Tag Archives: Science Fiction – Space Opera

3001: The Final Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 3001: The Final Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 4 in the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 3001 The Final Odyssey

This “Final Odyssey” is the last and least of the three novels that Arthur C. Clarke wrote to extend the ideas introduced in 2001. The setup is clever enough: Frank Poole, a Discovery expedition member murdered by HAL 9000 back in 2001, is recovered in his excursion pod still exiting the Solar System, and he is restored to life by fourth-millennium super-science. Much of the book–the more interesting parts, really–concerns his difficulties and successes adapting to a “braincapped” posthuman society after a thousand years out of circulation.

At one point Poole’s birthdate is specifically given as 1996 (199), which would have made him only five years old when crewing the Discovery. This sort of retroactive discontinuity is common to the Odyssey Sequence, which Clarke called “variations on the same theme … not necessarily happening in the same universe” (261, quoting 2061).

The interactions with Poole’s previously monolith-integrated colleagues were a little disappointing. In particular, Heywood Floyd went missing altogether, while Dave Bowman and HAL were collapsed into a character called “Halman.” This element of the plot is focused on a threat posed by the monolith network, and defeated by human ingenuity. Clarke later rather sadly noted that his narrative resolution here was notably similar to that already used in the film Independence Day, which “contains every known science-fiction cliche since Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1903)” (253).

There is a certain irony in the book’s extensive criticisms of religion and metaphysical thought generally, while the Prologue and Epilogue construe the “Firstborn” creators of the monoliths as basically divine entities who may yet judge and sentence humanity. Perhaps inspired by the then-recent (in 1997) Aum Shinrikyo attacks, Clarke makes religiously-motivated terrorism responsible for biological and informational attacks that lead to greater global cooperation among governments in the early twenty-first century (216).

The book includes two pieces of interesting end matter. The Sources and Acknowledgements provide a chapter-by-chapter review of scientific justifications for the speculative technological elements of the novel and references to relevant current events. The Valediction is an author’s retrospective on the full Odyssey Sequence. In it, Clarke protests too much perhaps that “it’s all [his] own fiction” (262), disclaiming any co-authorship for the four books, but thus downplaying the significant contributions of Stanley Kubrick to the development of 2001 from “The Sentinel” and the features of the cinematic narrative later retrofitted to the not-sequels.

2061: Odyssey Three

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 2061: Odyssey Three [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 3 of the Space Odyssey series.

Clark 2061 Odyssey Three

In his foreword to 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke wrote that scientific advances kept this book from being a “linear sequel” having “perfect consistency” with the previous volume, let alone the original 2001 (vii). Unlike the case of the first book, though, he did not allow the changes in the cinematic version of 2010 to usurp the narrative of this novel. The fate of the Chinese exploratory vessel Tsien, so important to the second book and omitted from the film, is still a fact in this third book.

Despite teasing out at great length a plot reveal regarding Mount Zeus on the Jovian moon Europa, this book does not have the sort of cosmic “punch” of either of the two previous volumes. It is a pleasant read, though. By 2061, interplanetary travel is on its way to being routinized as a luxury product, and we are treated to centenarian Floyd hobnobbing with the cultural elite.

The story stirs in some normalized homosexuality in the persons of Floyd’s longtime friends George and Jerry. And there is a curious little thumbnail history of gay military conquerors in Chapter 40 “Monsters from Earth.” By Clarke’s standards, he was really tipping his hand here, but I can’t help noticing that Delany had already written Flight from Nevèrÿon a couple of years earlier.

Clarke thought the Beatles would descend into obscurity by 2061 (220). I suppose that will be true in the event of a civilizational collapse, but not in the interplanetary expansion of the Anglosphere that this book contemplates.

I have been attending to esoteric readings of the Odyssey Sequence, and while this volume seems to have less to offer on that front, there is some packed into the final chapters. . . (Spoiler: hover over to reveal) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . There is also a strong suggestion that the artificial star Lucifer presides over an apocalyptic Millennium from 2001 to 3001.

2010: Odyssey Two

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 2010: Odyssey Two [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 2 of the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 2010 Odyssey Two

Arthur C. Clarke’s “Odyssey sequence” straddles strangely the media of cinema features and text novels. 2001: A Space Odyssey was plotted by the author in collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and then written in dialogue with the production of the movie. The mutually-informing parallel products were not identical; a few significant differences separated their plots. Clarke’s book 2010: Odyssey Two is a sequel to the 2001 movie. In every case where narrative continuity forces him to choose, he follows the film. No doubt he was motivated by the hope (fulfilled in 1984) that 2010 would also be a movie, and he wanted to make the book digestible into a screenplay without extra retconning.

In fairness, it’s likely that many more people saw the 2001 movie than read the novel. So the choice made sense for their sake as potential 2010 readers also. Still, it creates some strangeness for a 21st-century reader now approaching the books as a series.

After reading 2001 and detecting an esoteric pattern in its structure, I wondered if there would be similar references and effects in the next book. I believe there are. The most conspicuous of these is the title shared by the final section and its last chapter: “Lucifer Rising.” While it seems unlikely that Clarke took this title from the 1972 avant-garde film by Kenneth Anger, they may have had some occult inspiration in common. Another echo of magick was in the title of the second section “Tsien” (the name of the Chinese spaceship in the story) after the onetime GALCIT rocketry colleague of Jack Parsons in Pasadena.

