Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey, a review

Warning: Spoilers

Our species has come a long way in what amounts to a relative eyeblink of history. From apes quarreling in the dirt over scraps of food we’ve progressed to feudal monarchies to our present democracies. From bone tools we invented firearms and the printing press, and now enjoy incredible computing power and life-saving drugs and surgical equipment.

But some things haven’t changed a lot. Humanity continues to remain stagnant physically. Our houses of flesh still chain us to the earth. Although our life spans have increased and we’ve eradicated many diseases, bright minds old and young are snuffed out every day by untimely heart attacks and strokes. We’re also limited by many of our old prejudices and warlike tendencies. While the threat of the cold war and mutual nuclear annihilation has passed, national security is still a grave concern, as the threat of international terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and dirty bombs into the hands of volatile countries are existential threats to our survival.

Dystopias like Blade Runner and 1984 argue that things may get much worse, not better, for humanity. But not according to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s film expresses the hope that one day we will evolve beyond our physical and societal handicaps, and will either come face to face with God or achieve a form of technological singularity (depending on your beliefs).

While I’m a huge fan of the film 2001 until recently I had never read Arthur C. Clarke’s companion novel (1968). I’m glad I did, as it’s not a mere 1:1 translation. Written concurrently with Kubrick's movie, it deviates in a few places and also serves to explain some of the more vexing sequences of the film. For example, the movie does not explain why HAL-9000, a seemingly perfect computer incapable of error, goes off-kilter and murders the ship’s occupants. The book offers a credible explanation: HAL knows the real purpose of the starship Discovery’s mission (to investigate a likely second alien monolith on one of the moons of Saturn) and is asked to keep it a secret from the two pilots. This constant deception drives HAL crazy. Writes Clarke, “For like his makers, Hal had been created innocent; but, all too soon, a snake had entered his electronic Eden. For the last hundred million miles, he had been brooding over a secret he could not share…he had been living a lie; and the time was fast approaching when his colleagues must learn that he had helped to deceive them.”

The book also offers a clearer picture of how aliens influenced our evolution by providing the rough operation and purpose of the mysterious monoliths. While Clarke’s writing does not surpass the amazing images of space that made the film so famous, his descriptions instill the same awe. I say with complete honesty that I did not understand the massive scale of Jupiter and Saturn and the true vastness of space until I read Clarke’s novel. I also learned much about the incredible danger of operating in a vacuum millions of miles from earth.

There are a few things I thought the film did better. Hal is much more menacing with his omnipresent glowing red eye in the movie, and Kubrick does a better job than Clarke making him/it feel like another member of the crew. I was sad to see the book omit the scene where he reads the crewmen’s lips.

2001 is a rich mine of ideas and offers many interpretations, but one of the things that most interests me is its idea of evolution post-Darwin. 2001 postulates that we will continue to evolve and overcome physical matter. It’s not even a question in Clarke’s universe: Our species will outgrow physical limitations and its awful tendency to kill one another, and eventually reach a new level of consciousness/conscience. It’s only a matter of time. The most moving scene in the novel is when this is revealed to astronaut David Bowman, shown to him by the aliens on a guided tour through a star gate. Bowman cries as the secrets of universe are laid bare. Even time will one day lose its sway. We will see all those whom we have loved once again. This is what the mysterious Starchild at the end of the film/book represents: A being that has transcended its physical form and evolved into a new level of being and consciousness, master of the universe, and at peace.

Although Clarke was an atheist to the end 2001 is nevertheless profoundly hopeful. We may have overshot Clarke’s prediction by 10 years (and counting) and at times seem like we’re making no progress as a species, but we can’t lose hope. We must continue to grow and evolve if we’re to survive. This is a planet of finite resources and finite space. We need to point ourselves towards the stars. Our space program may seem wasteful or extravagant when immediate issues like poverty and hunger are continued scourges, but we have to move onwards and upwards.

There’s way more going in 2001 than a brief review here can cover. It’s also a meditation on our tools, the things we rely on every day that aren’t part of our bodies but are nevertheless inseparable from who we are as a species. Because our first tools were used for destruction (hunting prey, and killing our own species) they’ve conditioned us to violence and to a lack of empathy, even more so now that weapons can kill from long range at the push of a button. Despite our love for computers and gadgets, tools are just in the end physical objects, and they alone will not our save our species. 2001 also introduces a fascinating conceit that a remote race of aliens influenced our evolution 3,000,000 years ago, and is still watching from afar, waiting for the day that we will take our place with them among the stars. Most depictions of aliens (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Independence Day, War of the Worlds) reduce them to hostile invaders, but 2001 postulates that any race of significantly advanced beings must be benevolent, as a warlike race with the capacity for inter-galaxy travel would have surely annihilated itself with its advanced weaponry were it not equally advanced morally and ethically.

2001: A Space Odyssey is (like a lot of SF) a book of ideas, and does not spend much effort on character development (we barely know who Bowman is; HAL is as much of a human as any of the characters). But if you like fiction that makes you think, and values substance over style, or if you enjoyed the film and want to learn more about its meaning, Clarke's work is certainly worth reading.


Tim Mayer said...

I was fortunate enough to read the novelization before seeing the movie. I always did love that final scene where the star child was regarding earth from the heavens, trying to decide what to do. Makes a lot more sense than the end of the movie

Barad the Gnome said...

If someone is determined to both watch the film and read the book, and I do recommend both, I propose book first, film second.

I had never researched the background and had always assumed the book came first. It certainly is a fascinating history. Even if you don't want to think as deeply as Brian does in his review, both book and film are worth your time.