Hey folks! Back with some good news on the creative writing front. A few weeks ago, I was given a bit of a reprieve when I took a step back from my responsibilities as Communications Manager with my friend’s startup company (Green Water Solution). As you may recall, they are the makers of the the ReFlow grey-water recycling toilette, a device that turns your bath water into toilet water to save about 40% of fresh water consumption.
And after two successful media blitz’s, I told the boss man I would like to step back and relegate myself to helping instead of being in charge. This I did largely because it was cutting into my article writing and teaching, which he totally understood. And with some of the time it freed up, I managed to get a little work done on my two biggest writing projects – Reciprocity and Oscar Mike.
In the case of the former, this involved ironing out the plot, selecting an antagonist, and finishing off the first five chapters. In the case of the latter, it meant polishing off a few chapters, and doing some research into where the third and fourth book in the series will go. The credit for this plot-related research goes to a newfound friend, Laurie Snyder.
After joining a Facebook discussion group called “Faith or Fact”, we got into a discussion and I noticed she was with the USAF and served in Colorado Springs. This is a location I was considering for the plot of the third book, so naturally I started asking questions about the armed forces and what life is like where she serves. What she revealed to me was most interesting!
Not only is Colorado Springs home to several major airbases, it is also not far from the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. For those of you who didn’t grow up during the Cold War, see Terminator 3, or watch Star Gate, perhaps some explanations are necessary. Cheyenne Mountain is the site the military installation and nuclear bunker that served as the nerve center for NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) during the Cold War, as well as numerous other defense and emergency services today.
The reason I thought this location might be useful to the plot of Oscar Mike is because of it’s proximity to New Mexico, where the series has been taking place so far. I knew that there were military bases in this city, but when she told me about Cheyenne Mountain, I seriously needed to slap myself upside the head! ***Spoilers ahead, so if you’re planning on reading Oscar Mike, you might want to tune out now…***
Basically, I decided that for a third story-twist, the Rattlesnakes (i.e. the main characters of the story) would come into some frightening information about how the zombies migrate and the likelihood that they’d be moving north – through New Mexico and the American Southwest – in the near future. However, this information also came with an upside, in that the people who knew of this had also found a potential weakness to the zombies.
For years, military scientists had been working to discern a means of taking out zombie hordes that would not pose a significant risk to civilians. Being such a terrible pandemic, which turned every populated area into a battleground between infected and uninfected, they knew that any weapon of mass destruction – i.e. chemical, biological, nuclear, or incendiary – would cause massive collateral damage and civilian casualties.
However, one weapon proved to be most effective against zombies while sparing humans, provided they had basic protection – nerve gas! Reasoning that the zombie virus infected the nerve stem and turned its victims into atavistic, blood-thirsty cannibals, it seems logical that an agent that attacked the nervous system directly and disrupted nerve signals would neutralize them.
Their hypothesis proved correct, and once the Rattlesnakes (aka. the main characters) learned of this, the task of finding an adequate store of nerve agents became paramount. As a result, the Rattlesnakes set out to establish contact with other military elements that are still active, and not hostile. To the north, Peterson Air Force Base is still believed to be intact, though direct communications had not taken place for some time.
A mission is therefore planned which will send a team of grunts there to re-establish contact, or take possession of the base should it prove to have fallen. Once that is done, they will need to get their assess to Cheyenne Mountain and retrieve the stores of chemical weapons that are believed to still be cached inside. Ultimately, what they find there will tell them much about the war, the pandemic, and the politics that have set in amidst all the chaos.
After the events in Papa Zulu, where military elements out of the east attacked the Rattlesnakes (hoping to steal their research on a vaccine) the Rattlesnakes were left with a whole lot of unanswered questions. And while it was clear that Major General Thur (“The Mage”) knew something about it, he is unable to provide them since he was severely wounded in the attack and remains in a coma. So book three, I am hoping, will fill in all the blanks I’ve deliberately left so far.
