Fantasy Reading List

Fantasy Reading List: 2001 – A Space Odyssey

What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? 2001: A Space Odyssey was written at the same time as the film was in development. Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick collaborated on the story, and the book was published after the film was released, although they differ in detail and in mood. The book has many themes, exploring the use and abuse of technology and the perils of evolution and progress. Arthur C Clarke ponders the evolution of mankind and the possibility of transhumanism, and asks questions about what it means to be conscious and the pain of self-awareness.

I enjoyed the book, although it’s obvious that Clarke is more interested in the ideas and potentials of the technology than in the characters, which were undeveloped and not very dimensional. It felt a little bloodless, but there may be a good reason for that, as we’ll see.

Despite these misgivings, it’s well written and the descriptions of space are particularly vivid. I enjoyed playing ‘spot the technological prediction’ and marvelled at the ones he missed. Some predictions he gets so right it’s spooky, while others are dead wrong. For example, computers still use magnetic tape to store information, but there’s the Newspad on which you can read newspapers beamed through space, constantly updated with the latest developments, which is pretty close to an iPad. It’s a shame the Velcro slippers (for walking in zero gravity) never took off though!

One of the things that struck me was the way the astronauts felt looking back at the Earth from space. It was strangely flat and unemotional. There was no sense of the unity of life or the Overview effect reported by astronauts. I had to keep reminding myself that the book was written before the moon landings, so Clarke didn’t know how the astronauts were going to react. The only sense of the unity of mankind comes with the description of how people are organised in space. Once you’re through the barriers and your documents have been checked, everyone is free to mix. In the future, the divisions between the peoples of the Earth are for administrative purposes only.

Earth rising over the lunar horizon

It appears Clarke missed the awakening of unity and the realisation of the preciousness of life on Earth that the moon landings engendered in people. But this may have been deliberate because it would have interfered with the underlying themes of the story. Or it could be a blind spot in the author.

In the book, life as a physical experience is dismissed as something to escape. The fact that man is embodied in matter is problematic for Clarke. It would be better if we all evolved as quickly as possible so we can get away from Earth and fly about as pure rational minds. It’s possible to read this as a gnostic idea, of the soul escaping the prison of the body and returning to its origin in spirit, but I have my doubts thanks to the way the book ends.

When Dave Bowman looks back at the Earth earlier in the story, all he thinks about is how he’s going to be rich and famous when he returns. He’s on the ego trip of a lifetime. When he does finally return, it’s not as he imaged, and it may actually be worse…

A Space Odyssey to Nowhere

I’m going to work through the book and explore some of the ideas in the story so if you haven’t read it (or seen the film), stop reading now – or enter the Spoiler Zone

The story begins with a troupe of man-apes struggling to survive in Africa. A strange monolith appears near their cave – it’s not the black slab of the film, but transparent with patterns that play over its surface and mess with the man-apes’ heads. The leader of the troupe, Moon-Watcher, is transformed by the monolith and starts to feel discontent for the first time in his life.

The man-apes’ fate is sealed…

Aliens (who we never meet) have left monoliths scattered all over the planet as an experiment to influence the evolution of life on earth. Our little troupe of man-apes are starving because they haven’t learnt how to kill yet. But the monolith soon sorts them out and Moon-Watcher is inspired to kill a pig. It’s a case of evolve or die – they either have to kill to survive or die out.

So Moon-Watcher becomes a murderer and this is his first step on the road to humanity. Of course, animals had been killing and eating each other for millennia, but this is the first act of conscious, deliberate murder.

The monolith programmes the man-apes to use tools and this is what triggers their evolution towards humanity. However, I didn’t understand why they had to be programmed for this. Other animals use and make tools, so there’s no need for this intervention. Tools aren’t either good or bad – they just are. It depends on how you use them and for that you need ideas.

It wasn’t the use of tools – or technology – that turned apes into humans, and it’s not tools that make us dangerous. What makes us human is our use of symbolism and the ability to abstract another reality from the one we live in as physical beings. But the premise underpinning the book is that of escaping the Earth and evolving beyond the physical, and for that you must have abstraction and symbolism, so according to Clarke, these must be wholly good – not something that might cause us to commit murder.

