Almost four years ago, now, I read a book that changed my life: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Up until that point, I’d read a handful of SF classics, like Dune, The War of the Worlds, and so forth — but mostly I was a reader of, well . . . arguably lesser books. Things like Star Wars tie-ins (more than I can count, but most of them entirely forgettable), ho-hum film novelizations, and what have you.
I also read a lot of mid- to late-career Stephen King, like The Green Mile, Different Seasons, et cetera. No criticism there; I still read and love King shamelessly. He’s a master of the craft, whom growing storytellers should study with earnest.
(And, of course, there was that sparse, strange little holy-shit-this-is-fucking-awesome book called Fight Club. Ahem.)
But my freshman year of community college, long before I transferred to my present alma mater in my hometown of Monmouth, Illinois, I was assigned a Composition II paper in which I was to examine a novel of my choosing, from a list provided by the professor. There was one science fiction novel on the list, so I went with that one.
Clarke’s 2001 is nothing short of a treasure. It doesn’t get quite the level of acclaim that Rama or Childhood’s End gets, but I think it’s a damn fine read. The kind of book you never forget, and to which you always sort of aspire. As long as I’m alive, writing science fiction and pushing myself to get better at it, I think 2001 will be the book whose level of wonder, stimulation, and adventure I inevitably compare my work to. That’s not to say that there aren’t better-written, or more interesting books . . . but simply that the impression of that first transformative read will be hard to beat.
It’s like the maybe-arguable-fact that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey film and Spielberg’s Minority Report are better films from a creative standpoint than The Empire Strikes Back and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Though it may be true, or have at least partial merit, my early experiences at the ages of seven (Empire) and, I think, eight years old (Alien) will remain forever crystallized as defining moments in my upbringing.
Which is why, perhaps unfairly, it’s always been hard for me to consider the possibility that Kubrick’s 2001 is even worth my time. I almost universally prefer original books to their film adaptations — Fincher’s brilliant but inferior Fight Club adaptation among them, admittedly — and so with a book like Clarke’s beloved novel, I thought that disappointment with the film was guaranteed.
Recently, though, I read a Facebook discussion led by author Robert J. Sawyer, who argues that the differences between the film and the novel are sufficient to view them as two entirely separate works, each with its own set of thematic concerns and moral subtext. More specifically, he views the Kubrick film as dealing with the evolution of humankind from its present, organic state to the level of artificial intelligence — therefore concluding that HAL-9000, or “Hal,” is the most important component of the mission.
This deviates significantly from the novel, I think, which seems to concern itself more so with the evolution of humankind from the level of sapience to, well, omnipotence. A level of intellect and influence unknowable, and incomprehensible, to the reader. (I watched the film 2010 several years after reading Clarke’s 2001, but have never read the three sequel novels. Perhaps Bowman’s transformation is explained differently than in the two film adaptations; I can’t say whether it is or not.)
Anyway, I finally took the time to watch the Kubrick film from start to finish — this morning, in fact — and found it enormously awesome. A stunning, enthralling work of cinema, with at least two or three killer scenes: the arrival of Heywood Floyd and the discovery of the lunar monolith; Hal’s death sequence, which I thought had some chilling dialogue; and certainly the haunting, almost silent simulacrum in which Bowman becomes the enigmatic Star-Child. It was solid enough to stand on its own, but ambiguous enough to demand that after four years of literary infidelity, I finally make a return to the fiction of Clarke, to whom I owe my appreciation of the genre as I know it today.
So, the to-read list continues to grow. I’m still swamped with my senior thesis and other obligatory slog work, but making my way slowly through Haldeman’s The Forever War and Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. After I finish those, it may be on to Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, or Childhood’s End. Maybe 2001 itself, or Rama. Who knows? I’m so sick of all this schoolwork that once graduation’s over, it’s gonna be reading, writing, exercising, and Xbox-ing. Oh, how I miss Xbox-ing. And exercising. I get plenty of reading and writing done for school, but damn . . . I like the kind you do for fun much, much better.