More Utopian Science Fiction

Boy this is fun, and like I said last time, overdue! For fans of literature and science fiction in particular, you really can’t do justice to a genre unless you examine its opposite as well. Not only is it fun and interesting, it kind of opens your eyes to the fact that we find a certain truth in the pairing of opposites.

For one, you come to see that they really aren’t that different. And two, that they essentially come from the same place. Much like light and dark, black and white, heaven and hell, extremes have more in common with each other than anything occupying the space between them. Is that quote? If not, it is now! MINE!

Last time, I buckled down to tackle the big names, the famous classics. Today, I thought I’d cast the net a little wider since there are a ton I missed and there really is no shortage of examples. Here’s what I got so far:

3001: The Final Odyssey:
The final book in Clarke’s Odyssey series, 3001 not only provided a sense of culmination to this epic story, but also gave Clarke the opportunity to share his predictions on where humanity would be by the 31st century. Released in 1997, it also contained a great deal of speculation about the coming millennium and what the 21st century would look like.

The story begins when, just shy of the millennial celebrations, the body of Frank Poole is discovered at the edge of the solar system. This astronaut, who died in the first novel, had been floating at the far edge of the solar system for almost a thousand years. His body is resurrected using the latest technology, and his reintroduction to society is the vehicle through which things are told.

As a fish out of water, Poole is made privy to all the changes that have taken place in the last 1000 years. Humanity now lives throughout the solar system, Earth and most planets are orbited by massive rings that connect to Earth through huge towers. Sectarian religion has been abandoned in favor of a new, universal faith, and the problems of overpopulation, pollution and war have all been solved.

Amongst humanity’s technological marvels are inertia drives on their ships (no FTL exists), a form of holodeck, genetically engineered work creatures, skull caps that transmit info directly into a person’s brain, data crystals, and of course the massive space habitation modules. Though the story was meant to be predictive for the most part, one cannot deny that this book contained utopian elements. Essentially, Clarke advanced his usual futurist outlook, in which humanity’s problems would be solved through the ongoing application of technology and progress.

Though I found it somewhat naive at the time of reading, it was nevertheless an interesting romp, especially where the predictive aspects came into play. And it also contained one of the best lines I’ve ever read, a New Years toast for the 21st century which I quoted on midnight on Dec. 31st, 1999: “Here’s to the 20th century. The best, and worst, century of them all!”

Brave New World:
I  know, BNW is listed as one of the quintessential dystopian novels of our time, and I even listed as such on my list of dystopian classics. However, one cannot deny that this book also contained very strong utopian elements and themes, and it was how these failed to remedy the problem of being human that ultimately made BNW a dystopia.

Set in the year 2540 CE (or 632 A.F. in the book), the World State is very much the product of utopian engineering. Literally all aspects of social control, which are largely benign, are designed to ensure that all people are born and bred to serve a specific role, cannot aspire beyond it, and are emotionally and psychologically insulated against unhappiness.

In short, people have exchanged their freedom for the sake of peace, order, and predictability. In fact, these ideals are pretty much summed up with the States motto: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Another indication is the popular slogan, “everyone belongs to everyone else”. And finally, the orgy porgy song provides some insight as well: “Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One. Boys at one with
girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. The goal of creating oneness and sameness to prevent things like greed, jealousy, war, and strife, is a constant theme in utopian literature, elevated to the form of high art in Huxley’s vision. And above all, the dream of a perfectly regulated, peaceful society, where individuality and difference have been purged, was accomplished through pleasure and not pain. This can best be summed up in an exerpt from Huxley’s letter to Orwell after 1984 was released:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”

I, Robot:
In the course of examining utopian literature, a term came up with made me stop and think… Robotocracy. Hence this next example which also contains some rather interesting utopian elements. As one of Asimov’s most recognized works, this collection of interlinked short stories tells of a future where intelligent robots make their debut and gradually become more and more integrated to society.

Ultimately, Asimov portrays AI’s as loyal and gentle creatures who not only improve the lot of humanity, but are incapable of harming their human masters. Whereas most speculative works of fiction dealing with AI’s are cautionary in nature, showing how entrusting our fate to machines will result in death, in this story, all of humanity’s fears prove baseless.

