2001: An Odyssey in Words- Ed by Ian Whates and Tom Hunter

2001: An Odyssey in Words.

Edited by Ian Whates and Tom Hunter

Newcon Press, 199 pages

Review: Rachel Hill


The anthology 2001: an Odyssey in Words brings together an intergenerational crew of 31 SF writers, all of which are previous Clarke award shortlisters or winners. Originally conceived to celebrate the centenary of Arthur C Clarke’s birth (1917), this somewhat belated anthology has a single, simple premise: each story must be 2001 words, no more, no less.  


At first the relatively arbitrary film tie-in word count of 2001 might seem cute, perhaps too cute. What becomes abundantly clear as the reader traverses this heady group of 29 short stories and 3 contextualising essays however, is the fact that this bijou word limit affords each writer the same amount of space and leads to a broad range of short story forms. 


With an impressive array of names, ranging from SF veterans Alastair Reynolds and Gwyneth Jones, to ascendent stars such as Yoon Ha Lee and Emma Newman, this collection has something for everyone. Although each writer has greater or lesser proximity to concrete examples from his oeuvre, many of Clarke’s central themes of faith, technology, evolution and alien contact, are weaved throughout the collection. 


Readers can expect to encounter an entire gamut of scales and themes, running from Adrian Tchaikovsky’s alien contact space-opera, to Bruce Sterling’s metafictional bonanza of literary shout-outs and contemporary political commentary. From the boombastic to quieter tragedies, Chris Beckett’s ‘Memories of a Table’ captures the technological remembrance of things passed, while Emmi Itäranta’s ‘Roads of Silver, Paths of Gold’ examines cosmically orientated faith as filtered through the traditions of Finnish folklore.


In China Mieville’s nonfiction essay which ends this collection, he comments upon Clarkes now infamous third law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Mieville contends that this phrase enacts a subterranean elision, a deliberate act of omission, rendering the long embattled distinctions between SF and fantasy as moot. The fundamental redundancy of the & in SF&F is born out by the stories in this collection, which often fuse the magics of what lies beyond human conception with the rigour technological speculation. 


Stories such as Paul McAuley’s ‘The Monoliths of Mars’ take Clarke’s most iconic relic, the Monolith, as the basis for pilgrimages scaled up to interplanetary scales. Here, faith is transplanted from the conventional monotheistic Godhead and instead directed towards the cosmos at large. In a Clarke inflected Stapledonian style, it becomes the catalyst for the evolution of human consciousness. Adrien Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Collectors’ also skillfully centres alien technological artifacts as a tool for bringing together cosmic communities. 


Reversing this polarity, Emma Newman’s ‘Your Death, Your Way, 100% Guaranteed!’ sees a deluxe VR angelic visitation program used to facilitate death as a tailor made experience. We follow the gradual death and snubbed afterlife of a repulsive billionaire, in a perfectly pitched story of schadenfreude and justice. 


Other texts are explicitly experimental in their form. Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Entropy War’ is a story told as a series of game instructions which focus upon the ‘divertissement of war and other conflicts,’ and thus provide Lee’s usual combination of celebration and critique of military SF. Ian McDonald also presents a more experimental attempt to understand the Martian landscape through recourse to key masterpieces culled from art history; whilst on Mars, his protagonist can “feel immensity, elemental power, dread, crushing vastness and terrifying beauty. I feel Rothko.” 


Alongside Mieville’s contribution, other contextualising nonfiction essays include Neil Gaiman’s recollections on being a Clarke Award judge, and celebrates the award as “an example of both what SF is and what it can be.” The Clarke Awards chair-of-judges Andrew M. Butler’s essay ‘2001: A Space Prosthesis – The Extensions of Man’ provides valuable ruminations on the role of alien technologies as a catalyst for both human and AI evolution throughout the course of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s film and novel iterations. 


This collection showcases the history of the oft contentious beast that is the Arthur C Clarke award, a platform which delights in eschewing audience expectations, whilst remaining responsive to the multivocal and continuous mutations of SF. As such, the award has always been delicately balanced as both gatekeeper and incubator for the SF genre. The vibrant stories collected in 2001: An Odyssey in Words, are thus a fitting celebration for one of SF patron saints and a is testament to the ongoing evolution of SF.