Sci-fi Pet Peeves #1: The Space Odyssey Ending

There are a few common patterns in sci-fi books that I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of. This series talks about each one in detail.

The first few parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey are more-or-less realistic. Of course, it’s still science fiction, but it allows for reasonable suspension of disbelief.

Or perhaps “suspension of disbelief” isn’t the right term- J.R.R. Tolkien uses “secondary belief” to refer to this effect:

It is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World … Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough … To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought…

J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

And for most of the book, 2001 only strays a moderate distance from reality, with the only major differences being the presence of the monoliths. In 1968, the Apollo programs were well underway, so it was not inconceivable that humanity would go to the moon. Even the HAL 9000 subplot is plausible, given the “creative” solutions to problems that machines have come up with to tasks (see reward hacking here).

The offending section starts towards the end of the book:

There was no sense of motion, but he was falling toward those impossible stars, shining there in the dark heart of a moon. No - that was not where they really were, he felt certain. He wished, now that it was far too late, that he had paid more attention to those theories of hyperspace, of transdimensional ducts.

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is when the metaphorical sun turns green, and the reader’s secondary belief starts to show cracks.

2001 isn’t the only Clarke book where the ending gets weird:

Yes-I might have guessed. There’s a great burning column, like a tree of fire, reaching above the western horizon. It’s a long way off, right round the world. I know where it springs from: they’re on their way at last, to become part of the Overmind. Their probation is ended: they’re leaving the last remnants of matter behind.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Of course Clarke isn’t the only author guilty of this, though his books are among the most famous in the genre.

Contrast this to Andy Weir’s The Martian, which became popular in part because of how principled the writing is.

Hollywood studios also have a habit of doing this, for example the ending of The Martian movie, or of Interstellar.