Arthur C. Clarke – 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: Final Odyssey

Titles: 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001; Final Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Voyager, 1997 (Originally published 1987) [Odyssey Three]; Voyager, 1997 [Final Odyssey]

I read 2001 and 2010 last year and despite enjoying both books, I didn’t get around to the third and fourth in the series until just recently, due to a slew of library books cascading off the shelves and into my home.

Unfortunately, both 2061 and 3001 turned out to be hugely disappointing. They were still both interesting enough to warrant at least one read, and they did (kind of) conclude the overarching story lines, but I don’t think I’d ever return to them.

2061: Odyssey Three

The third installment in the Odyssey series once again involves Doctor Heywood Floyd, one of the two original astronauts, along with Frank Poole, from the original book/movie’s Discovery mission. Now aged 103 and something of a celebrity in this age, he is asked to join the crew of Universe, a luxury spacecraft on its way to the surface of Halley’s Comet. Elsewhere in the solar system, an Afrikaner scientist called Van der Berg concerns himself with the mysterious Mount Zeus on the surface of Europa – he is primarily concerned with the substances that make up this strange mountain. Van der Berg arranges a place for himself on the ship Galaxy, which is about to embark on a flyby of Europa.

These are the main threads of the narrative, but there are also suggestions of political unrest on Earth – specifically concerning South Africa and the country’s diamond mines – as well as a largely pointless sub-plot about Heywood’s grandson, Chris. There are also some sections later in the book concerning the now-flourishing lives of the native Europans and the ultimate fate of humanity.

Unfortunately though, it felt as though this book just opened more messy narratives to which there were no conclusive or satisfying endings. We are eventually reintroduced to the now-incorporeal David Bowman and Hal 9000, who both now live within the gargantuan monolith lining the equator of Europa, but their appearances are relatively brief. The African diamond mine subplot is introduced and then quickly forgotten – unless you count the major reveal near the end of the novel, which to me seemed only to be tangentially related.

The book did not come close to 2001 or 2010 for me. The first two novels of the series were highly engaging and thought-provoking, but 2061 appears to just be an attempt by Clarke to finish of some of the open-ended plots from the first books. At worst, it feels like some kind of bonus content – readers get some more time with Floyd, Hal and Bowman, but it doesn’t provide a lot more than that. The entire section dealing with the celebrity space-cruise to Halley’s Comet just seemed superfluous – it certainly didn’t have the urgency of the previous voyages to Saturn (in the original book), Jupiter or Europa. I’d recommend reading this if you’re interested in finishing the whole series, but it was a huge disappointment for me, considering how much I enjoyed the first two stories.

 

3001: Final Odyssey

The fourth and final book in the series takes place a thousand years after the events of the first novel. Frank Poole, the astronaut murdered by HAL 9000 in the original novel and movie, is found by a the pilot of the ship Goliath as it scours space for comets. Poole, floating through the Kuiper belt past Neptune, has been preserved by the rapid freezing which occurred when he was jettisoned from Discovery in 2001.

The reader is then quickly introduced to the world of 3001, through the eyes of Poole, the relic of the 20th century. Humanity has constructed space elevators around the Earth’s equator and can now make use of futuristic technology such as vacuum drives, “BrainCaps” (an advanced human brain/computer interface system), and, inexplicably, dinosaur servants.

Heywood Floyd is nowhere to be seen in this novel, which is a shame, but with that said, I think I would probably have been more irritated if Clarke had somehow figured out (!) some way of making the human Floyd a 1000-year-odd main character here. Instead, we have to live through Poole, who at this point in the series almost seems nothing more than a minor character from the last millennium. As a result, having to read about the Earth and space of the year 3001 through Poole feels like a very cheap swerve. As well as this, Clarke’s descriptions of the future, which are very occasionally interesting and engaging, are mostly dull and sometimes seem to border on parody. I still can’t make sense of why humanity of the future would manufacture dinosaur servants…

Eventually, after the vast majority of the novel concerning human’s command of astounding space-technology is more or less concluded, Poole makes his way to Europa to contact his old travelling companion David Bowman. Bowman tells Poole about the species responsible for the monoliths, and their possible ability to wipe out humanity, based on their observations of the last however-million years.

A very quick reaction by humanity to this potentially catastrophic news paves the way for the end of the book and the end of the series as a whole. It was hugely disappointing. In 2001, the monoliths were these colossal, barely-imaginable artifacts, suggesting more than they could possibly answer – now, through the narratives of both 2061 and 3001, they are seemingly reduced to nothing but large, black symbols. The climax of the entire series falls completely flat in my view, and almost reduces a number of themes and plot lines from the previous books to mere trifles.

This was a massive shame for me. I can only think that Clarke wanted to put a definite end to his series, despite the fact that it is objectively weaker than the previous installments.

 

Thoughts on the Odyssey Series

One major point brought to our attention by Clarke in the prefaces of each of the novels is that he considers each of the stories to be taking place in their own parallel universe. This was understandable in the space and time between 2001 and 2010, given that the wildly popular film changed Discovery’s ultimate goal from Saturn to Jupiter [the book and the film were being completed simultaneously, so there were clear differences between the different media]. Unfortunately, as the book series continued, the “parallel universe” caveat just felt lazy and insulting to the previous stories.

For example, at the end of 2061, a version of Heywood Floyd made from pure consciousness joins Bowman and Hal to make a trinity of ethereal beings who study and observe humanity and the monoliths… but in 3001, Floyd is not mentioned at all. More than that, he is simply not part of the trio within the monolith any more. Similarly, an epilogue to 2010, set in the year 20,001, seems to have been completely discounted by Clarke in order to advance the story in 2061 and 3001.

Another minor gripe of mine in this series concerns Clarke’s predilection to re-use entire passages of text from the previous publications. These are often the best parts of the later books, but having read all four novels in the space of six months or so, I quickly lost patience. Apparently the same body of text can be lifted word-for-word from earlier books, but entire characters and plot developments can be discarded in favour of a new direction?

Ultimately I would say that I did enjoy this series… but only just. I was so disappointed by the last two novels but the strengths of the first two just about outweigh them. I would hesitate to say that 2061 and 3001 are bad novels, as Clarke is generally an entertaining and engaging writer, but the plot direction and new developments of the later novels make it hard to have that same level of enjoyment.

On a final note, some of the themes and ideas present in the Odyssey series can be found in two of Clarke’s earlier short stories – The Sentinel, written in 1951, and Encounter in the Dawn, written in 1953, deal with the discovery of a strange alien artifact and the “first humans” respectively. They are very good additions to the Odyssey canon and you might find that these two stories, along with 2001 and 2010, are enough to give you an overall, and enjoyable, picture of the Space Odyssey series.

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