3001, The Final Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke

Del Rey, 1997, 263 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-31522-7

Let’s get two things out of our way first:

One: I dearly like Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve read most of his books and at the exception of his collaborations, he rates from okay to excellent. While his stories are often exercises in problem-solving and his plots thinly-disguised travelogues, that’s what he does best and that’s why I keep going back to Clarke. Apparently, millions of other readers think the same thing, because Clarke repeatedly hits the bestseller lists with each new book.

Two: 3001 is a rotten novel. In almost 300 pages, Clarke commits enough narrative mistakes to send a less-renowned author back to a few more rewrites. The first part of the novel is a brief look at Earth, 3001 style. In the second, he tells more than shows. Five minutes pass in one chapter, 30 years in the next. Stylistic errors abound, although that might be compounded by the translation I was reading. There’s even one factual error -verified in the original untranslated text- in chapter 32, when it is stated that Frank Poole was born in 1996. (Which would have given him the tender age of… 5 during the 2001 mission. Right.) Ping, Mr. Clarke!

Surprisingly, it doesn’t really matter. 3001 might be one of Clarke’s last novels and he’s entitled to a few shortcuts. Certainly, this is a better work that other latter-day Asimov or Heinlein. To compare apples with manure, even a middling Clarke is better entertainment that a middling Hollywood product. (Although 3001 ends on a note surprisingly reminiscent -of all things- of INDEPENDENCE DAY. Even Clarke apologizes for this in his afterword; synchronicity strikes again.)

Thematically, the novel has only tangential links with the previous three volumes. It “ties” up a few loose ends, and ignores the remainder. After reading 3001, I went back to 2061 and found out that the epilogue, titled “3001”, was completely disregarded by Clarke this time around. Others small discrepancies are smoothed over, and retro-adjusted. Obviously, humanity won’t go to Jupiter for 2001 any more than Hal was activated in February 1997. The future described in 3001 nevertheless remains quite plausible: Much like our own memory of 2001 has faded, the inhabitants of 3001 describe our own times as, of course, a century of unparalleled barbarism.

One unrealistic attribute of the characters is their tendency to constantly refer to events five centuries past. When’s the last time you quoted extensively from a 1497 philosopher? Overall, 3001 is a pretty similar place to 1997. A few cosmetic changes perk up the scenery, but far less that what the Singularists (from Vinge’s hypothesis) might suppose.

But 3001 is top-heavy with ideas. From Ring City to Religion As Mental Disorder (chuckled softly the atheist), this novel at least offers an entertaining travelogue. Whatever one may think of Clarke’s style, at least he’s kept his swiftness with innovative concepts. Extensive notes (30 pages of assorted sources, acknowledgements and goodbyes.) complete the book, providing an enjoyable dose of further readings, short editorials by Clarke (Does he believe this stuff? Absolutely!) and, generally, words by the master. Hard-SF fans will slurp this up with glee. At least I did.

Despite all its faults, 3001 remains a very enjoyable read for Clarke fans. Others might not agree; their loss. The novel works better as a travelogue with a loose relation to the original trilogy; don’t go back and read all three books attentively before beginning this one. Don’t buy it in hardcover either; it’s poor value for your money unless you’re a confirmed Clarke collector. But it’s definitely worth a read for its target audience.

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