Perhaps the first step towards becoming human happens when Moon-Watcher kills his opposite number in the neighbouring troupe. Killing the pig isn’t murder, it’s survival and no different to what every other carnivore does. Just ask a lion. But killing someone like him is murder. Moon-Watcher could have shared his new skills or shared his food, rather than killing his rival. The idea that human evolution is built on violence and murder is a convenient half-truth used to perpetuate war and dominance, and this dim view of humanity colours the entire novel.

Back to the story: to kill the leader of the other troupe, Moon-Watcher takes the head of a leopard he killed earlier (in self-defence), puts it on the end of a stick and uses it to scare the shit out of the other man-apes.

“For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his new victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again. Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.”

So humanity evolves, remade over time by the use of their tools. But no mention of the ideas that influence how those tools are to be used because we’re foreshadowing what’s to come…

“Without those weapons, often though he had used them against himself, Man would never have conquered his world. Into them he had put his heart and soul, and for ages they had served him well.

But now, as long as they existed, he was living on borrowed time.”

Now the story jumps into the future (the present of the book, i.e. 2001, or our past – keep up 😉 ) and the discovery of the monolith on the moon, placed there at the same time as the man-apes encountered the monolith on Earth, 3 million years ago. They dig it up and this triggers the next part of the story which is really the heart of the book: Dave Bowman’s mysterious quest.

We join David Bowman and Frank Poole on the Discovery spaceship travelling to Saturn on a mission neither of them fully understand. Three more crew members sleep in hibernation pods (now a standard trope of Sci-Fi movies), while Dave and Frank follow a detailed, and boring, routine day after day as they journey through space. The only other ‘person’ on board is the ship’s computer: HAL 9000, one of the great inventions of science fiction and the only character in the book who feels dimensional (ironically).

Unblinking eye…

HAL is so smart, a computer designed and built by other computers, that the humans don’t really understand how he works. The humans, in fact, are pretty much expendable. Inevitably, something goes wrong and HAL begins to malfunction. It’s not clear if he’s doing it deliberately or if it’s a technical glitch, but slowly the crew begin to fear the computer. The tool they created has turned against them.

As they get further from the Earth, the links that connect them to the rest of humanity become stretched to breaking point. The loneliness of space becomes overwhelming and there’s nothing to keep the astronauts connected with humanity. So it’s ironic that the problem HAL ‘discovers’ involves the ship’s ability to connect with Earth.

In a mirror of Moon-Watcher killing the other (less evolved) man-ape, HAL causes the death of Frank Poole while Frank is outside the ship trying to fix the problem that HAL claims is there. But it becomes apparent the computer is lying. Bowman fights to take back control of the ship, but HAL goes totally mental and tries to kill everyone, believing only he can complete the mission. Bowman can’t shut down the computer because it runs the ship, so he performs a lobotomy by removing its higher reasoning centres. Poor HAL.

“‘Dave,’ said HAL, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me…I have the greatest enthusiasm for the mission…You are destroying my mind…Don’t you understand?…I will become childish…I will become nothing…”

It turns out that HAL was suffering from guilt and was just trying to cover his tracks. One lie led to another until it got totally out of control and the only way to protect himself from being found out was to kill everybody. But why did he lie in the first place? He knew the full mission, but the crew didn’t. So HAL had to keep secrets, and his huge brain couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance.

Not human enough, it would seem. Humans excel at lying and keeping secrets.

Anyway, once HAL is gone, Bowman is even more alone. He’s finally given all the information on the mission: they’re looking for the civilisation that left the monolith on the moon, but have no idea what to expect.

Discovery arrives at Iapetus, one of Saturn’s moons (spelt Japetus in the book), and Bowman sees another monolith on its surface: the Star Gate (now another standard trope). He approaches in his space pod and the monolith inverts, the roof drops away into a vertical shaft that appears to fall forever:

“The Eye of Japetus had blinked, as if to remove an irritating speck of dust. David Bowman had time for just one broken sentence, which the waiting men in Mission Control, nine hundred million miles away and ninety minutes in the future, were never to forget:

‘The thing’s hollow – it goes on for ever – and – oh my God – it’s full of stars!’”

