3001: The Final Odyssey
By Arthur C. Clarke
Del Rey; 272 pages; $25

Nearly three decades ago, Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey" captured the popular imagination precisely because it explained almost nothing about itself. Because its plot and imagery were both compelling and highly ambiguous, audiences were free to supply their own interpretations and debate them endlessly.

Since then, Arthur C. Clarke, co-author of the film's screenplay, has continued the saga in a novelization and three sequels. With each installment, he has explained more and more about the purpose of the mysterious black monoliths that seem to control humankind's destiny. Every time, he has also stripped away a little bit more of their symbolic power.

The latest volume, "3001: The Final Odyssey," begins as a "sleeper awakes" adventure, with the discovery of the frozen body of Frank Poole, one of the hapless astronauts killed by the homicidal supercomputer HAL in "2001." Thawed and resurrected, Poole finds himself a man out of time, older by a millennium than everyone around him.

In an effort to fit in, he has himself equipped with a "braincap" that gives him direct access to seemingly unlimited computing power. He embarks on an abortive love affair and makes a bittersweet return to his home planet. Eventually, he heads back out to the far reaches of the solar system, to the Jovian moon Europa, where a strange kind of alien life has blossomed after the super-Monolith known as the Great Wall converted Jupiter into a mini-sun.

For most of its length, "3001" moves at an exceedingly unhurried pace. There's a lot of sightseeing, a few desultory debates about the existence of God, a couple of stabs at genuine human interest. It isn't until Poole lands on Europa, however, that any real urgency creeps into the narrative. The cybernetic ghosts of his old shipmates, Dave Bowman and Hal, show up. They deliver the news that the monoliths may not be entirely benign, that they are perhaps capable of destroying humanity once and for all.

Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein spent too many of their later years writing weak novels that attempted to tie up the loose ends in their most famous works. Clarke seems to have fallen victim to a similar compulsion. He delivers a resolution for the conflicts first hinted at in "2001," but in no way does he match that spectacular set-up.

In the last third of "3001," Poole sends a message home to Earth: "The Monolith is a fantastically powerful machine -- look what it did to Jupiter! -- but it's no more than that. It's running on automatic; it has no consciousness. I remember once thinking that I might have to kick the Great Wall and shout, 'Is there anyone there?' And the correct answer would have to be -- no one, except Dave and Hal..."

That passage encapsulates the problem of Clarke's "Odyssey" series. What was once a tantalizing mystery has been rendered prosaic and dull. The Monolith, the engine that powers this four-book saga, the device responsible for the evolutionary awakening of our species, turns out to be little more than a big PC in the Sky.

Throughout his distinguished career, in both fiction and non-fiction, Clarke has worked to explain the natural wonders of the universe to a wide readership. But in the case of "3001: The Final Odyssey," he proves that it's possible to explain too much.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry


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