Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.


Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.


The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

2001: A Space Odyssey

Once more, a movie that was both a novel and a screenplay. But, unlike others I reviewed (Blade Runner, Dune), Space Odyssey was actually a movie that was later novelized. Not the cheap, dime-store novelizations that seek to cash in on the movies’ success mind you. No, this was a case of collaboration, where a scientist-turned-writer (Arthur C Clarke) collaborated with a filmmaker (Stanley Kubrick) to produce a movie, with the former writing the novel version simultaneously, but which was released after. And the combination worked pretty well, if I do say so myself! Clarke offered up the hard science and futurism while Kubrick brought the cinematic vision and directorial talent. But to be honest and fair about it, the novel was just not as good. I say that with all love and respect for Clarke, may he rest in peace. But that’s just the way I felt, having seen the movie and read the book. Whereas the movie was raw and emotional when it needed to be, capturing the awe and terror of space exploration and the unknown, Clarke approached these things with a sort of stoic detachment. And whereas the movie was a bit more complex in its depiction of technology and artificial intelligence, Clarke’s views were much more straightforward. But that was to be expected. Clarke was a futurist, after all, seeing humanity as perfectible through progress and the scientific method. Things like human nature, emotion, instinct and the fallibility of science were not really things that showed up on his radar much.

But that’s something for the literary reviews. Right now, it’s the movie that need dissecting. So once more, lets get into this sci-fi, cinematic classic and see why it was such a big hit.

Even though it received mixed reviews when first released, 2001 has gone on to become one of the highest ranked movies of all time. Fans, the Academy Awards, and numerous polls place it in the top 10, with the Moving Arts Journal going as far as to rank it the number one movie of all time in 2010. Its visual style and its classical score, along with its thematic breadth and scientific realism, make it a favorite of movie-goers, critics and cinema cultists alike. And time doesn’t appear to have diminished this much. Of all Kubrick’s films, 2001 is often ranked as his greatest accomplishment, though there has been no shortage of competition for the top slot! For Clarke, the novels that followed the movie’s release were largely responsible for him being rocketed to fame as one of the “Big Three” of science fiction, alongside Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In addition, the success of the original novel Clarke to pen three sequels, 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey, the first of which was also made into a movie (for a more in-depth look at these novels, see my review, Clarke and his Odysseys)

The film opens with the classic score, playing in front of planet Earth during a sunrise. I don’t imagine I need to tell anyone what a powerful opening this is. We see the planet Earth from space, is all its glory, and the music instantly captures the feeling of awe and wonder that defines the film. We then cut to the African desert, during what is referred to as “The Dawn of Man”, where a tribe of herbivorous apes are foraging for food in a hostile landscape. Through a series of images, we get a pretty clear view of their world and how they are struggling to survive in their harsh environment. All of their time is dedicated to foraging for food and water, they are in a constant state of competition with other animals and other tribes of simians (not to mention being preyed upon by hungry leopards!) However, their world changes forever when they wake up one morning and find that something in their environment has changed: a tall, black monolith has appeared out of nowhere and now sits in the middle of their encampment. Naturally, they begin to freak out and throw things at it, crying out loud and generally panicking in its presence. Slowly, they come to accept its presence and even begin to run their hands along its smooth surface, realizing that it does not pose them any immediate harm.

And I got to say, this scene was masterfully done! It’s perhaps the first example of everything the movie does right. The reactions of the actors playing the simians is perfect. How they initially panic and only slowly, very slowly, begin to calm down and even become intrigued by the monolith. The music also serves to heighten the feeling of uncertainty to the point where little is happening on screen, but we known in our hearts that something terribly significant is really going on. This music comes up again later in the movie, illustrating a direct parallel between when man’s early ancestors encountered the unknown in their own world and modern humans do the same with space exploration. It’s scary and exhilarating all at once.