In time, the employment of robots and positronic master computers leads to the development of FTL, optimizes the world’s economy and production, and even prevents problems and conflicts which they can foresee. Human beings express reservation and fear, but in the end, the robotocracy proves to be sensible and caring, not cold and inhuman.

It was for this reason that I didn’t care for the film adaptation. Not only would a repressive, world-domination plan contradict the first and most important of the Three Laws (a robot may not harm, or through inaction, allow to be harmed, a human), it really didn’t contain any inherent logic. How would putting humans under house arrest ultimately ensure their protection? With all humans deprived of their most basic rights, revolution would be inevitable, leading to more death. Ah, whatever. At least the book was good.

Also written by Aldous Huxley, this novel (published in 1962) represented a possible resolution to the central problem he raised in Brave New World. Essentially, the protagonist of John the Savage committed suicide at the end because he could not reconcile himself to either world, one characterized by primitive freedom and the other by civilized sterility.

In the foreword section of the 1946 edition, Huxley expressed regret over the fact that he could not have given John a third option, which could have taken the form of the various exile communities where the thinking people who didn’t fit in with the “civilization” of the World State were sent.

Hence the setting of Island, a utopia created on the fictional island of Pala. Told from the point of view of a cynical journalist named Will Farnaby who gets shipwrecked on the island, the story was Huxley’s final book and a message to humanity about possible third options and the positive application of technology and knowledge.

As Huxley decribed it beforehand: “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. This last sentence is especially important in reference to Island. Here, drug use, trance states, contraception, assisted reproduction and slogans are all used voluntarily and serve the purposes of learning and social betterment. They are not employed as a means to pacify and control people.

What’s more, from a social perspective, Huxley characterized Pala’s prevailing philosophy as:  “a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

The Culture Series:
Created by sci-fi author Ian M. Banks, “The Culture” refers to the fictional interstellar anarchist, socialist, and utopian society that characterizes his novels. Encompassing ten novels – beginning with Consider Phlebas (1987) and concluding with The Hydrogen Sonata (slated for release in October 2012), Banks paints the picture of a universe where humanity has created a peaceful, stable and abundant society through the application of technology.

Told predominantly from the point of view of those who operate at the fringes of The Culture, the stories focus on the interactions of these utopian humans with other civilizations. Much in the same way as Star Trek follows the adventure of the Enterprise crew as they deal with alien cultures, often ones which are less developed or evolved, this provides a vehicle for examining humanity’s current predicament and providing possible solutions.

Overall, The Society is best characterized as post-scarcity, where advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comfort, where almost all physical constraints – including disease and death – have been eliminated, and the concept of possessions are outmoded. Through all of this, an almost totally  egalitarian, stable society has been created where compulsion or force are not needed, except as a means of self-defense.

At times however, The Culture has been known to interfere with other civilizations as a means of spreading their culture and affecting change in their neighbors. This has often been criticized as an endorsement of neo-conservatism and ethnocentrism on Banks part. However, Banks has denied such claims and many of his defenders claim that The Culture’s moral legitimacy is far beyond anything the West currently enjoys. Others would point out that this potential “dark side” the The Culture is meant to reflect the paradox of liberal societies at home and their behavior in foreign affairs.

The Mars Trilogy:
This ground-breaking trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertson about the colonization and terraforming of Mars is also a fine example of utopia in literature. taking place in the not-too-distant future, the trilogy begins with the settlement of the planet in Red Mars and then follows the exploits of the colonists as they begin transforming from a barren rock to a veritable second Earth.

Even though there are numerous dark elements to the story, including civil strife, internal divisions, exploitation and even assassination, the utopian elements far outweigh the dystopian ones. Ultimately, the focus is on the emergence of a highly advanced, egalitarian society on Mars while Earth continues to suffer from the problems of overpopulation, pollution and ecological disaster.

In addition, the colony of Mars benefits from the fact that its original inhabitants, though by no means all mentally stable and benevolent people, were nevertheless some of the best and brightest minds Earth had produced. As a result, and with the help of longevity treatments, Mars had the benefit of being run by some truly dedicated and enlightened founders. What’s more, their descendents would grow up in a world where stability, hard work, and a respect for science, technology and ecology were pervasive.

