Sometimes I encounter a book that, upon its completion, makes me wonder: "Just why did this author feel the need to write this book?" I encountered just such a book this week. It is 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the classics of science fiction, a truly fine novel that is often obscured by the elephantine shadow cast by its companion film. The sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, was an excellent book, if not on the level of its predecessor. I don't recall much about 2061: Odyssey Three, except that I wasn't particularly impressed. 3001 gives the series some closure, which is Clarke's biggest mistake. This is not a story that should have closure, at all.
The book opens with a comet-prospector finding a non-cometary object floating in a near-deepspace orbit. It turns out to be the body of astronaut Frank Poole, the co-pilot of the spaceship Discovery who was killed in the first book by the schizophrenic computer HAL-9000. Medical technology has advanced such that Poole is able to be revived, and the book then deals mostly with his assimilation into a society that is as far ahead of him as he was ahead of the people of the Dark Ages. The society that Clarke presents is really nothing new; it's the standard Star Trek-style utopia in which religion has been left behind (and is even characterized as a form of psychosis), material needs are a thing of the past, et cetera. The most interesting thing in the book is Clarke's construct of a gigantic artificial ring-system around the earth, but this strangely is left undeveloped. Clarke posits that people who live on the Rings cannot live long on Earth, and yet he never develops the hint that two entirely different societies would evolve from such a state. Do the Earthbound folks look on the Ring-people with suspicion? do the Ring-people look down -- figuratively and literally -- on the Earthbound? Clarke doesn't indicate anything of the sort. His society here is conflictless, and thus not very interesting to read about. This is a pity.
The book's most serious problems, though, come when Frank Poole journeys to the Galilean Moons (formerly of Jupiter, the gas-giant planet having been converted into a second sun late in 2010). Here he apparently means to make contact with his old friend, Dave Bowman, who along with HAL has become one with the monolith. Frank doesn't seem to feel any emotions at all in this. Would he feel any anger toward HAL for killing him? would he feel concern for Dave's plight? would he feel anything? Not really, if Clarke is to be believed. This was a lost opportunity. Perhaps it couldn't be any other way; Clarke's books and stories have never much been about emotion and feeling. But the lack of it here totally undermines his characters. They begin to feel like automatons in a plot.
The book's climax arrives when it is discovered that the Monolith (the really big Monolith, the one on Europa, as opposed to its smaller twins on Earth and the Moon) may very well be on the verge of destroying humanity (the reasons for this involve time, distance, and the speed of light). Poole must play the vital role in defusing the threat of the Monolith in a way which is unfortunately reminiscent of the ending of Independence Day, a fact which Clarke bemoans in his Afterword. The whole threat lacks conviction, though, and instead it makes plain the book's largest error: it explains the Monolith. What made 2001 so memorable is the fact that even at the end, after Dave Bowman has been reincarnated as the Star Child, we still don't know what the Monolith is or who made it or why it has been left here or what its purpose at all is -- we don't even know if the Monolith is an alien artifact or an alien itself. It was this air of mystery, that sense of the cosmic unknown, that elevated 2001 to the level of a classic. Even 2010 left much of the mystery intact, even as it continued the story. But in 3001, Clarke tells us that the Monolith is a mindless automaton, and he even refers to its internal circuitry. We shouldn't know that much about the Monolith. It ceases to be a constant pointer to the eternal reality that there will always be an unknown, and instead joins the ranks of things we've figured out. It has been said that the most critical aspect of the best science fiction is the intangible "sense of wonder". 2001: A Space Odyssey had it in spades; 2010 had it but to a lesser extent; 2063 didn't have a whole lot of it but was still a readable novel. 3001's biggest problem is simple: no wonder. Reading it makes me feel as if Samuel Beckett had written a second play, called Oh, There's Godot.