Shortly thereafter, we see the simians going about their business as usual. But then, while picking amongst a set of dry bones, one of the tribe has a searing burst of revelation. Picking up what looks like an animal femur, he begins to realize (slowly, of course) that he can club things with it. As the scene picks up, the music reaching a crescendo, we get the same sort of feeling as when the apes encountered the monolith, except in reverse. What begins as a sort of tame display mounts until the ape is overcome with feeling, thrashing and smashing everything around him. And then, the camera cutting between the bones and a falling animal, we see him applying the lesson by killing another animal with it! That night, the tribe eats meat, and the transition from herbivores to omnivores has begun. We also see a frightening scene the next day, as a rival group of simians encounters them at a watering hole. But whereas the two groups would just shout at each other until one retreated, this time an ape is killed. The bone-carrying ape has passed on the lesson of the club to his kin, and they take turn beating their rival until he’s dead. The scene ends with a silent moment as the ape tosses the bone in the air, it swirls around and around, falling ever towards Earth… And then boom! The bone becomes a satellite, and the skies have become space in orbit around planet Earth.

Where do I begin? Once again, the sheer amount of significance in this scene. We are given, sans dialogue and through a series of brief but poignant scenes, a glimpse at how humanity came to evolve. From being herbivores who had to claw and scratch for every inch to omnivores who asserted control over their environment through the use of tools. And what accounted for this leap? A simple act of deductive reasoning, but clearly, higher forces appear to have played a part… Oooooo! Yes, that’s the impression we are meant to have, that the sudden appearance of the monolith and how it coincided with a jump start in evolution was no coincidence. But since there is no dialogue, all of this is going on in our minds, and it was bloody effective!

Cue part II, named TMA-1. The story begins to unfold then as we get some shots of life in orbit around Earth, aboard the international space station, and then moving through a drawn out montage to the Moon. This is perhaps one weakness in the movie, the many scenes that seem to go on and on, classically scored and containing no dialogue. They are pleasant, and you get an obvious sense of scope and breadth from them, but for the most part… they’re kinda boring. But as I realized when I first watched it, the movie was made in a time when people actually had attention spans! In addition, the idea is to give us a glimpse of the future which is both cheery and wonderful, showing how far we’ve come and how technology has made so much possible. They also pace the movie between its more dramatic bits, where there’s meaningful interaction or drawn out scenes where everything is tense and dramatic. In any case, as I said, the story unfolds. We are told in no uncertain terms that the Cold War is still on, that the Americans have a colony on the moon that is being quarantined and the Russians suspect something is up.

We then see Doctor Heywood Floyd, chairman of the National Council of Astronautics (a futuristic version of NASA) travel to the Moon where he discusses with his peers how the quarantine story is not holding up, followed by another, though comparatively brief, scene where he is being shuttled out to the surface so he (and the audience) can see exactly what it is they are hiding. Some dialogue serves to fill in the blanks, explaining what the real situation is around the colony and what TMA-1 stands for. Basically, they’ve found an object which appears to have been “purposefully buried” millions of years ago. Its designation is “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1”. Everything becomes clear when they set down and begin walking around the excavation in space suits, and we see that what they’ve uncovered is in fact a monolith, one that is identical to the monolith encountered by the apes… I’m getting the tinglies! I should also not that this scene is a perfect example of the movie’s scientific realism. Not a trace of sound is heard as the astronauts are busy walking about, save for their breathing and the rumpling of space suits. This is in keeping with the physics in the vacuum of space, no atmosphere equals no sound. But then, each of them is momentarily deafened by a huge burst of radio-static that sets their teeth on edge! When it passes, they all look tellingly at the monolith…

Cut ahead to Part III, which is named Jupiter Mission. Here we see the spacecraft Odyssey for the first time as it slowly passes beyond the reaches of the inner solar system on its way to Jupiter. The crew are just waking up and David Bowman, one of the pilots, is busy jogging around the ship’s centrifugal section. His counterpart, Frank Poole, is also up and about soon, and the two are going through some expository things. This includes an interview which they are watching, newscasters back at Earth having sent questions and taken their answers while editing out the time delay. The interview features as segment where they talk to the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, they eerily calm-voiced robot with the red camera eyes. He seems like a swell guy, and boasts that like all 9000 series models, he is error-free. Can you say foreshadowing? We get treated to some more exposition as HAL discusses some misgivings he has about the mission to David, mainly over the amount of secrecy and how its official purpose doesn’t add up.

