As part of our 2018 round-up, Andrew Wallace embarks on an odyssey of words …
An Alien Optic
2001: An Odyssey in Words, ed. Ian Whates & Tom Hunter (NewCon Press 2018)
2001: An Odyssey in Words was published to commemorate the centenary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s birth. It includes new stories and features of exactly 2001 words by twenty-seven leading SF writers, all winners or shortlistees of the Clarke Award. At a scant 2001 words, the easy gag would be to say if you don’t like the piece you’re reading, there will be another one along soon. But really, this is an extraordinary collection, and there isn’t a duff piece in the lot.
As the title suggests, many contributions riff on aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick’s classic adaptation of Clarke’s work. The truth is, this kind of reinvention goes right back to the film’s inception. Clarke and Kubrick spent four years cultivating the kernel Clarke supplied with his 1951 short story ‘The Sentinel.’ One aspect of the preparation was the 2001: A Space Odyssey novel. Written alongside the film’s development, the novel takes several different narrative directions from the screenplay. For example, Kubrick couldn’t get the rings of Saturn exactly as he wanted them, so opted for Jupiter instead, which is why Discovery heads for the ringed planet in the book and the gas giant in the film.
2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, a year before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. However, the peace and love generation found these greater visions impossible to sustain, bequeathing to the twenty-first century not a moon base nor mission to Jupiter, but the kind of fascistic gangster capitalism Clarke and his co-author Gentry Lee skewered so accurately in the later Rama novels. 2001: A Space Odyssey, then, is very much an alternative history, although in the years leading up to it the date held a talismanic significance; maybe we wouldn’t get a moon base, but… something would happen.
2001: An Odyssey in Words is a good indicator of why the film retains such a hold on our collective imagination despite being so wide off the mark historically, and so narratively unconventional (what the hell are those monkeys doing? When is someone going to actually say something? Why am I more upset about the computer dying than the astronauts?). For all its strangeness, however, the film remains so familiar that its eerie visions can be successfully reimagined throughout An Odyssey in Words in a variety of inspired ways.
What, for example, did the Star Child whose rebirth ends the movie do next? What would the early thought processes of an AI like HAL 9000 look and sound like? If humans intervene in an alien species’ development a la the famous monolith, would the results be benign? You can probably guess the answer to that last question, and there is a suitable bleakness to some of the conclusions in this collection. We learn, for example, that a prototype of HAL did malfunction before the Discovery mission but that the error was covered up, for all-too-human reasons; that if aliens do visit, we will misunderstand them with catastrophic results; that a future religion may well grow up around the monoliths, albeit human-manufactured ones based on those in the film.
Other stories explore the impressionistic impact of 2001 on our cultural DNA in more subversive ways: a Trumpish patriarch at the end of his days awaits a Bowman-like epiphany, but it doesn’t go quite as he expects, while another story blends near-future space exploration, nascent artificial intelligence and the death of David Bowie, whose Space Oddity was probably the earliest riff on the movie of all.
Indeed, time and its manipulation is a key theme in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The unknown aliens either operate on millennial timescales or can control time itself, although even Bowman’s final metamorphosis doesn’t make clear which of these abilities applies. The stories in the collection utilise this theme, as an experimental AI (probably HAL again) models the effects of establishing a burger franchise at the dawn of time, a table holds within its molecular indices a memory the aging protagonist is desperate to retrieve, and a hacker finds the identity of the ancient monk employing him may be more familiar than he thought.
While 2001: A Space Odyssey is the launch pad, so to speak, some stories in 2001: An Odyssey in Words respond to other classic Arthur C. Clarke works, such as Rendezvous With Rama. There is, for example, a riposte to an observation about the effects of zero gravity on the female anatomy in the novel that is all the more gratifying for being made with love; while one of the critical pieces included in the collection analyses how quotable Sir Arthur is, from the terrifying last line of ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ to that famous Third Law.
Given that Sir Arthur didn’t have children of his own, it’s extraordinary that he wrote one of the great books about parenthood: Childhood’s End. Whether it’s to the Galactic Overmind or just down the road, your kids always leave, one way or another. Two stories in the collection come at that novel from different angles: one is from the point of view of the children, altered not by alien intervention but human agency, while the other is a ‘missing chapter’ from the original novel itself.
The 2001 film and Sir Arthur’s other stories depict a human response to the unknowable, and 2001: An Odyssey in Words explores that quintessentially science fictional conundrum further. The result is a vision that has been refracted multiple times, first through the vitality of Sir Arthur’s own work, and then through the imaginations of the many people he has inspired.
Andrew Wallace is the author of the far-future SF thrillers Sons of the Crystal Mind and The Outer Spheres, and his new novella Celebrity Werewolf is out soon. He also blogs about SFF and the creative process.