2061: Odyssey Three, by Arthur C. Clarke
Whew, I’m catching up on books and happenings. I actually finished 2061: Odyssey Three at least a month and a half ago, but things have been so flat-out busy (between work and renovations) that I haven’t gotten a chance to sit down and write this post that I owed myself. Vacation time now, so I’m starting to get to these things.
As you may have read, I’ve been through both 2001 and 2010 now. Both were hard to cover as I had to go through and compare the movie versions of each to be complete. No movie this time, just Arthur C. Clarke’s manuscript to talk about.
51 years after the events of 2010, a lot has changed on Earth, both politically and technologically. For an example of one, the black population of Africa has long since rebelled and formed the USSA (the United States of Southern Africa). The economy of that nation was built almost entirely on the value of diamonds, now valued for much more than just their luster. For an example of the second, a trip to the planets orbiting the star Lucifer (formerly the moons of the now-ignited planet Jupiter) on business is now pretty much as routine as a trip to the moon used to be.
Some things never change, however. Dr. Heywood Floyd is still alive, and orbiting the earth permanently at the age of 103. Following the events of 2010, he was injured while returning to Earth. As a result of his rehabilitation in orbit, he was never able to repatriate to Earth physiologically and has lived the bulk of his life orbiting the planet where he was born. Through all of the defining moments in human history he has participated in, he remains somewhat grounded and cynical in his approach to aging and fame. He has mostly been denied a normal life with family he could have lived had he not pursued historical events out of duty. Not much stirs him from his routine with his small set of friends in orbit, but one day he gets a call he can’t ignore: a rich Chinese shipping mogul wants him to be a passenger on the shakedown mission for a new class of passenger cruiser. It’s not the ship that excites him, it’s the destination: the Universe is scheduled to touch down on Halley’s Comet during its next pass by the Sun. How could you say no to the opportunity to set foot on one of the most famous and romantic of celestial bodies?
In parallel events, the human race remains fascinated by the forbidden allure of Europa. When Earth gained its sister sun at the end of 2010, the last message to come from its vicinity stated matter-of-factly that Europa was strictly off-limits to the human race. Mankind has been happily colonizing and terra-forming other former Jovian satellites (most notably Ganymede), but always keeping as close a watch as they could on the seemingly always cloud-covered Europa. They don’t know much: mankind has found out that there are small pockets of land now exposed to the primitive Europan atmosphere; only one face of the planet ever faces Lucifer, leaving one hemisphere in permanent heated daylight and the other in the perpetual cold of night. Life on Europa, as far as mankind has been able to survey, seems to be clustering mostly near the break between day and night, where weather conditions are much more moderate. Historically, that spot is not too far away from where the Chinese ship Tsien was destroyed by primitive Europan life-forms in 2010.
Besides the obvious excitement of confirmed life off of Earth in the solar system, Europa has two other very interesting features: one is a giant wall at the point where Europan life is starting to rise (assumed to be a now famous monolith resting on its side), and the other is a massive mountain that has appeared on the night side, jutting up from the permanently frozen ocean. Mount Zeus (as it is named) as a mountain in and of itself would not be too remarkable, but this mountain has the distinct and unnatural shape of an irregular pyramid. Attempts to find out more about either feature on the planet have yielded mixed results, as any probe sent into Europa’s atmosphere only makes it so far before being destroyed by some unknown force (but assumed to be the monolith), and the permanent cloud cover means that no one has been able to get a good look at the features. So, scientists have had to be satisfied with a perpetual stalemate and the study of other less interesting but at least equally active planets, such as the volcanic Io.
One day, luck shines on mankind – quite literally. A storm from the light side of Europa causes enough disturbance to lift the clouds very briefly from Mount Zeus. At just that moment, a probe that has been orbiting Europa for 15 years is in just the right position to take a side-profile picture of Mount Zeus against the sun. A one in a million chance. Actually, one in 71934 – the pictures are taken by the probe on that orbit count. Rolf van der Berg, scientist on Ganymede, studies the photos and comes to a startling conclusion about the makeup of Mount Zeus. It’s crazy enough that he doesn’t want to tell anyone, except his uncle. His uncle finds some corroborating research lending credence to his nephew’s theory, and through a series of events van der Berg gets invited to join the crew of Galaxy, an older sister-ship to Universe. Galaxy will be doing a close scientific fly-by of Europa during its mission, and it will be van der Berg’s best chance to get a closer look at the massive feature he’s interested in. Out of pure coincidence, Heywood Floyd’s grandson Chris is an officer on Galaxy.
The two threads in the story wind their ways out independently for a time, as Universe makes successful landfall on Halley, and Galaxy goes about her mission in the Lucifer system. Through a series of drastic events, Galaxy is forced to make a landing on Europa and is stranded floating around in the seas. Thankfully, whatever force has been blowing away Earth’s probes for the last 50 years decides to cut them a break, and they survive. Universe cuts her visit to Halley short in order to go to the rescue of the crew of her sister ship. The timeline is advanced by Dr. Floyd who is concerned about his grandson and wants to get there as fast as he can. While waiting for rescue, the crew of Galaxy take the opportunity to visit the two most interesting features of Europa using their shuttle. van der Berg has his theory of Mount Zeus confirmed, and Chris Floyd has an interesting visit with some old friends while visiting in the great wall.
Eventually, the two story lines converge very gently as the rescue of the crew of Galaxy is kind of glossed over, and everyone goes home. van der Berg writes a groundbreaking article for Nature, and he, Chris and Dr. Floyd become lifelong friends. Dr. Floyd finally gets the family closeness he’s been missing his whole life by becoming close with his grandson. Everyone lives happily ever after.
If the end of that description sounds kind of bland, it’s intentional. I enjoyed reading this book, but not as much as either 2001 or 2010. There seemed to be a lot of build-up to kind of nothing. The cruise to Halley really served no purpose, and they found some interesting stuff there that never really developed into anything (in this book or 3001, the Final Odyssey). The whole crew of Universe and their conflicts all seemed kind of pointless. Think of it as Titanic in space with random old people instead of any shred of youthful vigor, and no real disaster. I hated Titanic, but at least those annoying love-birds got half-offed, hah! When Galaxy went down on Europa and Universe found out the news, the reaction was not a frantic human challenge like the ones presented in 2001 and 2010, but more “I say, our compatriots are inconvenienced, shall we endeavor to rescue them at top priority? Jolly good!” It all just felt like a fun romp – that’s the right word, romp – for the characters. The eventual rescue of the stranded crew was only halfheartedly described in a “everyone was safe” kind of way.
The book really lacked the sense of wonder and the enormous revelations of its prequels. The otherwordly mystery of the monolith and its creators and inhabitants was kind of knocked down a notch in this story, and I was really left with a sense of disappointment at something more interesting not happening. The overarching theme of the monoliths and their lives and purposes was not advanced at all, it was just kind of left as a secondary afterthought to these bums romping around in a on a fun cruise ship. Even the reason for the central conflict in the book was a bit of a let-down and had me thinking “really??” I haven’t given it away here, so you can judge for yourself.
All in all, 2061 was an enjoyable book to read, but it did not have the suspense, sense of wonder or human challenge of its predecessors. It felt like something was missing. If 2001 and 2010 did not exist, 2061 probably would have seemed like a lot more interesting and fun, but their establishment of canon really hurt 2061’s chances without more to offer. I’d recommend reading 2061 if you are working your way through the Odysseys and Clarke’s works so that you can have as complete a picture of Clarke’s vision as you can, but 2001 and 2010 really are the two best in this series. (Subtle note: yeah, I have read 3001 now, too.)