Summary: Visionary science writer Sir Arthur C Clarke, author of more than 100 books, died recently at the age of 90 in Sri Lanka. Once called ‘the first dweller in the electronic cottage’, his vision of an astrobiological future and its technology captured the popular imagination. Here we critically assess the science and culture of arguably his greatest work, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Professor Mark Brake
2001: A Space Odyssey
Arthur C Clarke was instrumental in developing the alien for the mass market. The imaginative flood and sweep of the alien motif in fiction is impressive enough. As far as the propagation of the idea of the post-human is concerned, however, it was the sway of cinema that beamed the broadcast far further. Cosmic fiction and its exploration of humanity could be examined without the alien. But the inclusion of the alien was evolution’s defining moment in the public imagination. In addition, science fiction would have stayed marginalised were it not for the opening up of the genre to film and television.
Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was delivered during the peak of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), 1966 to 1969. The ETH held that UFOs were close encounters with visiting aliens, an hypothesis vastly influenced by the mythic fiction of HG Wells, Olaf Stapledon and Clarke himself.
Famed for the maturity of its portrayal of mysterious, existential and elusive aliens, 2001 raised science fiction cinema to a new level. Eminent US film critic, Roger Ebert, when asked which films would remain familiar to audiences 200 years from now, selected 2001. Another critic claimed the picture was an “epochal achievement of cinema” and “a technical masterpiece”. The film, not the book, made Clarke the most popular science fiction writer in the world. Kubrick’s masterpiece, which made dramatic, and sophisticated use of the alien premise, quickly became a classic discussed by many, if not understood by all.
Kubrick’s bible was Sagan and Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe. Kubrick had originally filmed interviews with twenty-one leading scientists about the possibility of alien life as a prologue to the film’s narrative. Interviewees included physicists Frank Drake and Freeman Dyson, anthropologist Margaret Mead, roboticist Marvin Minsky, and Alexander Oparin, the great Soviet authority on the origin of life, often described as the ‘Darwin of the twentieth century’. Kubrick’s intention was to lend astrobiology that special dignity it has only acquired since. Though the interviews were cut from the final version of the film, a book of the transcripts was published in 2005.
The Ultimate Trip
2001 is an epic journey. The ‘Ultimate Trip’, as it was billed in those counter-culture days. Darwin had inspired German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, to write Also Sprach Zarathustra. The book identifies three stages in the evolution of man: ape, modern man, and ultimately, superman. As Nietzsche put it, “What is the ape to man? A laughingstock, or painful embarrassment. And man shall be to the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.” Modern man is merely a link between ape and superman. For the superman to evolve, man’s will, “a will to procreate, or a drive to an end, to something higher and farther”, must power the change.
Likewise, Kubrick’s movie traces man’s journey though three stages. As the film’s subtitle suggests, the narrative is a spatial odyssey from the subhuman ape to the post-human starchild. The unfolding four-million-year filmic story embraces each theme of science fiction: space (contact through alien cultural artefacts), time (evolutionary fable), machine (the man-machine encounter with HAL, computer turned murderer), and monster (human metamorphosis). The opening ‘Dawn of Man’ scene of 2001 sees the Sun rise above the primeval plains of Earth, to the rising soundtrack of Richard Strauss’ Nietzsche inspired tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra. A small band of man-apes are on the long, pathetic road to racial extinction.
The journey begins with one of the hominids exultantly hurling an animal bone into the air. In an astounding cinematic ellipsis the bone instantly morphs into an orbiting satellite, and three million years of hominid evolution is written off in one frame of film. The agency that drives the guided evolution of these early hominids is an alien artefact in the shape of a black monolith. Like Wells’ Martians, the monolith embodies the void. Primal bone technology marks the birth of the modern era. Man and machine, from the very outset, are inseparable. The mysterious presence of the monolith transforms the hominid horizon. The journey to superman begins.
