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I like big books.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke 2001 belongs in that now defunct category of science fiction that embraced the genre as a tool for science education and communication. In many ways it reads just like Contact using a speculative first contact scenario to do some factually grounded rumination and at the same time explore basic concepts of astronomy, planetary geology and physics in a way that describes and gives reasons for the action of the story and at the same time teaches. Clarke manages, like Sagan, to walk the fine line of elucidation versus pedantry with all the skill of one of the world's finest science communicators.

Like most of Clarke's works (or the ones I've read at least), 2001 is a multi-epochal piece of speculative fiction popular among classic science fiction writers of the previous generation (the so-called ABC's - Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke). By now, I'm sure even the most culturally isolated fan of science fiction is aware of the premise or at least has seen snippets of Kubrick's adaptation in the original or worked into the cultural milieu, so I don't think I'm spoiling things to say that the story begins in the dim recesses of humanity's evolutionary memory. The idea is an old one: a superior star-faring civilization molds or guides the evolutionary development of life on Earth, guiding it to some penultimate technological genesis where we prove ourselves finally ready to join interstellar civilization. The hows, whys and motives of the civilization are the mystery, and that Clarke manages exceedingly well. The narrative is thus split between the primeval ape-man, Moon Watcher, and his hereditary counterpart in the far flung future, David Bowman. Most of the narrative is concerned with Bowman's and humanity's quest for the source of a mysterious object uncovered on the moon. On his quest, we take a guided tour of our solar system, narrated quite nicely by Clarke and are made aware of the vicissitudes of crossing the vacuum by revealing wonders that we might see if we could just get close enough and contrasting them with the precision and caution necessary to precariously preserve the fragility of life in such a hostile universe. The result is a story of wonder and claustrophobic terror that far exceeds even the visually stunning representation created by Kubrick. The subtitle "A Space Odyssey" is appropriate both for the flatly descriptive nature of Bowman's experience and because of the analogs that voyage has to the Homeric journey. Each stop along the way to Saturn is filled with peril and natural wonder that needs no exaggeration on the part of Clarke to convey. The universe is a strange and wonderful place and Clarke's tome compelling proves that you don't really need to create fantastic extrapolations of future technology to make really good science fiction.

Carl Sagan is probably the most renowned science communicator of the past generation, but I think Clarke gives him a run for his money in this one. As a storyteller, Clarke has the clear advantage. 2001 was edited into a taut mysterious quest that propels the reader further and further away from familiar territory. Much the same structure is used by Sagan in Contact, but the period between receipt of signal and exploration is protracted almost to the limit of explicative endurance by even the most interested and dedicated reader. Clarke explains prominent features of our physical solar system and the laws of the universe as they relate to plot points succinctly and in a way that heightens tension. When Discovery loses contact with Earth because of a misalignment of antennae he explains how difficult communication across the void at such great distances can be. The result is a feeling of impossibility and hopelessness in the reader at re-establishing communication at a critical juncture in the story. Also, the light barrier creates communication delays that enhance the dramatic tension of the story. The more distant from Earth Discovery gets, the greater the time-lapse in communications sent between the ship and Earth at times when instant communication between the two would make life a hell of a lot easier. In other words, the science works for him, not the other way around. I'm all for reading science simply for the excitement it brings in and of itself, but when you pick up a novel, I feel certain conventions should be obeyed to make the experience more enjoyable. This one threads the needle tightly enough to satisfy even the most die-hard scientific realist while providing enough mystery to propel the casual reader though to the end in practically a single sitting. Bear in mind, science trolls, that the book was written in the 1960s and so must be read in that light. It has remarkable endurance and prescience given that and if you ignore dates long since gone, this could still plausibly be a model for our first contact with an alien civilization.