Tag Archives: Science Fiction & Fantasy

2001: A Space Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 2001: A Space Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 1 of the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 2001 A Space Odyssey

This read of 2001: A Space Odyssey was my first, and I last watched the film over thirty years ago. The edition in hand is the 1999 “millennium” pocket paperback, with retrospective front matter by Arthur C. Clarke discussing the authorial process. In light of that introduction, I’m a little surprised that Stanley Kubrick didn’t get a byline on the novel as a co-author. The book was plotted as a stage of the development of the screenplay, drawing on earlier stories by Clarke and incorporating Kubrick’s ideas and ambitions for the film. Then the two parallel media products were completed in dialog with each other. In the end there are some significant differences between the novel and the movie, but the book certainly exposes and clarifies many of the ideas behind the film.

Clarke wrote “hard” sf, with an effort to maintain scientific and social plausibility. So, with the passage of time, his projected world of “2001” now set a generation in our past has come to represent an alternate history, and it’s one that makes me nostalgic for turns not taken in our cultural and technological paths. Clarke’s 2001 has a manned moon base, and in general space exploration has progressed in preference to the technologies of simulation and social control that have come to dominate our 21st century to this point. He imagined a better diversion of the military-industrial complex into the work of peaceful extraterrestrial inquiry than we have been able to achieve. His geopolitical scenario failed to foresee the collapse of the USSR, but credibly made the USA and USSR allies in tension with China, as the USA and Russia arguably were in our actual 2001.

It was interesting to reflect that one of the conceits of this novel has come to dominate a lot of 21st-century sf: a “first contact” with extra-solar intelligence that is mediated by some sort of archaeological remains. I see this trope in a lot of recent space opera, including MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake, Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books, the Expanse series, and even Wells’ Murderbot books. I wonder if my library catalog needs an “exo-archaeology” tag to tie these works together.

Another notable feature was the epistemological feint in Chapter 15, where . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . This passage stands as a foil for the protagonist’s later alien-curated experiences in the final section of the book, and together they offer a sfnal interrogation of human subjectivity that is not quite phildickian but still savory.

2001 has very short chapters; I usually read three or more in a sitting. These in turn are grouped into six parts: Primeval Night, TMA-1, Between Planets, Abyss, The Moons of Saturn, and Through the Star Gate. The structure suggests an initiatory ascent according to the symbol systems of modern Hermetic Kabbala: Malkuth/Earth (Neophyte), path of tav to Yesod/Luna (Zelator), path of samekh to Tiphareth/Sol (Adeptus Minor), path of gimel and Da’ath (Babe of the Abyss), Binah/Saturn (Magister Templi), and Chokmah/Zodiac (Magus). The initiand in this case would be humanity as a whole, and the viewpoint characters differ from section to section in the first half of the book.

The relationship of Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 to Homer’s original Odyssey is not fully obvious. It seems to have been widely understood merely in the sense of episodic adventure over a journey, but my reading of the novel reassured me that the more specific sense of a homeward journey was intended, and this gist is consistent with the mystical progression that I inferred from the divisions of the text. . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I plan to read further in Clarke’s “Odyssey Sequence,” and I am curious to see whether the esoteric themes are perpetuated in the later books.

Exit Strategy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Exit Strategy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 4 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Exit Strategy

“Possibly I was overthinking this. I do that; it’s the anxiety that comes with being a part-organic murderbot. The upside was paranoid attention to detail. The downside was also paranoid attention to detail.” (14)

As I had hoped, the fourth Murderbot Diaries volume did break the hardening pattern of the previous books. It is not a matter of the SecUnit adopting a new “family” and protecting them from malefactors. Instead, it concerns Murderbot taking up unresolved relations with humans it knew before, and trying to address a crisis it knows itself to have helped create in the first place.

Although it was a little bit longer than the earlier books, it read even faster, and I basically tore through this one in a single, lightly-interrupted sitting.

