The Final Odyssey

Today finds me at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona where you’ll find me on panels and selling books in the dealer’s room. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. This is my last convention of the year. One of the things I like about science fiction conventions is the opportunity to celebrate our favorite books, so I thought this was a good opportunity to delve into the final novel of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series.

I think the most difficult scene for me to watch in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the scene where astronaut Frank Poole, played by Gary Lockwood, must go outside the spaceship Discovery to repair the communication antenna. In that scene, the computer HAL sends a space pod at Poole, knocking him away from the ship and dislodging his air supply. Dave Bowman, played by Keir Dullea, valiantly hops into another pod to try to rescue him. Meanwhile, we see Poole frantically trying to reattach his air hose in silence. The scene is tragic and sad, especially when we realize that Bowman is too late and that Poole has likely died as a result of HAL’s attack. Still, Bowman retrieves Poole’s body, but must let it go when HAL won’t let him back into the ship.

After a brief prelude introducing us to the creators of the infamous monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the novel 3001: The Final Odyssey opens aboard the comet-chasing space vessel Goliath. The ship is diverted from its mission to capture and send a water-filled comet into the inner solar system to intercept a small two-meter-long object which has been detected near them. It turns out, the object is none other than the body of Frank Poole, adrift for a thousand years. In the very next chapter, Poole wakes up. It turns out, his death was so quick and he was so well preserved in his space suit that using the technology of a thousand years in the future, doctors could revive Poole. The next part of the story becomes something of a Rip Van Winkle tale as Poole, essentially a man from our time, gets to explore the world as it will be one thousand years in the future.

Poole finds himself in something of a Utopia, where humans have built a gigantic ring around the Earth, connected to the planet by space elevators. While humanity hasn’t left the confines of the solar system, they have colonized many of its worlds, including Jupiter’s large moon, Ganymede. Venus is in the process of being terraformed. Crime has become a treatable mental illness and even a few dinosaurs have been brought back. Because this is Arthur C. Clarke, he backs up his ideas with enough science and engineering to make them at least sound plausible. Because this is the final book in the Space Odyssey series, you know the mysterious monoliths aren’t yet finished with humans or the lifeforms they’ve decided to prod on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Even though the book is now fifteen years old, I hesitate to say much more, lest I spoil the ending, but I will say that Clarke does reveal more about the nature of the monoliths, what happened to Dave Bowman and Hal, but keeps the makers of the monoliths somewhat enigmatic.

Overall, I like the fact that Clarke gave us a more satisfying conclusion to Frank Poole’s story, especially after spending so much time with the fate of Dave Bowman in the previous volumes. One of my favorite moments in the book has to do with Poole being a Star Trek fan who got to meet Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart. Of course, in real life, before 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gary Lockwood played Gary Mitchell, navigator of the USS Enterprise in the second pilot of Star Trek. So, he did meet Leonard Nimoy! Another nice feature of this novel is that he concludes with an extended afterward discussing the science and engineering he based the novel’s ideas on.

It was also fun to compare Clarke’s vision of the future to the future I imagine in my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. Like Clarke’s novel, mine is set a thousand years in the future. My future isn’t a utopian one and it struck me after reading Tales of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, which is set a full 10,000 years in the future, that my vision is somewhere between the two. The one thing we all have in common is that we’ve all been inspired by real scientific ideas. You can learn more about my Space Pirates’ Legacy series at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#pirate_legacy

2061: Odyssey Three

I first saw the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey at my local library in San Bernardino, California. I’m pretty certain it would have been in 1978 and the screening was a celebration of the film’s 10th anniversary. I would have been about 12 years old and very much still in the thrall of Star Wars, which debuted just a year earlier. The movie captivated me with it’s plausible depiction of space travel and it challenged me with the idea that aliens could have tinkered with life on Earth. I still remember Heywood Floyd making a video call to his daughter from orbit and I still find it amazing that by 2008, I would be making video calls regularly home from the remote observatory where I work. The movie’s ending baffled me. Sure, I got that it was the aliens continuing their experiment on humans, but I was a very literal-minded kid and found the psychedelic imagery a little much for my taste. I wanted to know what the aliens were subjecting David Bowman to. So, almost immediately, I turned to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, written more-or-less in conjunction with the movie. The novel didn’t really give me any clear-cut answers, but I felt more satisfied that I understood what the movie had shown me. Over the next year or so, the book and movie took on special meaning for me. Their plausible depiction of science, helped to start me on the path to actually being a scientist.

Because the book and film together held a special place for me, I ran right out and bought the hardcover of 2010: Odyssey Two when it came out in hardcover in 1982 and I saw the 1984 film almost immediately upon release. While neither sequel quite had the gravitas of the original, I still enjoyed both. By 1987, when 2061: Odyssey Three came out, I was well on my way to an undergraduate physics degree with little time for new novels, so I let it pass me by. Over the next year, some friends told me they didn’t like it as well as the previous two novels, so it never really became a priority for my reading list. A couple of weeks ago, though, I happened to notice that the ebook was available at a discount and decided to see what I had missed.

If one views 2001: A Space Odyssey as the story of humans discovering that aliens had a hand in their evolution and 2010: Odyssey Two as the story of what actually happened to astronaut David Bowman and what the aliens next had up their collective sleeves, then 2061: Odyssey Three is basically an adventure story about humans living in the world set up in the previous novels. While we don’t get a lot of new information about the aliens, we do get some interesting speculation about them.

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Heywood Floyd is still alive and has the opportunity to travel to Comet Halley as it makes its next sojourn through the inner solar system. Meanwhile, Floyd’s grandson is serving as second officer aboard a ship exploring the moons around the star Lucifer, which was formerly the planet Jupiter. As they approach the moon Europa, which now has liquid water on its surface, the purser hijacks the ship and forces them to land. In the process, the ship crashes into the Europan ocean. The danger here is that the aliens warned humans not to land on Europa at the end of 2010: Odyssey Two. As it turns out, the ship Heywood Floyd is on, is the ship in the best position to rescue the ship on Europa. All in all, I found it a fine adventure tale with some interesting speculation about comets, planets, and the life we might find on Jovian moons. There was one annoying detail in that the purser who hijacks the ship is given two different last names without explanation and I suspect Clarke just changed her name and the editor didn’t catch it. Beyond this simple error, this book again lacked the gravitas of the original film and novel, but it was still fun to revisit this world and read this adventure story with its roots in real science. Also, now that 2001 and 2010 are both in the past, it was fun to look forward again to a year that hasn’t happened yet. Hopefully, I’ll get to see 2061 and see what the world is like when Comet Halley returns for real.

Clarke’s Space Odyssey series captivated me with the idea of humans crossing the solar system to solve a mystery. That basic idea served as a template for my novel The Solar Sea about humans traveling to Titan to find the source of particles that can apparently manipulate time. You can learn more about my novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html