Having introduced Jack Kirby’s 2001, looked at his adaptation of the film, and looked at the first few issues of his continuation, let’s look at his continuation of that film — and how it contrasts with Arthur C. Clarke’s own.
Kirby’s continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes a very different approach than Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, the first of which (2010: Odyssey Two) appeared in 1982 and was adapted into a 1984 film. Today, far more people have seen this cinematic sequel, or read Clarke’s sequel novels, than have read Kirby’s (1976-1977) comic-book continuation, which could hardly be more different. But of course, Kirby’s continuation came first, so it fell to him to figure out how to do so without Clarke’s example to guide him.
Just as Kirby’s adaptation of 2001 can help to reveal the original through contrast, so too can Clarke’s continuations help us to understand Kirby’s.
In 2010, humans send a ship — the Leonov — to Jupiter to investigate what went wrong with the Discovery’s 2001 mission, as well as the appearance of a Monolith in Jupiter’s orbit. David Bowman, transfigured by the Monolith at the end of 2001, visits Earth to learn about humanity, then returns to Jupiter and warns the Leonov to vacate Jupiter’s area. The Leonov does, and a vast amount of Monoliths transform Jupiter into a star, which humans dub Lucifer. The transformation destroys the Discovery, but not before the aliens behind the Monolith transform its computer, HAL, much as they did Bowman, making it his companion. In the novel (but not the film version), the transformation of Jupiter destroys simple life in the planet’s atmosphere, which the aliens behind the Monolith apparently don’t care about destroying. However, the Monolith has found life under the ice of the moon Europa, and it (through Bowman and HAL) orders humans to stay away from that moon. Earth now has two suns in its sky — its own sun and a smaller sun where Jupiter once was. In an epilogue set in 20,001, a Monolith seems to be helping an intelligent species on Europa, much as one once helped humans evolve on Earth.
Clarke would produce two additional sequels, neither of which have been adapted to film. 2061: Odyssey Three (published in 1987) mainly concerns a ship (the Galaxy) crashing on Europa, in violation of the aliens’ order issued in 2010, and the rescue effort that ensues. It’s revealed that Bowman and HAL now reside within the Monolith located on Europa, and they’re joined by a transcended duplicate of Heywood Floyd, who appeared in 2001 and is the protagonist of 2010 and 2061. An epilogue takes place in 3001, when Lucifer goes dim and the Monolith found on the Moon, now sitting as a monument in Manhattan, “awakes” or becomes active.
3001: The Final Odyssey begins with a prologue, revealing that the aliens behind the Monoliths, disappointed by the scarcity of intelligent life in the universe, began stimulating various species’ evolution. These aliens eventually evolved into non-physical, timeless beings, but they left their Monoliths behind. In 3001, Frank Poole — the astronaut left to drift into space by HAL in 2001 — is discovered and revived using 31st-century technology. The main drama of the novel revolves around the idea that, following 2061, the Monolith around Jupiter transmitted a signal to its makers. The idea is that the Monolith had the authority to transform Jupiter (and kill the primitive life there) to help life on Europa evolve, but the Monolith lacked the authority to destroy Earth’s more advanced civilization. So it’s now awaiting a reply with instructions — which, due to the distances involved, would arrive in 3001. Because the Monolith’s description of humanity was based on events only through 2061, humans in 3001 worry the judgment will be negative. And it is. However, the revived Frank Poole has been able to convince Bowman and HAL, who have fused into a single entity (Halman), to save humanity by infecting the Monolith with a computer virus, which completely disintegrates all the Monoliths in the solar system and saves humanity. In the end, Poole and others land on Europa and contact the life there, while the godlike aliens behind the Monoliths continue to monitor humanity.
Despite Clarke’s status as one of the most revered writers in science-fiction history, one shouldn’t pretend his Space Odyssey novels are perfect, nor that they should — or even can — be regarded as canonical for 2001 fans. From 2010 onward, he was clear that each novel took place in its own parallel universe, allowing him, with each book, to retroactively alter details from previous books. So his 2010 is a sequel to the film version of 2001, not his own novel. 3001 revises the entire timeline, so that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, whereas it was referenced in the previous three books. 3001 even alters the dates of the events of 2001 and 2010, pushing them back to the 2030s and 2040s, despite the original dates being part of their titles! The entire plot of 3001 depends on the Monoliths not being able to communicate faster than light, although the Monoliths could do so in 2001. 3001 also ignores Floyd’s incorporation into the Monolith in 2061. The ending of 3001, in which the Monoliths in our solar system are destroyed, invalidates the epilogue of 2010, which is set in 20,001. Most remarkably, in 3001, the Monolith is simply a highly advanced computer, vulnerable to a computer virus and needing permission to take certain actions. In this vein, David Bowman was no longer transfigured into a new kind of entity, at the end of 2001; instead, his consciousness was simply uploaded into the Monolith computer.