And then, to get the plot rolling again, HAL announces that he’s found a malfunction in the ship’s main array. The pilots look it over and determine there’s no problem, and the folks back at Earth say the same. Apparently, HAL has made an error! While discussing their options in the privacy of one of the shuttle pods, Bowman and Poole decide that it might be best to shut HAL down and go on without him. But HAL can see them, and reads their lips. We get a nice, big closeup of his big red eye… and are worried! As well we should be, because when Poole goes out to put the array back together, his pod suddenly turns on him. Bowman is then summoned to one of the ship’s terminals and sees a video feed of Poole flying off into space, his oxygen hose broken and his body flailing. He then jumps into another pod, forgetting his helmet, and sails off to rescue Frank’s body. But when he returns to the ship, HAL refused to let him in. “I’m sorry Dave, but I cannot do that…” he says, a line that lives on in infamy! So Bowman decides to take a huge risk and open the ship’s secondary airlock, where he then blows out the pod’s door and is catapulted into the ship’s airlock. Before he can be sucked out again, he grabs hold of the controls and seals himself shut and re-pressurizes the room. While this might sound a tad far-fetched, it was actually very realistic. For one, there’s no sound until air starts flooding back into the airlock. Second, Poole’s body is tossed about like a rag doll by the explosive decompression and he barely survives it (clearly they used a real one).

Strapping into a spacesuit, Bowman then stalks around the ship while HAL tries to “reason” with him. Basically, he’s doing the sanitized, stoic version of begging for his life, and he’s right to because Bowman’s first stop is HAL’s circuit room. Slowly, HAL begins to shut down as David pulls more and more of his components out. A frightening scene, as we are basically witnessing the AI’s version of being lobotomized. As its happening, he keeps saying “I can feel my mind going…” until he finally breaks down and begins singing “Daisy” in a faltering voice. When Bowman is finally done, one of the monitors come on with a transmission from Earth. As if there could be a worse time, the true nature of the mission is now being explained. Seems the monolith on the moon was sending out a transmission, and its destination… Jupiter!

Thus begins the final part of the movie. The title is certainly indicative: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. This entire section is strictly visuals, that same frightening music in the background, and not a touch of dialogue. The entire climax is told with the special effects and facial expressions, conveying incredible awe, wonder, and terror. Thankfully, Clarke’s novel version told audiences what they needed to know. Essentially, Bowman has arrived within the vicinity of Jupiter’s Jovian moons, and found yet another monolith! This one is bigger, much, much bigger. And it appears to be moving around in response to his presence. When he gets close to it in one of the Discovery’s pods, it pulls up horizontally, its black profile disappearing into the dark of space. The camera then pans upwards, and a visual light show begins. We are told in the novel, and the second movie, that Bowman’s last words before “disappearing” were: “My God, its full of stars!” Like I said, no utterances in the movie, Bowman simply seems to have entered the monolith and is shooting through space and time. We get several stills of his face frozen in looks of terror, the colors becoming vivid and changing drastically with each frame. He also seems to be seeing incredible things, things that the audience can only guess at. But, for my money, he appears to be witnessing the birth of stars, the formations of planets, and the beginnings of life itself. In technicolor!

Finally, the light show ends and Bowman appears to be hovering over what appears to be an alien landscape. The colors are still psychedelic, but everything returns to a normal chromatic pattern when he finds himself inside a some kind of living space. At first, he’s himself, in his spacesuit walking around. He then sees himself change into an older man, eating a meal at the table, then transitions to the bed where he is a very old man and clearly near death. He then looks up and sees himself as a child still in the womb. More curious visuals the audience is left to puzzle over. Is he witnessing his own lifespan, or is this a metaphor for his death and rebirth as something new? According to the novel, the latter appears to be the case. He’s not sure why or even how, but making contact with the monolith has changed him. He’s become The Star Child, and he can see home from where he now sits. Earth, the moon, the stars, and the entire cosmos. Much like the apes who had undergone a great change in their own time, he too has achieved a cosmic leap in evolution, all because of his contact with an artifact that no one can even begin to understand.

As I’ve said before, this movie was masterfully done in the way it relied on visuals and music to tell the story. This was not always easy considering how complex the material was and how deep the themes ran. Almost without words, Kubrick and Clarke told said volumes about human evolution, consciousness, evolution, technology, and artificial intelligence. And it all ran together, in spite of what you might think. HAL’s malfunction was no stray commentary on the dangers of AI. If anything, it was a commentary on the dangers of intelligence, as personified by the apes who suddenly became very violent once they learned how to use basic tools. Bowman’s death and transformation was also a commentary on this process of evolution, how it can be painful and sometimes might involves a great deal of loss. And last, but certainly not least, there is the awe and wonder of it all. Nothing frightens more than the unknown, and nothing fails to inspire us more. But always there is danger in peaking around those corners. And what better way to personify this danger than through a big, black, monolith? Yep, I tell ya, those towering, featureless shapes still inspire fear and intrigue for me today. As does the classical store! If you haven’t seen it, do so. And for the love of God, do it sober! You need to be clear of mind to appreciate all the nuances of this movie. Never mind that it was made in 1968 and many people were high when they first saw it!

