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

Stepping into Space

I’ve created a second list of recommended books at shepherd.com, a book discovery site where authors recommend favorite books based on a particular topic. Space is a topic near and dear to my heart. We’ve put many satellites in orbit. Humans work in orbit. We’ve been to the moon for just a few short years at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s and we’ve sent robotic probes to planets in the solar system. So, I often find myself asking, what is the next big step into space and these books address different aspects of that question.

You can find the list at: https://shepherd.com/best-books/humans-taking-the-next-big-step-into-space

As a kid, I watched the later moon landings, the Skylab missions, and Apollo-Soyuz even as I discovered shows like Star Trek on television. Voyager flew by Jupiter and Saturn as the Star Wars movies were being released. In my mind, space exploration and science fiction go hand-in-hand. That said, as I’ve progressed in my career as both a scientist and a science fiction writer, it’s become clear that science fiction often makes exploring space look easy. It looks like visiting Mars is as easy as walking next door. In fact, space is very dangerous and even the distances to our closest neighbor planets are vast. We don’t even have technology that would guarantee a robot probe’s safe arrival at the nearest star, much less a human-occupied spacecraft. We have a lot of ideas and people have been working on those ideas, but that’s very different than just being able to pack your bags and go.

Though four of these books delve into the technical challenges of space travel, the set as a whole is less about those challenges and more about why humans are drawn outward toward the stars and what they might learn about themselves there. “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” is a familiar saying and, in a sense, all of these books address that. I know people who express concerns about exploring space before we fix the problems of our home planet. I sympathize with that because, so far, Earth is the only planet we know we can live on. However, I’ve also believed we as a species can fix the problems we face on Earth while also striving toward the stars. Doing one doesn’t preclude the other.

I also know people who are concerned about humans destroying other worlds and civilizations with our colonial ambitions and corporate greed. Again, this is a legitimate concern and the books on my list don’t tend to shy away from those issues. They also acknowledge there’s a lot of space to traverse and many technical challenges to overcome before we get to that point. Hopefully, as we make those steps, we can learn to do better. It’s also distinctly possible that if we meet another space-faring race, they’ll easily have the upper hand because they’ve been out there longer than us. Hopefully they’ll be wiser than us as well!

Do you have a favorite book about next steps in exploring space? Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile you can learn more about my book about humans taking a next big step into the solar system at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

The Classics and Beyond

Working long nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I often get a chance to ask my fellow astronomers about their taste in science fiction. Some of these astronomers are young, just starting their careers. Many are still in grad school. I find the first authors many will name are people like Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, and Larry Niven—many of the same people I would have named when I was in grad school. Every now and then, someone else will pop up like James S.A. Corey of the Expanse series or Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian.

I find it interesting that so many of my peers in the astronomy world still gravitate to the classics of science fiction. When someone doesn’t mention newer works, I sometimes suggest some. Often I’m met with “I’ll have to look up that author!” It indicates to me that word about newer authors isn’t always spreading outside of writing or fandom circles.

Publishing does face a real challenge. There are many great writers and there are a lot of enthusiastic readers. However, there are limited resources to publish all the best writing and limited shelf space to display it. The internet helps the shelf-space issue, but it doesn’t always make discovering new fiction all that easy. Of course some of that shelf space should go to classics and people will gravitate to what they’ve heard good things about from peers and mentors. Perhaps it’s no surprise that people keep going back to the classics.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve always appreciated magazines and anthologies. They become a way for me to get a sample of what newer authors have done. Magazines, though, are struggling in the Internet age. Numerous magazines have ceased publication. An inherent problem for fiction magazines is that they carry a date, which as time goes by makes the fiction look increasingly dated. Of course, fiction doesn’t always age poorly as evidenced by all the classic authors who still influence young, contemporary scientists.

Good anthologies, though, do have staying power and I’m proud to have contributed to some great anthologies over the years. One of the anthologies I’m most proud of is Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. In that book, I got to work alongside talented editors Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt to choose the very best stories from the Full-Throttle Space Tales originally published about ten years ago. I was especially proud that my fellow editors chose my story “Hijacking the Legacy” as one of the best stories from those books. It meant that I got to have a story alongside such authors as Phyllis Irene Radford, C.J. Henderson, Shannon Page, Mark Ferrari, Jean Johnson and Mike Resnick. I’ll note, Phyllis Irene Radford was also the editor of my novels Lightning Wolves and The Brazen Shark. Sometimes publishing is a small world.

I think Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales has the potential to be a classic. I don’t say this out of ego, but out of the fact that I got to spend a lot of time with this volume as it was put together. I really got to appreciate the wide range of stoies that could be explored in a backdrop of space adventure. There’s humor, there’s adventure, there are scares, and there are cautionary tales. I lost track of how many times I read the book on the path to publication and I never got bored. There were many other stories from the original volumes that I wish we could have included, but I think this is a good sample.

I’ve often spoken of my love of classic space opera such as Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Space Battleship Yamato. I find the stories here excite me just as must as the best episodes of those series. If you’re looking to discover some authors, this is a great place to start. You can get a copy today at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B074FHCJXG/