All of this means that Clarke’s novels can’t be considered “canonical,” at least in the usual sense of the word, in which we might consider them as a body of work against which other fiction set in the same universe might be judged. Even if we consider Clarke’s work to be “definitive,” it’s still not a single universe, into which secondary material might be said to fit or not. That’s the case with most other sci-fi franchises, from Star Trek and Star Wars to novel-based series like Dune. But Clarke’s novels position themselves only as possible sequels, or as divergent timelines, so that Kirby’s continuation of 2001 cannot help but be accorded relatively equal footing. There’s no canon to contradict, and Kirby arguably doesn’t diverge from 2001 as much as Clarke himself ended up doing!
Of all Clarke’s retroactive changes to his previous Space Odyssey novels, the most instructive is changing Bowman’s transfiguration, at the end of 2001, into simply being uploaded into the Monolith computer. Bowman’s transfiguration is one of the most fondly remembered elements of 2001 (and Kubrick’s movie in particular); it is when the story seems to reach toward something transcendent, perhaps incapable of being expressed in English words. Yet Clarke himself retcons this, reducing it to a computer upload of a dying man’s personality. There’s still transcendence in that, and plenty existential material to explore there. Yet that doesn’t concern Clarke.
And this is instructive because it illustrates a larger fact about Clarke and his 2001 sequels: Clarke wasn’t an existential writer. His novels are praised for their realistic and prognostic depiction of science, including satellite communication networks, realistic space flight, and space elevators. But the kind of existential themes of a Philip K. Dick, who was always questioning reality and identity, were largely foreign to Clarke. And notably, Clarke’s sequels fail almost completely to address the existential nature of 2001.
In contrast, Kirby’s continuation of 2001 is almost entirely existential. Kirby might not have been a philosopher, but he loved existential themes — perhaps embodied best in the cosmic Silver Surfer, which he co-created with Stan Lee for Fantastic Four. What interested Clarke and what interested Kirby could hardly be more different.
In fact, we can best understand the two different continuations of 2001 as sequels to different parts of the original. In 2001, the opening (in which apes encounter the Monolith) and the ending (in which David Bowman is transfigured by the Monolith) are the existential material, touching upon human nature and evolution, asking questions about humanity and its place in the universe. Between these two sequences, however, are two others, in which characters go to the moon (and its Monolith) and in which characters travel to Jupiter on the Discovery One (run by the HAL 9000 computer).
In essence, Kirby produced a sequel to those first and final chapters — the existential bits. He wasn’t really concerned with carefully charting humanity’s progression into space; he just notes where astronauts are in captions and gets on to the trippy Monolith stuff.
Clarke, on the other hand, essentially ignored those first and final chapters, instead producing sequels to the middle material. Clarke follows humanity into space and explores what happens next. For him, that’s the main narrative.
It’s fascinating to see such radically different continuations of the same story. But what’s equally fascinating is that these two very different tracks each pick up and follow different strains within the original. And in this way, they actually illuminate and help us to understand that original — as well as Kirby and Clarke.
This isn’t to say that the two parts of 2001 are entirely separate. Symbolically, we can understand the discovery on the Moon and the voyage to Jupiter as humanity coming of age. Such a reading is encouraged by the juxtaposition of the bone, tossed into the air, with the spacecraft on way to the Moon — and the huge jump in time this represents. We almost cannot help reading this, to one extent or another, as a beginning followed by a culmination.
But while this is implicit in the work itself, it’s not fully supported by the conclusion. David Bowman’s transfiguration is an isolated case; if it represents the next stage in human evolution, it’s not generalized. Since he’s not in contact with the rest of humanity, unlike the apes at the beginning, so he can’t guide them to any new and heightened state. Even if his new state represents where humanity is ultimately going, there’s no mechanism by which the rest of humanity could follow him. So while the original seems to invite us to see humanity’s discovery of the Monolith on the Moon and voyage to Jupiter as a culmination of sorts, as humanity finally achieving a sort of maturity as a space-faring species, this apparent link between the existential material and the more space-oriented material collapses upon careful examination — or at least isn’t as strong as we might initially feel.
In other words, these two strains in 2001 — one of which Kirby continued, the other of which Clarke continued — might seem unified, but they’re really not.
