2001: A Space Odyssey
© 1986 Arthur C. Clark, Stanley Kubrick
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, mankind makes an extraordinary discovery: unmistakable evidence of life outside the environs of Earth. An object on the moon makes plain the fact that three million years ago, extraordinary and intelligent creatures were present…but who they were, and what their interest or relationship was with Earth, is a mystery with clues as far removed as Saturn. 2001: A Space Odyssey, is both the story of a physical journey through the Solar System in search of answers, and a fatalistic view of mankind’s evolution.
Surely there is a word for completely misinterpreting the plot of a story based on pop culture references. It would apply to my experience with 2001, which was far as I was concerned was wholly about an astronaut named Dave’s struggle with the sentient artificial intelligence running his ship – and running amok. As it turns out, HAL-9000 is dispatched in one chapter here, and the story is mostly about mankind’s progress toward…oblivion? Clark combines technological optimism and Cold War fatalism in such a way that the ending really threw me. Admittedly, I was poised to be thrown: a sequence in which the main character is taken on a journey through the Cosmos by a greater lifeform reminded me of similar voyages in Contact and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Suffice it to say, in 2001 the main character does not return to Earth with a transcendental view of the universe to share with his fellows for their betterment. It’s more like the ending to Beneath the Planet of the Apes; though considering that the book begins with ape-men learning to use tools to smack around their neighbors, I suppose it’s appropriate.
2001 is dated in its optimistic predictions about our establishing sizable, stable outposts on Mars and the Moon. There’s not a lot of science actually mentioned, though, so once one ignores the date, anachronisms almost cease. (Okay, so the Soviet Union isn’t still around, and ‘tablets’ are around a few years before their time…) As an adventure set in space, it’s great fun, I knew what was coming with HAL, and even so the so realization by Dave that his computer was listening and moving against him succeeded. While there’s not a lot of hard science, 2001 does touch on a few heady topics, like the volatility of intelligence; considering the difficulties in managing human-made AI, the lead characters how we can reasonably expect to communicate with completely foreign intelligences. As unexpectedly grim as the ending was, I do appreciate Clarke for hinting that superior intelligence does not necessarily bring with it a “more evolved sensibility”. Naturally, I share Carl Sagan’s hope that if there are other intelligences out there, those with powers greater than ours, that their survival past ‘technological adolescence’ indicates they have their CRUSH KILL DESTROY instincts in check. That doesn’t mean they would recognize us as beings whose life merits respect, though. We might be as incidental to them as flies upon an interstellar windshield.