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (bit slow, can be incomprehensible at times too)
Plot: 10/10 (oh yeah!)
Direction: 10/10 (double oh yeah!)
Total: 9/10

Of Clarke and his Odyssey’s

2001_Space_StationNo doubt about it, 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of the coolest, most memorable, and enduring movies I ever saw. Strange, considering there wasn’t that much dialogue in the film, and some would say that not much happened. But that’s the thing about Kubrick movies, they are very subtextual. And of course, Clarke’s involvement can not be minimized. But I’m here to talk about Clarke specifically, and the many books that came out of this screenplay that he and Kubrick created.

For starters, the books were quite different from the original movie. They contained only trace elements of the fear and intense awe that were there in the original movie. In fact, Clarke can be accused of being quite dry, in my opinion, his books somewhat technocratic and devoid of a lot of the complex emotions human beings are known to have. In fact, I was generally disappointed with the ending he wrote, how astronaut Frank Bowman was perfectly okay being whisked millions of light years away from home and transformed into the “Star Child”.

2001One would think that a person’s psyche would shatter under the strain of knowing that they were being transported across the universe, never to see home again. One would also think that a process of metamorphosis, whereby a human being was being forced to leave behind their corporeal body in favor of some higher form, would be absolutely terrifying. One would think that, but nope!

Still, Odyssey’s main strength lay in its scientific explorations of a future world as well its explorations of extra-terrestrial intelligence. The idea of an alien race that was so advanced and evolved that it had effectively left its bodies behind was groundbreaking, as was the idea of a monolith. The perfectly proportional shape, rectangles laid out in a ratio of 1:2:3; much better than bulky spaceships and little green men I must say!

Also, the story introduced the world to Hal, the AI who, thanks its exposure to human intrigue, becomes homicidal, all the while with that perfect, clinical manner of his! Frightening as he was in the movie, the book contained more depth and drew out the conflict between him and Bowman. In the end, Hal tried to decompress the ship when he realized he had lost control of the mission, which was much more effective than the rather truncated flow of events that happened in the original screenplay.

2010_cover2010: Odyssey Two, was similarly interesting. In this installment, a second mission is mounted to discern what came of the first. They discover the ship, reactive Hal, and learn that the secrecy surrounding contact with the Monolith was what drove him nuts and was the real purpose of the original mission. Ultimately, it is realized that the alien presence around Jupiter has to do with the moon of Europa, which was featured prominently in the original story because of new discoveries being made about the planet at the time.

For those who don’t know, it is widely believed that life exists beneath Europa’s outer crust, composed of ice and rock, since the oceans that lie beneath are warm from Jupiter’s intense radiation and magnetic field. As a case of art imitating life, Clarke decided that in his second book, the reason for the monolith’s presence around Europa – facilitators, if not creators, of life – was to help the natural process of life along.

2010_3By turning Jupiter into a second star – scientists have long known that the gas giant could have become a star if things had happened marginally different in our solar system – Europa’s ice crust melted, atmosphere formed, and life was able to crawl from its oceans. The book also reintroduced Bowman to the story, who is now a living entity inside the monolith around Europa.

After communicating with the crew, letting them know that “something wonderful” is about to happen and they need to leave, he disappears, only to show up near the end and invite HAL (who’s about to die when Jupiter goes Nova) to come with him. By the end of the story, Bowman and HAL, speaking from the Monolith, warn humanity never to go to Europa. The monolith’s experiment in life is to flourish freely there, they advise, without human interference.

2010_4In the movie adaptation, there’s also a saccharine bit about how the Cold War powers should live in peace, but that was thrown in there for the sake of the 80’s audiences who were still dealing with the Cold War. Much like most of the US-Soviet competition that characterized the movie, it never made it into the original book.