The intelligent use of film technology is one of the factors that make 2001 such a tour de force. Winner of an Oscar for special effects, the film seemed to offer a more ‘realistic’ picture of space travel than the endeavours of Armstrong and Aldrin only a year later. Sections of the film were used in training NASA astronauts. Indeed, Arthur C Clarke later suggested that of all the responses to the film, the one he valued most highly was that of the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, “Now I feel I’ve been into space twice!”
Man’s growing maturity through an early space age now unfolds in a three-way narrative of machine, human and posthuman. A space voyage leads to further way stations of the monolith. A black obelisk is uncovered at a pioneering Moon base, and a mission is sent to Jupiter, to where the mysterious lunar artefact seems to be sending its alien signal. The banality and vacuity of the human crewmembers is sharply and ironically contrasted by the robust intelligence of the ship’s onboard computer, HAL 9000. The film was one of the very first to carry ‘product placements’ for companies such as IBM, Pan Am, and AT&T. Indeed, space travel is replete with corporate logos and trademarks, showing a world,
“absolutely managed - the force controlling it discreetly advertised by the US flag with which the scientist [Doctor Floyd] often shares the frame throughout his ‘excellent speech’ … and also by the corporate logos - Hilton, Howard Johnson, Bell - that appear throughout the space station. In 1968, the prospect of such total management seemed sinister - a patent circumvention of democracy.”
The irony and satire of the film’s portrayal of a bland future dominated by corporations and technology was lost one some. British scientist and software developer, Stephen Wolfram, said the film’s futuristic technology greatly impressed him as a boy. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has suggested that 2001 inspired his vision of the potential of computers (though whether Gates was also inspired by the picture of sinister corporate domination is pure speculation). Nonetheless, such corporate control is symptomatic of the spiritual crisis of the early space age portrayed in the film.
The potent evolutionary force imparted by the black obelisks is overdue. The space age was ultimately inspired out of the apes by the alien intelligence. Now, the odyssey of self-discovery culminates under the watchful presence of the monoliths when modern man, in the form of the individual astronaut David Bowman, comes to an end. With the massive presence of planet Earth filling the screen, the foetus of the superhuman starchild floats into view. Moving through space without artifice, the image suggests a new power. Man has transcended all earthly limitations.
A ‘Scientific Definition of God’
Stanley Kubrick claimed the film provided a “scientific definition of God”. There was little drama in Darwin’s evolution. Just the slow, solid state of inexorable change. So Kubrick and Clarke invoked a fictional form of Stephen J Gould’s ‘punctuated equilibrium’. The film augments the usual driving force of evolution, long periods of steady change, with the episodic guiding hand of superior beings. It is a story of the effective creation and resurrection of Man.
As Clarke suggests in his book of the screenplay: “Almost certainly there is enough land in the sky to give every member of the human species, back to the first apeman, his own private, world-sized heaven, or hell. How many of those potential heavens and hells are now inhabited and, by what manner of creatures, we have no way of guessing; the very nearest is a million times further away than Mars or Venus, those still remote goals of the next generation. But the barriers of distance are crumbling; one day we shall meet our equals, or our masters, among the stars”.
A final key influence can also be identified. Physical scientists have historically held a deterministic view of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. As the Clarke quote above from 2001 clearly shows, this determinism is based mostly on the physical forces in the Universe. The idea that the sheer number of stars and orbiting planets is statistically sufficient to suggest other Earths lie waiting in the vastness of deep space. Fiction, for many centuries, followed suit. Since Copernicus came before Darwin, and physics before biology, fictional accounts of alien life have usually been positioned firmly in the pro-SETI, pro-life camp of the extraterrestrial life debate. By the twentieth century, an entire generation of future SETI-hunters were cast under the same spell.
As the millennium drew to a close, the story changed. Pioneers of the evolutionary synthesis (the fusion of evolutionary biology with genetics), were Theo Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr. They emphasised that whilst physics and fiction still think along deterministic lines, evolutionists are impressed by the incredible improbability of intelligent life ever to have evolved, even on Earth. We may, after all, be alone in the Universe. Such has been the power of science fiction. Its exploration of evolution and the future of man led directly to a huge investment in the serious search for ET.
Professor Mark Brake
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