Bowman passes through a kind of Grand Central Station of the Galaxy in his space pod, and is eventually carried into an alien sky. He has no idea where he has ended up and there doesn’t seem to be anybody about. There’s some great description of space here and all the sights Bowman passes on his way to…

…a hotel room.

He undergoes the kind of life review reported by people who have had a near death experience, but retrogresses back to being a child and is reborn. The monolith reappears and does its thing, fiddling with the new child’s head and David Bowman is no more. He evolves into the Star Child and returns to Earth where he detonates an orbiting nuclear warhead.

Um, why?

Apparently, just because he can, to test his strength and willpower, although it might be because he thinks the people of Earth are about to blow him out of the sky. He doesn’t think to communicate with Earth and explain his presence, he just acts, apparently without thought or understanding.

The explosion creates a false dawn on Earth and this suggests the Star Child is a sun god, a returning solar saviour come to save humanity perhaps…?

“Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.”

So this is the future of humanity according to Arthur C Clarke: to evolve beyond matter, like the aliens who created the monoliths. They have become beings of pure energy, free of the “tyranny of matter,” who have preserved their thoughts in “frozen lattices of light.” The aliens are as close to gods as you’re going to get, but they have no real substance. They float above the world, like the Star Child, disembodied and detached.

But just as Clarke focuses too much on the actual tools and forgets the ideas behind the tools and why we use them, he forgets why Bowman evolves. It’s a purely material evolution. There’s no content, no value to it. The phrase, “But he would think of something” presumably refers to rational thought, since that is what Clarke values. But rational thought only tells you how to do something, not why.

Passively going where no man has gone before…

By evolving into the Star Child, David Bowman becomes the Divine Child, usually the result of an alchemical transmutation of opposites. But he has done nothing to warrant this achievement. Apart from a brief tussle with a mad computer, he has been passive throughout the story and his final evolution was induced by the monolith without understanding or choice on his part – same as the man-apes at the start of the book.

This is an apotheosis that misunderstands what union with the divine means because the basic premise is anchored in the materialist paradigm. Transcendence means nothing if it isn’t rooted in time and the divine means nothing without the human. The transhumanists are deluding themselves if they believe life can mean something without death.

The Divine Child is born as the result of inner wholeness. But Bowman isn’t a whole human being so it comes across as a psychotic break. He has escaped the body and transcended death. And he believes in absolutely nothing.

More from the Fantasy Reading List

Image: Earthrise

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9 thoughts on “Fantasy Reading List: 2001 – A Space Odyssey

  1. This story and the whole saga around it is intriguing and many of the why’s are never fully answered. This approach kept the followers of the story interested an perhaps ultimately disappointed but I think you hit on something earlier – this story was a platform for many of Clarke’s ideas around the future, technology and human evolution.

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  2. Clarke was one of the big three of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (the other two being Heinlein and Asimov) with all the strengths and weaknesses that go with it.

    On the one hand they lifted sci-fi above the realm of bug-eyed monster horror stories that had dominated since the 20s but they still did so within the medium of pulp magazines. They were turning out production line stories for a few cents a word, often to tight schedules, leaving little room for character development or quality prose. Instead they relied on ideas and plot (which also tended to reveal themselves as formulaic once you’d read a few of their works). Much of their developing style was enforced by the appalling John W Campbell, the demented crypto-fascist editor who ruled US science fiction publishing in the 50s and early 60s.

    2001 is a cut above Clarke’s usual work, something I attribute to the superior visual imagination of Kubrick. Clarke’s sequels were considerably weaker. Nonetheless I think some of your criticisms were a bit unfair.