Then, years later, Clarke wrote Odyssey Three, his third installment in the series. Set in 2061, this book was again inspired by real events, the return to the Solar System of Comet Halley. Since it was not scheduled to return until 2061, he set the book in that year and began writing about a mission to go study it up close, during which time they will be doing a flyby of Europa. So Floyd, the main character of book II, a “celebrity guest”, goes on this mission with a new crew.

2061_odyssey3The main purpose is to investigate Halley’s comet, but the main story thread picks up when scientists on Earth and nearby Ganymede notice a new mountain that has formed on Europa (“Mount Zeus) which cannot be a volcano because of its asymmetrical nature. For reasons that are never fully-explained, the mission is hijacked and the crew become stranded on Europa.

During a rescue attempt, Floyd’s son, Bowman’s grandson, and the Afrikaaner character see the monolith on Europa and a wreck of a Chinese ship that tried to investigate earlier, in defiance of the monolith’s warnings. They see the monolith and the mountain confirm that it is, in fact, a giant diamond, a piece of Jupiter that broke off when it went nova and landed on the moon. All of this is consistent with scientific articles of the time that said that Pluto and Neptune had diamond cores, the result of carbon compression, and that the same was probably true of Jupiter.

In the end, the crew is rescued, Bowman makes an appearance in the dreams of a few people, and they come to realize that his consciousness now resides inside the monolith. The mountain also disappears beneath the surface of Europa’s ice. From all this, it is now clear that Europa is evolving, that Bowman and HAL are still alive in some form, and that a monolith is there, acting as guardian and watchman to the whole process.

3001Then, to finish things, Clarke wrote 3001: The Final Odyssey. This book I read when I was about twenty, at a time when my literary and critical reading skills were being honed by some seriously awesome teachers and course loads. Perhaps because of this, or because Clarke changed things up drastically in the last book, I was very disappointed.

Quick synopsis, the character of Frank Poole, the astronaut who was killed by HAL in book I, is brought back. His body floats back into the Solar System after having done a circuitous route to the outer rim, and since it’s 3001, they are able to revive him. The first half of the book is then spent showing Poole how different the future is, revising Clarke’s predictions about stuff that happened in the book 2001 but not in real life, deals with all kinds of millennial themes (since the book was written just a few years shy of 2000 and is set just after the third millennium), and asserts the rather weak conclusion that a person from 2001 would have little trouble adapting to life in 3001, as opposed to someone from 1001 adapting to 2001.

Why? Because by 2001, most things that will become a reality by 3001 would be being postulated. Now this I found weak for a few reasons. First, it assumes that what we predict will be taking in 3001 actually will. It assumes that progress is a completely linear thing, that history is devoid of repeats or regression, and is generally an example of Clarke’s technocratic mindset. It also manages to gloss over the fact that Clarke was wrong about most of his predictions for 2001.

For one, the Cold War didn’t continue into the future, commercial space travel was not invented, there were no colonies on the moon, and there were no exploratory missions to the rim of known space. These he attempted to minimize by saying that these things were at least in the planning stages. Yeah! In the same way that a trip to the Moon was in the planning stages during H.G. Wells time, but that didn’t make it close!

space_elevator_liftAnother major disappointment of the first half is the fact that the technological innovations he mentions look like they were ripped directly from Star Trek! For one, they have holodecks (or a close approximation)! They have brain caps they wear that download information directly into your brain. And (this one was my favorite!) genetically engineered dinosaurs that do manual labor! …WHAT??? Are you freaking kidding me?!

To make that worse, he throws in a bit about Poole was surprised to see this, even though he saw all the “Jurassic movies” as a kid. This, along with several other pop-culture references in the first half, made we want to gag! To be fair, its hard to write a book about the near future, especially over and over while the actual future is taking place. But these kind of revisions, penciling in the things that happened in real life, is just annoying! If anything, the real historical record should be minimized in the background.

Much like his talk of all the scientific feats that didn’t happen, it was probably something that should have been tacitly dealt with, but not talked so much about. Oh, and of course, his comments on religion. The way Clarke saw it, humanity had created a universal church in the future after the fall of Christianity. He figured that at some point in the future, the Vatican would open up its archives and it would subsequently fall in the same way the Kremlin did when it did the same. Are you kidding me?

world_religionsSure, its a neat parallel, but everyone already knows the church’s crimes, they’ve been documented endlessly. And the archives aren’t exactly sealed, they’re just not open to the general public. So what would opening them to the public really change? Furthermore, to suggest that humanity could do away with faith because technology meant it no longer needed it is both shallow and naive. It’s the same kind of dogmatic thinking that goes into fundamentalism, that asserts that humanity can’t live without religion because it would be totally lost without all its dogmatic signposts and explanations.