All of this reflects Robertson’s multifaceted approach to story writing, where social aspirations and problems are just as important as the technological and economic aspects of settling a new world. Much like the conquest and settlement of the New World gave rise to various utopian ideals and social experiments, he speculates that the settlement of new planets will result in the same. Technology still plays an important role of course, as the colonists of Mars have the benefit of taking advantage of scientific advancements while simultaneously avoiding the baggage of life on Earth. In the end, there’s just something to be said about a fresh start isn’t there?

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy:
Written by British author Peter F. Hamilton, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy consists of three science fiction novels: The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and The Naked God (1999). Much like Robertson’s depiction of humanity in the Mars Trilogy, Hamilton explores humanity’s dark side at length, and yet the tone of his novels are predominantly optimistic.

Set in a distant 27th century, humanity has become divided between two major factions. On the one side there are the Edenists, an egalitarian, utopian society who employ biotech (“biteck” in their lingo) to create living, sentient space stations as well as machines. The use of “Affinity” – a form of telepathy – allows them to communicate with each other and their biteck, creating a sort of mass mentality which encompasses entire communities. Thiee Edenic government is what is known as the “Consensus”, a form of direct democracy that is made possible by telepathic link.

On the one side their are the Adamists, the larger of the two where human beings live with a limited religious proscription against technology. Biteck is forbidden, but nanotechnology, FTL and other advanced applications are freely used. Because the Adamists encompass anyone not in the Edenic camp, they are larger, but far less organized and cohesive than their counterparts.

Through all this, Hamilton attempts to show  how the application of technology and the merger between biological and artificial can create the kind of society envisioned by men like Thomas More, characterized by participatory government, collective mentality, and a consensus-oriented decision-making process. While both the Edenic and Adamist societies are still pervaded by problems, not the least of which is competition between the two, the ideals of betterment through technological progress are nevertheless predominant.

Revelation Space Series:
Another series which examines the beneficial aspects of technology, particularly where governance and equality are concerned, is the Revelation Space Trilogy by Alastair Reynolds. Comprised of the five novels Revelation Space (2000), Chasm City (2001), Redemption Ark (2002), Absolution Gap (2003) and The Prefect (2007).

Taking place in the distant future (circa. 2427 to 2727), the story revolves around a series of worlds that have been settled by several different factions of humanity. The two largest factions are known as the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, both of whom have employed advanced technology to create their own versions of an ideal society.

Though much of the books are dark in tone due to the discovery of a terrible nanotechnological virus (the “Melding Plague”) and the discovery of hostile ancient aliens (the “Inhibitors”), the series still does have some discernible utopian elements. For starters, the Demarchists take their name from the concept of “Democratic Anarchy”, and employ cybernetic implants, nanotech and wireless communications to achieve this.

Within the Demarchist metropolis of Chasm City, all citizens are permanently wired into a central server which allows them permanent access to news, updates, and the decision-making process. As a result, Demarchist society is virtually egalitarian and marks of social status, such as ranks and titles, do not exist. This changed with the spread of the Melding Plague however, causing the city’s structures to degenerate into a gothic nightmare and the class divide to become very visible.

Another important faction are the Conjoiners. These people, who were originally inhabitants with the Great Wall of Mars (above left picture), but who became a star-faring people after the war with the “Coalition for Neural Purity” drove them off Mars. To these people, cybernetic implants were taken a step further, giving every Conjoined person the ability to telepathically link with others, preserve their memories beyond death, prolong their life, and enhance their natural thinking process.

Thus, much like Hamilton and Banks, Reynolds speculates that the advent of nanotech, biotech, and space travel will result in the emergence of societies that are predominantly egalitarian, peaceful, and dedicated to consensus and direct democracy. I personally found these stories quite inspiring since it seems that in many ways, we are already witnessing the birth of such possibilities in the here and now.

Yep, this is still fun, if somewhat tiring and conducive to burnout! I think I’ll be taking a break from these literary-criticism pieces for a day or two, maybe getting back to pieces on robots and cool gear. However, in keeping with the format I used for dystopia, I still have one more utopian article left to cover. Look for it, it will be called “Utopia in Popular Culture!” See ya there…

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!