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The View From Halley's Comet : 2061: ODYSSEY THREE by Arthur C. Clarke (Del Rey/Ballantine Books: $17.95; 280 pp.)

December 06, 1987|David Brin | Brin has been a researcher in cometary science. His novels include "The Uplift War" and, with Gregory Benford, "Heart of the Comet," both from Bantam Books

Some years ago, the publisher of Del Rey/ Ballantine Books handed over the smallest advance payment ever for a book by a best-selling author--a $1 check made out to Arthur C. Clarke for an unwritten work tentatively titled "20,001: The Final Odyssey."

Few science fiction sagas have been as popular as the exploration of mankind's destiny that Clarke began with "2001: A Space Odyssey." The ultimate chapter was eagerly awaited.

Only Clarke was in no hurry. He wanted to incorporate into his book results of NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter and refused to write it until these results were available. Hence the $1 advance against $1.3 million guaranteed royalties.

Unfortunately, the Challenger calamity put Project Galileo on hold until 1995 or later. Clarke fans seemed in for a long wait. Then, some months ago, Owen Locke at Del Rey Books found in his mail a complete manuscript titled "2061: Odyssey Three."

A quick phone call around the world to Clarke's home in Sri Lanka (via those communication satellites Clarke himself pioneered, long ago) confirmed to Locke's delight that this was no hoax. Soon another $1 check was on its way.

Billed as an interim novel in Clarke's series, this new book is a slim, unpretentious reunion with old friends. The protagonist, again, is Heywood Floyd, hero of the two preceding Odyssey books. Now more than a century old, but preserved by years spent in frozen sleep between planets, Floyd embarks on what begins as a leisure cruise to a comet. Naturally, his voyage is eventful.

The year 2061 is, of course, when Halley's Comet next returns to the inner solar system, where the sun's heat periodically coerces from that cosmic ice ball yet another showy performance. Half of Clarke's travelogue is taken up describing what it might be like to visit, and even stand upon, a comet undergoing this fierce transformation.

Clarke's reputation grew out of his great skill at making science come alive for the reader. Nobody ever explained more vividly the intricacies of orbital maneuvers, or the sere beauty of the sulfur volcanoes of Io.

In this latest novel, unfortunately, Clarke's science seems somewhat skimpyin comparison with earlier works, occasionally missing target altogether. Also, with the exception of Floyd and his grandson--an astronaut-policeman shipwrecked on the strange seas of a forbidden planet that was once Jupiter's moon, Europe--no other character really proves memorable.

"2061" is set on a more human scale than the prior Odysseys. Yes, it takes us touring among the planets. And yet the issues are never quite as cosmic as they were in "2001" or "2010." Clarke's penchant for speculating about the ultimate destiny of humanity and all intelligent life is restrained this time--possibly because he is saving up for that promised big finale. Certainly the conclusion of "2061: Odyssey Three" hints at much grander things to come.

And yet I quite enjoyed "2061." Clarke is much more than a scientific expositor and tour guide. Nor is he to be measured by the same standards we apply to a mundane plot-smith. He is, after all, the poet laureate of the Space Age. He is at his best making the reader feel, along with Heywood Floyd, how fine it might be to stand upon an ancient comet, out under the stars, knowing that it is those dreams that finaly come true that are the best dreams of all.

Also, amid all the doom scenarios streaming from so many word processors these days, it's nice to read a book written by someone who actually likes human beings.

Clarke has been criticized for often depicting people in the future as being reasonable. And yet, are all those modern apocalyptic scenarios we see in print and film necessarily any more prophetic? Any decent parent wants his or her children to be better, wiser. Millions are working for a better world. Why should not a gifted writer offer an occasional glimpse of how such a world might be?

The mystical elements of Clarke's Odyssey saga aside, his stories are basically about hope.

I can think of no better reason, in times like these, to go right out and devour every word.

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