My own theory, humanity’s need for faith, as with everything else, is ambiguous and will not be subject to any one influence. Chances are, we will never outlive our need for spirituality, but that does not mean we can’t live without specific institutions. And we will NEVER be able to invent some bland, universal, all-inclusive faith. Not that we won’t attempt to, but chances are it will fail.

But I digress… the second half of the book deals with Poole deciding that he wants to go to Europa to see what became of HAL and his old colleague. So he goes, and unlike other ships that have tried and failed, he makes it. Then comes more disappointments, Frank and HAL are not transcendent entities as was suggested in previous books. They are merely downloads, digital copies of their original selves preserved inside the monolith – which isn’t a conscious being but is itself a computer. BORING!

2010_jul2012-a4After all that talk about intelligence and reaching the next great leap in cosmic evolution, this is what it all turned out to be? Bits and bytes in some big storage machine? And then there was the status of the Europan’s. Basically, that too, contrary to the hopes inspired by previous books, hasn’t gone so well. The Europan’s chemical and biological makeup, it is revealed, does not inspire confidence. The lifeforms are too basic, too slow and stodgy, to ever evolve into dynamic intelligent beings it seems.

So humanity won’t have counterparts then, children from the “other sun” to deal with in the future? ‘Nuther big letdown man! Well, the book wasn’t over so I went on reading. After all this slow build-up, we finally come to the climax of the story. Turns out, the monoliths are coming back to the Solar System. Why? The last transmissions they sent out were over 900 years ago, back when humanity was contemplating its own nuclear annihilation and breaking the quarantine on Europa.

Jupiter Moons MonolithThis causes the monoliths to conclude that humanity is too aggressive, an experiment gone wrong. So… humanity needs to prepare. They look at all weapons they have in their arsenal, but could possibly stop the monolith’s, a race eon’s older? They opt for a computer virus, another attempt by Clarke to pay homage to the time in which he was writing. They download the virus into the monolith on Europa in the hopes that it will transfer it to the others that are on their way.

Frank and HAL are meanwhile stored in a data crystal to preserve their identities, and before everything hits the fan, it all stops. The monolith’s get the virus, doesn’t really effect them, but they see that humanity has changed since they last saw them and decide to give them more time. Kind of a letdown. The final words, that humanity is still young and their God “still a child”, and they will be granted a reprieve until “The Last Days” were kind of chilling, but it still felt like an abortive climax.

Thus ended the Odyssey series. Some attempts have been made to keep it going by fan-fiction authors, but the less said about them, the better. Nothing worse than fan-fic’s who try to keep a series going after its creator retired it (see Dune and it’s Descendants for more on this point!). And while I was disappointed with the ending, I do think the series was very enjoyable and worthwhile overall.

268170-akira06_superSome of the concepts, transcendence, ancient species, directed cosmic evolution, were all picked up on by some of the best sci-fi minds, not the least of which were J Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) and Katsuhiro Otomo (creator of the cyberpunk anime Akira). Where he was weak was in his fundamental understanding of human beings and history; how he felt that people are mere subjects to technological evolution and would continue to progress on a linear pattern. Human beings are certainly affected by technological change, but that change is not altogether positive.

In fact, the changes it engenders are often negative and lead to backlash and rejection as a result. Far from replacing religion, technology is often seen as a substitute religion, inspiring the same kind of mindless devotion as fundamentalism, or encouraging people to revert to simple beliefs in the hope of being delivered from its cold rationality. These are the kinds of things I would hope for in any investigation of the future, the social as well as technological upheaval and how they were connected, or at least a balanced look at these kinds of issues.

But Clarke is not that type of guy, he’s a futurist so it’s naive of me to expect it from him. In the end, he got me thinking, both in tune with his thoughts and against them, so I have to be thankful. In the end, that’s what good author does, gets your mind going and your blood pumping. And he left an enduring legacy, many titles to his credit and millions of people inspired by his word, so I say kudos to him! Thanks for all the memories and inspired thoughts, Mr. Clarke. Hope you found a quiet place amongst the stars now that you’ve transcended that final barrier. Rest in peace, Star Child!