancient Africa, three million years B.C., where it inspires a starving group of the hominid ancestors of human beings to conceive of tools. The ape-men use their tools to kill animals and eat meat, ending their starvation. They then use the tools to kill a leopard that had been preying on them; the next day, the main ape character, Moon-Watcher, uses a club to kill the leader of a rival tribe. Moon-Watcher reflects that though he is now master of the world, he is unsure of what to do next—but he will think of something. The book suggests that the monolith was instrumental in awakening intelligence, and enabling the transition of the ape-men to a higher order, with the ability to fashion crude tools and thereby be able to hunt and forage for food in a much more efficient fashion.
The book then leaps eons to the year 1999, detailing Dr. Heywood Floyd's travel to Clavius Base on the Moon. Upon his arrival, Floyd attends a meeting. A lead scientist explains that they have found a magnetic disturbance in Tycho, one of the Moon's craters, designated Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One, or TMA-1. An excavation of the area has revealed a large black slab. It is the first evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Floyd and a team of scientists drive across the moon to actually view TMA-1. They arrive just as sunlight hits upon it for the first time in three million years. It then sends a piercing radio transmission to the far reaches of the solar system. The signal is tracked to Iapetus, one of the many moons of Saturn, where an expedition is then planned to investigate.
The book leaps forward 18 months to 2001 to the Discovery One mission to Saturn. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Francis Poole are the only conscious human beings aboard Discovery One spaceship. Their three other colleagues are in a state of suspended animation, to be awakened when they near Saturn. The HAL 9000, an artificially intelligent computer addressed as "Hal," maintains the ship and is a vital part of life aboard.
Poole and Bowman become suspicious at Hal's refusal to admit that there could be something wrong with his failure detection sensors. Hal then claims that the replacement AE-35 unit will fail. Poole and Bowman radio back to Earth; they are told that there is most definitely something wrong with Hal, and will possibly need to disconnect him. These instructions are interrupted as the signal is broken. Hal informs them that the AE-35 unit has malfunctioned.
Poole takes a pod outside the ship to bring in the failed AE-35 unit. As he is removing the unit, the pod, is killed when his spacesuit is torn, exposing him to the vacuum of space. Bowman is shocked by Poole's death and is deeply distressed. He is unsure whether Hal, a machine, really could have killed Poole. He decides that he will need to wake up the other three astronauts. He has an argument with Hal, with Hal refusing to obey his orders to switch the hibernation pods to manual operation, insisting that Bowman is incapacitated. Bowman threatens to disconnect him if his orders are not obeyed, and Hal relents, giving him manual control to wake the sleeping scientists.
But as Bowman begins to awaken his colleagues, he hears Hal open both airlock doors into space, venting the ship’s atmosphere. The pressure on board is rapidly dropping as the ship is equalizing with the vacuum of space. Bowman makes his way into a sealed emergency shelter which has an isolated oxygen supply and spare spacesuit. He then puts on the spacesuit and re-enters the ship, knowing Hal to be a murderer. Bowman then laboriously disconnects the computer, puts the ship back in order and manually re-establishes contact with Earth. He then learns that the true purpose of the mission is to explore Japetus, the third-largest moon of Saturn, in the hope of contacting the society that buried the monolith on the Moon.
Bowman spends months on the ship, alone, slowly approaching Japetus. A return to Earth is now out of the question, as Hal's sudden decompression of Discovery severely damaged the ship's air filtration system, leaving Bowman with far less breathable air than either returning to Earth or waiting for a rescue ship would require, and hibernation is impossible without Hal to monitor it. During his long approach, he gradually notices a small black spot on the surface of Iapetus. When he gets closer, he realizes that this is an immense black monolith, identical in shape to TMA-1, only much larger. He decides to go out in one of the extra-vehicular pods to make a closer inspection of the monolith. Programmed for just such an occurrence, the monolith reveals its true purpose as a star gate when it opens and pulls in Bowman's pod. Before he vanishes, Mission control hears him proclaim: "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of stars!"
Bowman is transported via the monolith to a star system far outside our galaxy. During this journey, he goes through a large interstellar switching station, and sees other species' spaceships going on other routes; he dubs it the 'Grand Central Station' of the universe. (This is rather different from the film, which portrayed the entire journey as surreal.)
He is brought to what appears to be a nice hotel suite, carefully constructed from television images, and designed to make him feel at ease. Bowman goes to sleep. As he sleeps, his mind and memories are drained from his body, and he is made into a new immortal entity, a Star Child, that can live and travel in space. The Star Child then returns to our Solar System and to Earth. Once there, he destroys the many thermonuclear weapons threatening the very survival of the human species. Like Moon-Watcher three million years before him, the Star Child is now master of the world and uncertain what to do next—but as Moon-Watcher eventually did, the Star Child too will think of something.
Review: In the background Clarke introduces us to an advanced civilization that helped Earth's "dumb" apes evolve millions of years ago into modern humans by teaching them how to kill prey. I'm fascinated by these mysterious characters lurking in the background. They, like us, evolved from ocean slime, then into intelligent, self-aware carbon-based beings like us, then into machines, then finally into states of organized energy. Then the reader is suddenly translated into modern times. Humans, developing powerful artificial intelligent life, are at the cusp of taking the next evolutionary leap. This, post-Darwinian evolution, is what 2001 is REALLY about--all of the conflict between humans and their AI life forms is just a side topic.
Opening Line: “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended.”
Closing Line: “For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next, but he would think of something.”
Quotes: "Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living."
"Now times had changed, and the inherited wisdom of the past had become folly.”
Rating: Good, can’t wait to see the movie.

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