In a never-ending quest for books that will challenge middle school readers who read above grade-level, there’s a difficult balancing act to achieve between finding something that is in fact challenging but that won’t overwhelm young minds. We’re not here seeking bland pablum, after all, but something that will stimulate and overawe without overwhelming. Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, may just fit that bill.
Most of us are probably far more familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s stunning 1968 film adaptation, a film that was and is perhaps among the most-influential films ever made (I’m not one for hyperbole, so, when I use it, it’s kind of a big deal). However, whereas so many of the film’s cultural touchstones and references derive from the conflict between astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole and the HAL 9000, the autonomous computer that tries to kill Bowman and the other astronauts on board, the book really only devotes about 25 pages to HAL’s conspiracy against the astronauts — and does so in an almost-humane, compassionate way, explaining that the computer’s attempt to hijack the mission was based on the computer’s urgent desire to fulfill the mission. As with any book-to-film adaptation, there are bound to be differences. This is one case in which the book’s more nuanced presentation of HAL as a character is in many ways superior to the film, which does not delve very far into HAL’s “subconscious” motivations or motives.
The book itself starts with an extended meditation on a prehistoric species of humans, most likely Australopithecines, barely scraping an existence from a desolate environment. Their leader, dubbed Moon-watcher, discovers that now-iconic mysterious black monolith that manipulates him and others in an attempt to stimulate mental development. Indeed, Moon-walker starts to make discoveries, such as using a stone to kill a wart-hog — marking the first step towards developing the technology that would vault his human descendants towards space exploration.
From there, the novel jumps forward to 1999. By this point, humans have colonized the moon, and the discovery of another monolith there inspires the space-mission that becomes the focus of the rest of the novel. It’s a fascinating, at-times bewildering read in which the fevered dreams of space-exploration that flowered in the 1960s dance across the page. Clarke’s prose is frequently florid, abounding in long, complex sentences and bursts of poetic description. As the space-ship Discovery traverses the solar system, Clarke blends a sense of awe with clear-eyed descriptions of fantastic technological developments, some of which are still pie-in-the-sky but others that have become all too real. Young readers will likely be fascinated by both sets of predictions, and it’s possible that they’ll be prompted to re-explore their relationships to technology.
The conflict between HAL and Bowman comes to a head when the sentient computer deceives Poole into replacing an apparently defective communications antenna and kills him by smashing his extravehicular pod into him. From there, HAL tries to kill Bowman by opening the airlocks, which would suck Bowman into outer space. Bowman manages to survive and then disables HAL, allowing him to continue the mission to Saturn’s moon Iapetus, where scientists assume they’ll find the civilization or creatures that planted the monolith on the moon (there is no mention of the monolith that Moon-walker and the Australopithecines had found millions of years before; perhaps, it was moved from Earth to the moon for safekeeping).
Having disabled HAL’s sentient functions, Bowman travels to Iapetus. His journey is described in exquisite, beautiful prose, showing just how much we’d learned about Jupiter and Saturn and just how well Clarke can write. I’ll leave off any further summary of plot there. Suffice it to say that what Bowman discovers on Iapetus is by turns mind-boggling, amazing, and, yes, confusing. If there’s a flaw to the book, it’s that it concludes somewhat anticlimactically. Clarke does leave quite a bit to the reader’s imagination and ability to infer, but he does provide more closure in the sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two. We’ll have to take a look at that one in due time. For now, consider this one to be a great book any reader interested in, of course, outer space, science fiction, and dystopian literature.
Approximate MAP Reading Score: 225 and above.