Rogue Protocol

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Rogue Protocol [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, part of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Rogue Protocol

In this installment of its diaries, Murderbot continues to provide evidence that its vocation isn’t really dependent on its governor module. This third repetition of the series’ charm seems to demonstrate the entrenchment of a formula, except for the pivot promised in the penultimate paragraph (pardon the passel of plosives). As at the finish of the previous book, the “conclusion” to this one implied a discovery by Murderbot not yet shared with the reader–and the earlier one has been deferred as well. Call it a protracted epistemological cliffhanger?

Of the three books so far, this slightly longer one had pacing most like a Hollywood movie, complete with a bunch of explosions, double-crosses, and a heroic sacrifice. But of course it relied on the characterization and setting established in the previous volumes, and I can hardly imagine how most of this would be communicated cinematically, since the multiplex inhuman sensorium of the construct is one of the important ingredients of the narrative.

I’m still enjoying the series, but it needs to break form in the next book to keep my attention.

Artificial Condition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Artificial Condition [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 2 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells Artificial Condition

This second of the Murderbot Diaries is about the same length and scope as the first, continuing events directly from before. A significant new non-human character is introduced, but this ART (“Asshole Research Transport”) doesn’t seem to be an abiding presence for the next volume. Artificial Condition completes a “contract”-sized plot arc, but the murderbot–who assumes the name Eden in this segment–has entered into a character arc that clearly spans the whole series and reaches no point of resolution here.

The story continues to be fast-moving and entertaining. I read each of the first two novellas in two sittings, and I would probably binge my way through all six books (published so far) in under a week if my pace weren’t moderated by the process of requesting and borrowing them from the public library individually. I assume that there will be an omnibus edition once Wells has finished the series.

All Systems Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews All Systems Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Martha Wells, book 1 of the Murderbot Diaries series.

Wells All Systems Red

This first of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is a fast and engaging read. The tale is told by the eponymous “construct”: a security unit android, something like a synthetic rent-a-cop for exoplanet missions. Murderbot has hacked its own governor module and become autonomous, and is mostly interested in consuming the Sanctuary Moon soap opera rather than doing assigned tasks. When a crisis arises to threaten the entire expedition, the self-hacked SecUnit exhibits surprising competencies while trying to conceal its liberated condition.

The best part of this book is the narrating voice of Murderbot, who is profoundly uncomfortable with social interaction, although fascinated by it, as demonstrated by the chosen diet of entertainment programming. Despite some difficulties, the humans of the crew have a much easier time treating Murderbot as a person than Murderbot does in behaving like one. A human describes Murderbot as “shy,” but that radically understates the difference of the construct’s perspective and alienation from human interaction. For all that, Murderbot’s professed laziness and apathy are endearing, as is its resentment for the incompetence of the avaricious corporation that has leased it to the crew.

I read this longish novella in two sittings. It sets up a longer series, but fully completes a plot arc within this first story.

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.

Masters of Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus review Masters of Atlantis [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Portis.

Portis Masters of Atlantis

In his fourth novel, Charles Portis offers the compound biography of a fictional 20th-century initiatory order that arrived in the US following World War I and experienced ups and downs at the hands of its various aspirants and adepts. The author clearly intends the reader to be amused by the eccentric partisans of the Gnomon Society, yet his tone is largely sympathetic. I originally read this book at the recommendation of the head of one of the world’s most venerable esoteric bodies, and Portis does indeed give a far more accurate picture of the ambitions and concerns of most of today’s Rosicrucians and occult Freemasons than any wide-eyed Dan-Brownishness can provide. Shelve it between Foucault’s Pendulum and the Stonecutters episode of The Simpsons.

Len Deighton was not an author of spy thrillers but of horror, because all Cold War–era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation to supply a frisson of terror that raises the stakes of the games their otherwise mundane characters play. And in contrast, H. P. Lovecraft was not an author of horror stories—or not entirely—for many of his preoccupations, from the obsessive collection of secret information to the infiltration and mapping of territories controlled by the alien, are at heart the obsessions of the thriller writer.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Stross The Atrocity Archives spy trillers existential horror nuclear annihilation frisson terror secret information mapping territories alien heart writer