Books: Then and Now

Category: Then

Review: Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey Quadrilogy

By: Richard E. Gower

“It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.”

                                                                        ARTHUR C. CLARKE

Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008) was a science writer, inventor and futurist, to name just a few of his many noteworthy achievements. He may be best known for creating the Space Odyssey quadrilogy (or, if you prefer, tetralogy) of science fiction novels: 2001: A Space Odyssey; 2010: Odyssey Two; 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey.

Two of the four books were made into movies, the first of which (2001) Clarke co-wrote with film director Stanley Kubrick and is widely considered to be one of the most influential films that was ever produced. There are rumours that The Final Odyssey is now also under consideration for the screen.

The aphorism: ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation.’ and its variants have been attributed to several people over the years, including Benjamin Franklin and Oscar Wilde. No matter where it originated, it’s a practice I subscribe to when it comes to books. A reading binge probably never did anyone any harm and there are worse ways to spend a stormy Canadian winter weekend than hunkering down and tucking in with these four inspiring novels, along with some salted peanuts, a slow-simmering ragout and a half-dozen apples for sustenance.

In a 1997 documentary co-produced by the BBC called The Man Who Saw the Future that came out shortly after 3001: The Final Odyssey was published, Arthur C. Clarke is on record as saying: “I can’t understand any intelligent person not enjoying science fiction.”

Although sci-fi might not be everyone’s cup of tea, these four books are in a class all by themselves.

He can be forgiven for his bias and commitment to the genre as he was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding polymaths of the past one-hundred years. In the same documentary he was called: ‘…a one man think tank whose work was listened to by the United Nations, Microsoft and NASA.’  Although sci-fi might not be everyone’s cup of tea, these four books are in a class all by themselves.

The Space Odyssey series is considered to be hard science fiction, the distinction being that the author placed great emphasis on the content being scientifically accurate, with many of the technical details described being actually or theoretically feasible. This adherence to the realm of the potentially possible is Clarke’s métier, a trademark of his fiction.

In an earlier novel, The Fountains of Paradise he set down the forward-thinking concept of a space elevator that would essentially re-engineer the way humans would travel from the surface of Earth into outer space. He touched on the idea again in Odyssey Three and expanded on it in The Final Odyssey.

In an interview after the last book was published, when he was 80 years old, he strongly believed that a space elevator model had finally become theoretically possible. The discovery of the Carbon 60 molecule, he said, would enable the construction of a cable light enough and strong enough to be suspended in space, like a satellite in geostationary orbit, and tethered to Earth at the equator. Time alone will tell if this will come to pass in the same way that many of his past predictions involving science and technology were ultimately realized in practical terms.

The consistent theme through the Space Odyssey books is the evolution of human intelligence, from the time of the earliest hominids to the creation of artificial intelligence, and AI’s imagined effect on the future of humanity. The stories also advance the supposed existence of a controlling, superior intelligence outside of Earth’s planetary surface.

He sets the tone for humankind’s predilection for seeking power in the initial book…

Critics of these novels in the past have carped about a supposed lack of character development and sketchiness around interpersonal human relationships in his fiction, but those criticisms fall far wide of a mark, in two significant ways. The first is that they overlook and diminish the books’ raison d’être, their grand theme and the fact that they are centred around science, with its inexorable advancements of technology, and its far-reaching effects on humanity.

The second is that they appear to fail to grasp Arthur C. Clarke’s acute perception and understanding of human nature. His books are flavoured throughout with subtle references to the predictable cause and effect of endeavours pursued and decisions made by individuals and governments, that have led to human societal failures. And although he was a self-professed optimist with an abiding faith in the advancement of technology as being a positive thing for humankind, as well as his belief in an innate human goodness, he salted his narrative liberally with little snippets that spoke astutely to both the baseness and pettiness that also reside within humanity, even in the supposedly enlightened strata of academia and government.

He sets the tone for humankind’s predilection for seeking power in the initial book, when the first humanoids, having been endowed with the (technological) means to feed themselves and their tribe then go on to use those same means to kill and dominate other tribes. The unspoken subtext throughout the series is that this particular trait has been carried on through evolution to modern generations.

As to character development, there was no need to write pages of description when he could epitomize both privilege and pettiness in a scene in Odyssey Three, in just four words. A group of travellers are in outer space on the spaceship Universe where, solely for comfort and recreation, the craft has been fitted out with a swimming pool. Around the pool is a simulated beach complete with palm trees, magnetic sand (so it wouldn’t shift around in the low gravity), a diving board and an artificial sun.  Presented with this spectacular munificence one of the VIPs complains: “Pity there’s no surf.”

….he was also not shy about peppering his fiction with idealism.

Like other forward-thinkers before him like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions about the future shone through in his fiction. In 2061: Odyssey Three, published in 1987, he accurately foresaw the trend emerging in telecommunication.

“With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.”

Although he fell short by a few years (free telephone calls), to put this into context it should be noted that up until the mid-1960s, long-distance telephone calls were an extremely expensive undertaking, relative to income. A call just between one coast of North America and the other could cost more than $1.00 a minute (the equivalent of about $7.50 in today’s dollars). Compare that with the cost of making an international call of three times that distance today.

And, as again in Odyssey Three, he was also not shy about peppering his fiction with idealism.

“The dismantling of the vast and wholly parasitic armaments industry had given an unprecedented—sometimes, indeed, unhealthy—boost to the world economy. No longer were vital raw materials and brilliant engineering talents swallowed up in a virtual black hole—or, even worse, turned to destruction. Instead, they could be used to repair the ravages and neglect of centuries, by rebuilding the world.”

One thing to remember about the Space Odyssey books is that they are not direct sequels. The author stated in 1987: “They must be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe.

Notwithstanding that, read and absorbed as a single entity they do form something much greater than the sum of their four separate parts.

So there you go. Four exceptional novels that are an absolute feast for the imagination. They are not only great reads but serve as harbingers that provide us with a portent of the future, for good or for bad. Pop down to the library and check them all out for a reading marathon over the next frigid and blustery weekend. And while you’re at it, pick up some chocolate éclairs. Hey, if you are going to binge, might as well do it up right.   REG

Links for additional information: