the cinematic world of DAVID BRIN

2001: A Space Odyssey: Shining Light on How Far We've Come

By David Brin, Ph.D.

The coming millennium -- (and yes, Alice, it starts January 1, 2001) -- has got me thinking. With just a few shopping days left, where are all the flying cars, antigravity belts, immortality pills, and space liners to balmy Venus we were promised! What about the muscle pills? Robot butlers? Teleportation?

The future's almost here, and the most science fictiony thing around seems to have been our recent, weird U.S. Presidential Election, one last spasm of Twentieth Century silliness.

Oh, there are so many aspects to this looming milestone that we could talk about. But let me focus on just one... the cardinal numeric figure of the year ahead -- 2001.

Before we get accustomed to writing it on our checks -- (and yes, we still have checks in the Twenty-First Century, who'd have figured?) -- what does the figure 2001 mean to you?

Why of course, it's a movie! One that, remarkably despite its age, still shines some amazing sparkles of perspective on our time. I'd like to use it in that vein right now, to point out a few things about the surprising world we're living in. A world that's even more amazing than Arthur C. Clarke imagined.

Yes, yes. Of course the book and film influenced me. How could they not? I was sixteen years old. Star Trek had been canceled and Norman Mailer was grousing that NASA engineers had achieved the impossible -- by somehow managing to make Project Apollo boring.

It would be more than a year before the space program delivered its most important product -- not the moon landing itself, but rather the greatest art work in history -- the image of Earth floating as a blue oasis in the desert of space. That gift wouldn't arrive till the end of 1968. Meanwhile, just about the only images that seemed to offer anything like promethean vision were contained in 2001: A Space Odyssey.


[image from hitormissmovies.com]

Oh, I could go on and on about mixed messages in the film. Its love-hate relationship with technology, for example. Or the story's ambivalence toward the notion of artificial intelligence. Or the quaint combination of optimism and pessimism that we saw repeated over and over again in the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov -- leading visionaries of their era -- both of whom worried that humanity might be far too snared by the sticky fibers of an aggressive Neolithic heritage ever to break free on its own.

Strangely, for one known as an idealist, Clarke seemed to be saying in 2001 (and in other works like Childhood's End) that we have no hope of transcending the mire of the past all by ourselves. Transcendence must come from without, via some kind of external intervention. Many felt that way during the turbulent sixties -- a time when it seemed Western Civilization might all-too easily destroy itself with the very brightest of its shiny new tools. If such intervention wasn't coming from old-time religion, it seemed possible to hope for delivery by kindly creatures from the sky.


[image from sixties.twoday.net]

Yes, I might talk all about that notion, which in the years since has become a grindingly tedious cliché. ("Oh, save us from ourselves, kind aliens!") Or else I could switch levels and describe how exciting the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was to a teenager like me! Especially a teen whose brain seemed better tuned to stories and images than the torrents of ecstatic music that sloshed over contemporary culture during those years -- the era of the Beatles, Doors and Rolling Stones.

There were millions of us, you know, though we tried to hide our deviancy. Oh, we liked the music just fine. But guys like me also felt just a bit alienated from the frenzied ardor that our peers devoted to rock 'n roll. All those songs were mere sounds, after all, and what was sound compared to light!

We hungered to be fed through the eyes, and through those flashing-cerebral prefrontal lobes. We wanted to be turned on by images, preferably active ones, supple, changing and McLuhan-cool, not lying dead on some canvas. Today there is a veritable feast of manic color, a full-spectrum orgy! But in the sixties we had little more than sardonic Warhol, some cartoony psychedelia... and science fiction.

During such a time, for visual-junkies like me, 2001 seemed to fall like manna in the desert. I came to watch again and again, staring for hours at Kubrick's voluptuously gray-blue-modern imagery, with those added touches of faux realistic grime.

Oh, I might wax effusive about how the film affected and inspired me, perhaps helping motivate my career in science. But how many tributes of that kind have you already read?

So let me shine a final beam from this epochal artwork onto quite a different direction. There is yet another perspective... one that just occurred to me a few months back, while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for about the fortieth time.


[image from themovieadvocate.com]

Consider the following two hoary old clichés:

"Isn't it a shame that human decency and justice haven't kept pace with our technological progress?"

and

"No past era featured as much cruelty and misery as this one."

In spite of their vogue, both of these oft-parroted passages are patently false. It's incredibly easy to disprove them!

Over half of those alive on Earth today never saw war, starvation or major civil strife with their own eyes. Most never went more than a day without food. Only a small fraction have seen a city burn, heard the footsteps of a conquering army, or watched an overlord brutalize the helpless. Yet all these events were routine for our ancestors!

