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and now, for something completely different.

3001: The Final Odyssey – book review

3001: The Final Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

You may or may not have seen me work my way through 2001 (book and film), 2010 (book and film) and 2061.  Well, I have to finish the series off, so here it is!  3001: The Final Odyssey is the last installment Arthur C. Clarke wrote in his famous series about mysterious life-altering monoliths.  3001 is the only book in the series to take place outside the lifespan of one person, starting 1000 years after the events of the first book, where a monolith was first discovered on the moon and Dr. Heywood Floyd begins his journeys of discovery (no pun intended).

Things are predictably quite a bit different in 3001 than they were when we last left the Solar System behind.  The human race has reduced in number, but it has also spread itself out in the solar system.  After successfully colonizing numerous bodies in the solar system, humanity is busily preparing others for similar landings.  To do this, you need a lot of one very important ingredient:  water.  With the advent of new drives in spacecraft, it is easier to get around than ever before, and the popular way to get water has become harvesting comets.  One vessel in particular – the Goliath – is undertaking just such a mission in the Kuiper belt (outside the orbit of Neptune), when its Captain Chandler is directed by Earth to investigate a very faint, very small object.  It turns out to be the frozen body of a human astronaut, spinning through space on a course that would inevitably have taken it outside the solar system.  It is the body of Frank Poole, an astronaut on the ill-fated Discovery who in 2001 was sent spiraling into space by a neurotic HAL-9000, and who should have been lost forever.  Just his luck.

Modern medical technology in 3001 means that Frank Poole, frozen to near absolute zero in 2001, is not a lost cause.  He is revived, and is understandably shocked at finding out where he has landed.  His recovery and rehabilitation take place in a giant tower – one of four around the world – extending from the surface of the Earth up into space.  Space elevators, which have made extensive use of diamond to be created.  His companion and friend during this process is Dr. Indra Wallace, an expert on 20th and 21st century Earth (commonly thought of as a relatively dark time in human history).  She guides him through the many strange wonders of the 31st century.  Braincaps – brain to computer interfaces that make learning and communicating infinitely more efficient and convenient; full immersion simulations of dangerous pursuits that allow you to experience the impossible in perfect safety;  genetically engineered dinosaur assistants and custodians;  a penal system that punishes perpetrators by suppressing their memories and having them serve others unquestioningly as valets for their prison terms; among other things.

The existence of Frank Poole is met by humanity at large as a bit of an exciting event, a window into the past, and as it turns out directly into one of the most momentous events of the human race. Frank is constantly invited to gatherings, events, and even random invitations into personal relationships.  As a fairly straightforward guy, he takes it all in stride, but it does begin to wear on him.  With the help of Dr. Indra, he finally returns to the surface of Earth after watching it from telescopes in orbit.  He even finds that to be a somber homecoming:  like Dr. Floyd in 2061, Frank finds that his recovery in reduced gravity means that he can never walk on the planet he was born on again.

With a sinking feeling as he eeks out his existence around Africa Tower (the name of the tower in which he lives), he comes to a decision when searching for what to do next:  he decides to return to Jupiter.  His handlers agree this will be good for him, so he re-joins the crew that saved him aboard Goliath.  After a pit stop at Venus, he finds himself landing on Ganymede at a settlement called Anubis.  He ends up staying at the best room in the only hotel in town, which is called the “Bowman Suite,” after his former colleague.  With his memories of Discovery still seeming so recent to him, it’s a strange place to be.

One thing hasn’t changed in 3001, and that’s the mystery of Europa.  Since the contact events of 2061, nobody has been able to get close to Europa again.  While humanity has been able to watch some species develop and start to emerge from the seas using observation satellites from orbit, they have not been able to land, again.  While there have been numerous reported sightings of an apparition identified later by the viewers to be David Bowman, there has been no contact from the planet.  The monolith is still there, presumably watching over its experiment with life.

Poole meets up with a scientist named Dr. Theodore Khan on Ganymede, and has some lengthy philosophical debates with him.  Eventually, Khan proposes an adventure to Poole.  He believes the pattern of Bowman sightings are not falsified, and that they form a pattern.  The pattern leads him to believe that Bowman still survives on Europa in some form or another.  While no one in the past thousand years has been able to contact Bowman, Khan believes that Poole could be the only person that could possibly get a response from Bowman.  Intrigued, Poole decides to discuss the matter with Captain Chandler, who agrees to help him out.  They figure the worst that could happen (based on experiences of the past thousand years) is that Poole tries to fly a ship down to land, and he just gets bumped back out into space.

With Europa being a no-fly zone, Poole fakes a malfunction and goes in for the kill, so to speak.  For the first time in nearly a thousand years, the human race is permitted to land on Europa.  Poole heads straight for the great monolith still lying on its side, and runs into some old friends.  In doing so, he learns something of what the monoliths are, and some activities that are happening in the larger universe outside of human knowledge.  Basically, it doesn’t look good for the human race.  With some scrambling and some help from his friends, however, potential disaster is eventually averted.  I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out what happens to Frank Poole in the end!

As I mentioned in my review of 2061, it’s pretty clear that 2001 and 2010 are the two best books in this series.  I definitely liked 3001 better than 2061, but it was still definitely weaker than the first two books in the series.  Like 2061, 3001 has kind of an abrupt ending.  One minute life is on the brink, and the next moment everyone goes home for tea to live happily ever after.  That is, until you read the epilogue, which can really be summed up as “or will they?!”  The major threat in the book is overall fairly weak as compared to the interesting things that Poole encounters in the 31st century.  In fact, the major threat weakened the mystery and omnipotence of the monoliths even more than did 2061.  The story would have been much better served by instead of imposing a massive (yet weak) threat on humanity, restoring and advancing the capabilities and understanding of the monoliths as something truly wonderful.  I think back to famous lines from 2010; when Floyd asks Bowman what’s going to happen, Bowman only responds “Something wonderful…”  In 3001, that sense of wonder is lost, and the reality of the monoliths exposed seems to go against everything established in 2001 and 2010; it seems frankly like a cheap trick.

Definitely read this book, it’s a fun read, but don’t pay too much attention to the surrounding folklore of the monoliths.  Pay attention instead to the wonder that Frank Poole experiences as he explores a galaxy advanced 1000 years beyond his own time.  If there is any sense of wonder and exploration in this book, it is through Frank Poole.  Overall, 3001 is definitely better than 2061, but still falls short on what 2001 and 2010 accomplished so beautifully.

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