The central character of 2010 is Heywood Floyd, the protagonist of the early lunar “TMA-1” section of 2001. Understood via a Rosicrucian-Thelemite template, Floyd is an astronaut-initiate who becomes an adept by means of his 2010 adventure to Jupiter, in a mission to recover the lost Discovery and to advance human knowledge regarding the great black monolith at the Lagrange-1 point in the Jupiter-Io system. The Star Child who had been Dave Bowman serves as a magus of the ineffable gods, giving a Word to humanity, who struggle to comprehend it.

Floyd’s 2010 expedition is a joint USSR-USA undertaking, which had become historically impossible before the end of the 20th century. But Clarke could duck any plot adjustments for those political eventualities in the next book 2061: Odyssey Three, which he managed to write a few years prior to the end of the Soviet Union. Of greater concern to Clarke was accounting for scientific developments, especially the 1979 disclosures from the probe Voyager.

Although the pacing and voice of 2010 are very similar to those of 2001, I thought the effect of the second book was much different than the first. Bowman’s ascension had been awfully lonely. The crew of the Leontov, by contrast, produce two marriages, and they witness the appearance of a new “companion” on an astronomical scale, and even the solitary Star Child redeems an old friend in 2010.

Although I know that the set-up in the first two books differs enough from the reality of our 21st century that 2061 will tell an impossible tale, I am looking forward to the first book of the sequence that we haven’t already caught up with on the calendar.

The Algebraist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Algebraist [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Iain M Banks.

Banks The Algebraist

The Algebraist is a full-bore space opera with a galactic setting, plenty of exotic alien intelligences, interstellar warfare, political intrigue, espionage, melodrama, and a surprisingly generous helping of slapstick. It is divided into six chapters of about eighty pages each, but these are not component novellas. It’s very much a single novel with a unified arc from start to finish.

The far future described here takes place long after the “Arteria Collapse” that broke up the wormhole-networked galactic community. The focus is on the particularly remote Urlubis system. This peripheral locale is still subject to the Mercatoria, which imposes its multiracial but highly authoritarian hierarchies across much of the galaxy, along with a crusade against autonomous AI.

Humans are both old and relatively new to galactic polity, since a-humans (“advanced” or abducted) had spread quite widely after being collected earlier by other starfaring races. R-humans (“remainder”) from Earth did eventually join these “prepped” populations. The story’s protagonist is a human “seer,” part of a research institution dedicated to learning from a somewhat standoffish race of gas-giant planet “Dwellers” who are among the oldest and most widespread of interstellar sentients.

This freestanding novel was my first read in the works of Iain Banks, whose science fiction is most identified with his series The Culture. I liked it a great deal, and I will certainly wade into The Culture on the strength of this book.

House of Suns

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews House of Suns [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Alastair Reynolds.

Reynolds House of Suns

I hadn’t previously read anything by the successful contemporary sf author Alastair Reynolds, and rather than start with any of the series books for which he is perhaps better known, I read the standalone House of Suns. This doorstop novel is a far-future space opera centered on a “shatterling line,” i.e. a star-faring community of immortal clones, capable of stellar engineering, who explore the galaxy individually and rejoin to pool their knowledge and memories at intervals of many thousands of years.

(Reynolds is about my age, and I wondered at one point in this book if it had been partly inspired by a childhood reception of the mysterious allusions to the ‘Clone Wars’ in the 1977 Star Wars film, before those were fleshed out into the typically disappointing fare of the later development of that franchise.)

There are three characters with narration duties. At the start, and at wide intervals throughout, a much earlier story is told by Abigail Gentian, founder and clone parent of the House of Flowers, or Gentian Line of shatterlings. Otherwise, the narrative voice alternates chapter-by-chapter between a pair of incestuous Gentians in a “present” setting millions of years later.

Important to the plot and the setting of the book are a race of autonomous “Machine People” who vastly surpass humans in physical and mental capabilities at the individual level. I thought it a little odd that these were often referred to as “robots” as if the term were not pejorative. There are allusions early in the book to an interstellar human faction (“human” is used to include a wide range of post- and trans- humanity) called the Disavowers, who are antagonistic to the Machine People, but this notion is never fully developed.

In reviews and commentary on this book, I have seen it characterized as “hard” science fiction. Reynolds certainly has the scientific chops to write hard sf, but this story is set amidst technology so very advanced beyond our immediate ambitions, and so speculative, that it read as fairly fantastic to me. Only the willingness to take seriously the relativistic limitations on interstellar polity seemed “hard.” The stasis technology used for “abeyance” and “chronomesh” time drugs in particular seemed almost as hand-wavy as superluminal jump drives.

In its galactic scope and range of humanity-stretching concepts, this novel most reminded me of two other space operas, Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and MacLeod’s Engine City. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t deliver an itch to seek out and read more of Reynolds’ work immediately.

A rubber-bodied toddler with a painted face and very red hair lay dead beside your knee and for some reason it was this that destroyed you, it was this that kindled within you something you had no hope of defending against. You howled in a purity of fright.

Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Muir Harrow the Ninth rubber-bodied toddler painted face red hair dead destroyed kindled defending against howled purity fright