Of course, hundreds of millions have experienced such things, and terrors continue at unacceptable levels across the world. Our consciences, prodded by the relentless power of television, must not cease demanding compassion and vigorous action.

Still, things have changed since humanity wallowed in hopelessness and horror, during the middle years of the Twentieth Century. Look in places that were festering maelstroms back then -- from Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur to Warsaw and Istambul. From Alabama to South Africa. The ratio of humans who now live modestly safe and comfortable lives -- or at least better than their parents -- has never been greater.

As for contrasting technical and moral progress, there's no contest! Technical advance has been small potatoes by comparison! For example, while I truly love the Internet, its effects on real life have so far been vastly exaggerated. Telephones and radio had far greater immediate effects when they entered the home! Oh yes, we have fancier autos and sleeker airplanes. But people still pack their kids in a car and fight traffic to reach the airport in time to meet Grandma's flight from Chicago... as we did when I was seven. Life's tempo has quickened, but the basic patterns differ little from 1958.

It is our attitudes that have undergone a transformation unlike any in history. All kinds of unjust assumptions that used to be considered inherent -- from racial, sexual and class stereotypes to ideological oversimplifications -- have been tossed onto the trash heap where they long deserved to go, in favor of a generalized notion of tolerance, pragmatism and eccentricity that seems to grow more vibrant with each passing year.


[image from art-wallpaper.net]

Where does 2001: A Space Odyssey come into all this?

When the famous Stanley Kubrick film appeared in the mid-sixties, two monumental projects transfixed the people of the United States -- conquering outer space and overcoming deeply ingrained social injustice. This juxtaposition is clear in the film... and its sequel, 2010. Both movies portray the scientific and manipulative power of humanity far outstripping our wisdom.

But is that, in fact, what happened?

Consider those wonderful toys. The "wheel" space stations, rotating to Strauss waltzes. Or those marvelous moon cities. Or vibrant, argumentative computer minds like Hal 9000. We have none of them, alas.

Now recall the human political hierarchies portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- hierarchies that were rigidly pyramidal, officious, patronizing and relentlessly white-male. Remember the film's basic plot premise? Every tragedy arose from obsessive secrecy, as aloof bureaucrats like Heywood Floyd contemptuously concealed information from the public -- and even from professional astronauts -- out of fear their poor sheeplike minds would suffer "social disorientation."

What horribly disorienting information were they protecting people from? An archeological dig on the moon?

Oooh!

Now don't get me wrong. That scenario seemed totally plausible then! The predictions -- both technical and social -- appeared to be so on-target.1

But they weren't. And that's where it gets so interesting.

Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow -- and yet, by the real year 2001 we'd refute so many cruel bigotries that were once taken for granted, way back in 1967? We still don't (again, alas!) have the fancy space stations of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but today our astronauts come in all sexes and colors. And kids who watch them on TV feel less fettered by presumed limitations. Each may choose to hope, or not, without relentlessly hearing you can't.

In this year 2001, an officious prig like Heywood Floyd would be haunted by whistleblowers. And one crewmember of Discovery, being female, might actually listen to poor HAL instead of bullying the poor conflicted machine into feeling cornered and lashing out.

No, this is not a criticism of 2001: A Space Odyssey! The film did a great job in the context of its time and it remains terrific art. Indeed, it is not the job of art -- even sci fi -- to predict!

Especially in science fiction, art is at its best when it helps put things into perspective, which is what this venerable collaboration between Kubrick and Clarke still does, even where the forecasts proved wrong.

2001: A Space Odyssey can, and should, make you think. About all the fancy toys we were promised, but don't yet have as the millennium rolls around. And about a society that Clarke feared would stay the recalcitrant... but hasn't.

I think that may be the most important thing to notice, as we turn away from the past and face the future. The road ahead remains long, hard and murky. Our achievements often seem dim compared to imperfections that are left unsolved. But at this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won't preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?

Progress doesn't always go the way we expect it to.

It is sometimes wiser than we are.

THE END

1 Instead of acknowledging the progress we have made in overcoming our worst evils, cinema seems to have gone in the opposite direction, shifting from the brash "we're going to conquer space" assumption of Destination Moon and 2001 to "we're all gonna be dodging bullets and mutants in ruined cities" in films too numerous to mention. This may be one reason for the persistence of the cliché that social progress lags far behind technology. Optimism just doesn't offer as many options for drama!

I cover this in more detail elsewhere, in an article entitled "Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots... or Why Fiction Routinely Depicts Society and its Citizens as Fools," Extrapolation 41 (2000): 7-20.

Me? I keep hearing a Beatles song from the same era as 2001: A Space Odyssey...

"Don'tcha know it's gonna be... all right..."

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