    Although Clarke was the first person to speculate about artificial satellites in fiction I think checking sci-fi for its futuristic predictions is missing the point. Technology may be front and centre but it’s a means to an end and the end is to articulate ideas about where humanity is at the time of writing. 2001 was built upon Clarke’s 1940s short story, The Sentinel, which is, to the best of my knowledge, the first popular fiction to introduce the idea that mankind’s evolution had been monitored and directed by extraterrestrials. That idea was to become the God of the Space Age that was to exert so much influence over the late 20th Century and make the fortunes of people like Erich von Daniken and L. Ron Hubbard. The idea that humanity is built on violence and murder but might somehow escape the body and mortality is just a carry over of Biblical themes into the new religion. So I think your projection of your own idea of the ‘Divine Child’ and the meaning of the life/death duality and your critique from those perspectives is kinda misguided. It’s no different to a Christian criticising religions that don’t acknowledge Jesus as their saviour, except inasmuch as Clarke and Kubrick (unlike Hubbard) never claimed to be writing anything more than escapist fiction.

    Likewise, noting that humans aren’t the only animals to use tools is a bit anachronistic. Man as the uniquely tool using animal was a pretty much unchallenged trope before Jane Goodall reported on chimps fashioned twigs into termite extraction devices. The realisation that corvids also make tools came even later. There have been several other ‘uniquely human traits’ that haven’t stood the test of time and I suspect your notions about symbolism and abstraction will be another one (in fact they already look pretty shaky). We aren’t really some kind of pinnacle of creation Jess. We’re continuous with all the rest of it. And we’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding animal cognition.

    I hardly think Dave’s failure to experience something akin to the Overview Effect is a flaw either. It was only ever expressed by a small minority of astronauts (and cosmonauts), some of whom never reached the moon.

    Even by the standards of 1968 Clarke was already a dated hack, as were his fellow Golden Age behemoths. They were the ones who set the low standards that allowed so many to dismiss the genre as non-literary pulp (something we’re seeing again now as ignorant critics suggest that Margaret Atwood somehow elevated sci-fi above mere space opera). But what they did was introduce a lot of powerful ideas into the genre, literature, culture and society as a whole. It’s those ideas more than the futuristic technology that we’re living today. They didn’t predict it. They created it.

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    1. I’m probably projecting all sorts onto it – can’t be helped…

      As to aliens and human evolution, I thought Lovecraft more or less invented it in his Cthulhu stories in 1928. I haven’t read them, so I can’t be sure.

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      1. I’ve read a few and I don’t think you’re missing much. I hate Lovecraft.

        The point of Cthulhu and his ilk is that they don’t give a damn about humans – not even those who worship them. They’re just so many bugs to them. They’ve been influencing human development (though I’m less sure about evolution) since before the dawn of history but it’s purely incidental. Other than the undifferentiated malevolence they hold towards everything they just don’t care.

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        1. Probably wise.

          I read Lovecraft as a teenager, when I had limited access to fiction and the only thing I knew about him was that he was a famous author. I’ve also read a few books by other authors that further develop his themes and I don’t think they’re much better.

          There’s way too many good writers out there to waste time with a Lovecraft in your hand. And he wasn’t just a bad writer either. He was an arsehole.

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        2. “In a writer like Lovecraft a terror of sex often combines (or is confused for) a terror of the masses, the ‘ugly’ crowd. But this is so common to so much ‘horror’ fiction that it’s hardly worth discussing. Lovecraft is morbid. His work equates to that negative romanticism found in much Nazi art. He was a confused anti-Semite and misanthrope, a promoter of anti-rationalist ideas about racial ‘instinct’ which have much in common with Mein Kampf. A dedicated supporter of ‘Aryanism’, a hater of women, he wound up marrying a Jewess (which might or might not have been a sign of hope — we haven’t her view of the matter) Lovecraft appeals to us primarily when we are ourselves feeling morbid. Apart from his offensively awful writing and a resultant inability to describe his horrors (leaving us to do the work — the secret of his success — we’re all better writers than he is!) he is rarely as frightening, by implication, as most of the other highly popular writers whose concerns are not with ‘meeping Things’ but with idealised versions of society. It’s not such a big step, for instance from Farnham’s Freehold to Hitler’s Lebensraum. ”
          – From Starship Stormtroopers by Michael Moorcock

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