The other major connector between these two strains is HAL 9000. If humanity came to consciousness in the beginning of the story, thanks to the Monolith, HAL 9000 can be interpreted as humanity coming into its own, such that it’s able to create consciousness much as the Monolith did. And in a story ostensibly about human evolution and consciousness, the presence of artificial intelligence echoes that theme and raises important questions. Given that HAL 9000 turns on the humans who created it, does it represent humanity’s real future — is our destiny to create machines that will one day surpass or even threaten us? And if humans are to HAL 9000 as the aliens who created the Monolith are to us, does HAL’s revolt and subsequent deactivation hint that the aliens might similarly judge humanity unworthy, or too violent? Or is HAL more like the Monolith, simply an intelligent tool to which its creators bear no responsibility?
But while this seems to connect the “space” segments, featuring HAL, with the existential ones, this connection is only thematic, and it too collapses upon examination. In 2001, the Monolith doesn’t seem interested in HAL, only in David Bowman. The Monolith steers human evolution and transfigures Bowman in some way, but it doesn’t help HAL evolve, nor transfigure it. It would be fascinating to suggest that the Monolith was in contact with HAL and somehow triggered HAL’s revolt, perhaps to test humanity, but this isn’t really supported by the work itself. HAL’s really just an obstacle for the humans to overcome on the way to Jupiter, as well as a thematic reference to the idea of sparking consciousness — as the Monolith does for humans and as humans do for HAL. That’s important, because the development of artificial intelligence is part of humanity’s story, and 2001 was prescient in realizing this. But that’s all it is: a thematic — and rather superficial — connection. HAL is an elaboration on a theme, not something inexorably written into the story’s structure. You could remove HAL completely, and while the story would be lacking several memorable scenes that we would certainly miss, the story’s overall arc would be unchanged.
Even in this apparently connected aspect, the two strains of 2001 really aren’t of a whole.
If Kirby and Clarke produced continuations focusing on only one of these two strains, it’s through HAL that they make any attempt to reach out to the other strain.
In 2010, Clarke had the Jovian Monolith use HAL to transmit a message to humanity. In this, the Monolith seemed to treat HAL simply as a tool — certainly not as an intelligence comparable to humanity. Yet in 2061, Clarke reveals that a version of HAL resides within the Jovian Monolith, which suggests that the Monolith treated HAL much as it did Bowman: transfiguring and thus saving both from otherwise certain death. It’s a fascinating idea, even if Clarke never explored what this might have been like for HAL, who isn’t granted a “stargate” experience of its own.
What would be HAL’s version of the white Louis XVI rooms, in which David Bowman found himself before apparently dying? One can’t help but wish this were depicted. But then, Clarke wasn’t especially interested in imagining machine consciousness — he seems to have left that to his great rival Isaac Asimov, who was known for his robot stories. And the kind of mind-bending, identity-questioning stuff of Philip K. Dick and his replicants (in Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and its cinematic adaptation Blade Runner) was foreign to both Clarke and Asimov. As much as we might think exploring Bowman or HAL’s transfigured consciousness would have been a no-brainer, or fascinating in the hands of a Philip K. Dick, Clarke left such implications unexplored or implicit at best. Given the chance, in 3001, he instead combined HAL and Bowman, reduced their transfiguration to computer upload, and focused instead on a more regular interest of his: how non-mechanical extraterrestrial life might alter the fate of humanity. In this, the Monolith — and HAL, really — are only proxies.
Even when Clarke grants HAL the same existential journey as Bowman, as if trying to unite the two strains of 2001, Clarke avoids depicting this journey and subsequently minimizes it. The only way he could get a handle on the existential was to reduce it to a function of his famously realistic depiction of technology.
Kirby, hardly noted for realistic depiction of technology, also came around to depicting artificial intelligence in the final issues of his comic-book continuation of 2001. Instead of using HAL, Kirby invented Mister Machine (later Machine Man), sending him on an existential quest much like the series’s earlier human characters. If Clarke never really addresses the existential, even when he’s apparently addressing it, Kirby never really addresses the realistic outer-space sequences of 2001, even when he tells a story of artificial intelligence, for which those sequences are so famous.
But here too, we may see Kirby reaching out to the strain in 2001 that he had otherwise ignored. Like Clarke’s reaching for the existential, Kirby’s reaching for artificial intelligence is more about reach than grasp. Both creators never really deviate from their dominant mode.
Kirby and Clarke really produced follow-ups to different parts of 2001, ignoring or unable to address the other. It’s artificial intelligence that seems to offer the bridge between the two. But it’s a bridge neither man could walk across, even when they tried.