In space, no one can see the screen

2001: A Space Odyssey

by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey is a film. It is not a novel. Except, it is. Clarke drew on a number of his short stories when he sat down with Stanley Kubrick to write a screenplay for what became one of the ‘greatest films of all time’ (apparently). Then, presumably to tie everything together and to saturate the market with all forms possible, Clarke transformed the screenplay into this novel. This history is relevant to any review because you have to understand how the book came about.

It’s self-evident in the novel itself, which feels like a novelisation. I have always considered that concept ridiculous and, although Clarke’s skill is on show here, I feel somewhat vindicated. If ever a novelisation was going to work, it would be with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came from short stories first. Instead, it feels too much like a film treatment – and one for a wacky film at that. Not that a story about extra-terrestrial contact is wacky; I use the word in reference to the fragmented structure and lack of a conventional plot. I can understand how this works in an arty film directed by Kubrick but it sadly does not work as a novel.

Still, I cannot imagine anyone else describing space with the same beautiful control exercised by Clarke. He is capable of capturing both the expansiveness and human frailty at the same time, and depicting complex technologies with clarity. As ever, reading Clarke is fun and joyful. But with this novel, it is also a little trying. We have neither characters we stay with throughout nor a driven plot. It feels as directionless as a floating astronaut. Perhaps it should have stayed a film.

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