3001: The Final Odyssey

reviewed by Toby Johnson

Arthur C. Clarke is arguably one of the best known and most influential people in the world. His 59 some odd books have sold a hundred million copies. His TV appearances, during the Moon landing, for instance; interviews with him about modern technology; and his own cable TV series about unexplained phenomena have reached millions of people more.

Clarke may be best-known for the four novels and two movies that began with the amazing and revolutionary film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that mind-boggling movie about human evolution and "alien intervention," Clarke created a metaphor for some sort of multi-dimensional, "transcendent reality" in the image of the monolith. This manifestation of incredible creative power was a black, stone-like slab with the dimensions 1x4x9 -- the first three numbers of the quadratic series. (And why, Clarke asks, would you think it stopped after only three dimensions?) According to the mythology of the Space Odyssey series, the monolith first transformed primate consciousness on Earth into human intelligence, then, after waiting beneath the surface of the moon for human astronauts to uncover it in a sure sign of technological evolution, announced to its makers - whoever or whatever they were - that the cultivation of life on Earth had been successful. And then, through another monolith near Jupiter, ingested an astronaut, transforming him into a kind of mystical/psychic Superbeing who returned to watch over the Earth as the apotheosis and final evolution of Humankind.

In the later story, 2010, the monolith reappears to oversee the cultivation of life on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter and, to this end, ignites the gas planet into a companion star for Sol to make a sun for the life evolving on Europa.

The monolith obviously operates at a scale way beyond anything human. Its makers are scientific equivalents to gods in the same way that in the 1950s modern airplanes were the gods of the "cargo cults" of South Pacific Islanders who saw these strange apparitions in the sky and mythologized them.

Many of Clarke's novels are concerned with the nature of the gods and "spiritual reality." Pervading his work has been an understanding of the mythologization process and an effort to "explain" mysterious and unscientific-seeming events, like psychic powers, religious visions, ghostly apparitions, etc. He does this by forcing larger the scope of scientific understanding, looking for a bigger picture from a yet higher perspective that, in fact, honors the reality of the inexplicable and the mystical while also placing it solidly in the real world that can be explained rationally (if perhaps sometimes metaphorically) when enough information is available. Arthur C. Clarke's best novel, many would argue, (which curiously has never been made into a movie), is Childhood’s End. It is the story of an extraterrestrial visitation to Earth by the benign, but technologically all-powerful, Overlords who take charge of the Earth in order to bring peace, technological marvels, and prosperity to all people.

The Overlords (rather like Mr. Spock in the competing sci-fi mythological system) are scientific, rational and logical, above emotion and hysteria and mysticism. But they are fascinated with the human race's penchant for religious and mystical phenomena. They see it as the seeds of transformation into something greater than humankind.

It turns out that they are studying how certain planets go through an evolutionary process that takes their biosphere ultimately beyond matter and space and time, becoming purely "spiritual," and jettisoning the planet as the intelligent species which grew on it matures beyond matter to become part of a larger psychic entity called the Overmind. The Overlords have come to Earth because they know Earth is about to undergo such an apocalyptic apotheosis.

They've come, out of a self-interested compassion, to observe the transformation of humankind and to palliate the suffering and distress of the planet's population when the people realize they are the last adults there will ever be. For it is the children in whom the effects of the transformation will occur. And to protect the children when the change begins the Overlords quickly take all of them away from their parents. For the children will never grow up, instead they'll grow into a collective, super-conscious global Mind and then grow out, leaving the cocoon of Earth behind.

This is a wonderful statement--in modern, scientifically acceptble metphors--of what religion is really about: the evolution of life into God and an explanation for religious phenomena.

Clarke is now a man of 80. He lives as what English society might call a confirmed bachelor in a sort of intentional extended family in the Theravada Buddhist land of Sri Lanka. Lately he’s been debilitated by a serious bout with post-polio syndrome. But he's still thriving. Of all the people in the world who ought to live to see the year 2001, he is certainly one.

Arthur C. Clarke is not a gay man like the post-Stonewall gay men that make up the readership of White Crane. But he is certainly one of us. He gives a marvelous example of the contributing, participating life, lived free of the conventions of marriage and childrearing. And in his modern/futuristic way, he is surely a visionary and Enlightened Being, a modern scientifically-minded prophet who has foreseen, and helped bring about, the transformation of consciousness that technological advance, the discovery of the physical nature of the cosmos, and the overpopulation and ecological crises of the late 20th C. is ushering in. (You know, if the planet Jupiter ignites into a star in the year 2001, Clarke just might come to be worshipped as a god.)

3001: The FInal Odyssey completes the story. After the monolith has launched its report of the state of life on Earth in the year 2001 (when it was uncovered on the moon in the first novel) on a five hundred lightyear trip to its homebase, now the response from home is about to arrive in the year 3001 in the form of the judgment that the belligerence and ecological ignorance of humankind at the close of the 20th C. was surely evidence that the experiment had failed. Now the monolith is about turn on again to scrub the experiment, wipe out the human race and start the culture over again.

But in the thousand years it's taken for the signal to get home and back, humankind has changed-perhaps precisely because of knowing about the monolith and its intervention in evolution--and now deserves to survive. The last test of evolutionary success then is of the capacity to realize what's going to happen and the ability to technologically disarm the monolith. Accomplished with the modern gimmick of the computer virus, the humans of the Third Millenium prove their evolutionary success by turning off the vehicle of transcedent intervention and preventing the destruction of the experiment.

Interpreting the metaphor, doesn't this suggest the Buddhistic thought that the maturation of humankind finally entails transcending mythology and metaphor altogether, giving up reliance on outside intervention and taking responsibility for our own evolution, and "turning off" God?