And I had to admit, the idea that nerve gas could be a potential instrument for winning the war seemed like an interesting twist too. One of the most heinous and terrible weapons ever created, now offering humanity with a chance for salvation. And naturally, there are those who are thinking of misusing it, allowing their own bitterness and hatred towards the zombies to consume them and commit great evil. What do you think?
At the moment, book three – aka. Oscar Mike – is about half done. I am hoping to get it all done before the summertime and finally put it on the shelves. For those who’ve been following the series regularly (though they are few in number, but strong in their commitment) I feel I’ve kept them waiting unfairly. A writer should never keep his audience in suspense for years on end, even if he is rich enough to get away with it (finish them books, George RR Martin!)
In 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.
For 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.
But 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:
When 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.
Other, 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.
At 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.
Instead, 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.
Star 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:Here 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.
But 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.
Examples 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: What 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.
With 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 SprawlTrilogy. 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.
By 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.
At 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.
In 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: Another 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.
As 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.
The 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.
In 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!
In 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.
After 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: Finally, 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.
Consider 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.
In 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.
Aldous 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.
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.
This 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.
Summary: 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!
And I’m back with another conceptual post, hard at work exploring the ideas that run deep in the grand genre that is sci-fi. And this is one that I find particularly cool, mainly because it’s just so freaking existential! I mean what is there that can possibly throw a wrench into our collective anthropomorphism more than knowing that there is sentient life out there that significantly predates our own, especially if we were to find out that they had something to do with our own evolution…?
In some ways, this is a shout out to the “ancient astronauts” theory, which speculates that extra-terrestrials came to Earth long ago and left some evidence of their visit behind. This can be limited to something as basic as a structure or a relic, or can run as deep as having influenced human cultures, religions and technological development. Regardless of whether or not this theory is to be taken literally, it is well represented in the sci-fi community. Here are some examples that I have assembled:
2001: A Space Odyssey: A classic example of an ancient species, ancient astronauts, and one of my personal favorites! Originally conceived in the form of a screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, the concept of the TMA-1 monolith aliens was a central plot element to one of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of all time. However, owing to Kubrick’s esoteric style, not much was ever made clear about the species that built the monoliths. Luckily, Clarke went on to develop the idea at length in his novelization of the movie and its many sequels.
According to the novel, and ongoing interviews with Kudrick, the beings that built the monoliths were known as the Firstborn – an extremely ancient race that achieved sentience millions of years ago and were exploring the galaxy long before humanity even existed. The monoliths were their means of traveling from star to star, which they did in order to seek out life and help it along. In the course of their travels, they came upon Earth four million years ago and discovered Simians that were on the verge of starvation. By teaching them to expand their diet through hunting and some basic tricks to cultivate their manual dexterity, they ensured not only the survival of higher order primates, but the eventual emergence of humans as a species.
The story of 2001 thus takes place in the near-future (from when it was originally written) where humanity has developed into a star-faring race and colonized the Moon. Not far from this colony, a monolith is discovered buried under millions of years of moon dust. After examining it, to no avail, they discover that it has sent a signal out to Jupiter. The ship Discovery is then dispatched to investigate, where it finds an even larger monolith in orbit around Europa. The mission ends quite mysteriously as David Bowman, the last surviving member of the crew, flies closer to it in a small pod and disappears. Adding to the mystery were his last words: “My God, it’s full of stars!”
In subsequent books, the mystery of Bowman’s disappearance and the nature of the monoliths is made clear. Essentially, the monoliths are alien machines that contain their consciousness, and some are gateways which allow for FTL space travel. Bowman, when he came into contact with the one around Europa, was transformed or downloaded (depending on how you look at it) and became one with the monolith. The reason they are hanging out around Europa is because they are currently working to transform Jupiter into its own star so that life may blossom on Europa (which scientists speculate is already teaming with life underneath its icey shell).
Cool idea! But you see, there’s a snag… Apparently, the First Ones have also been known to weed wherever they’ve sown. What would happen if they came to the conclusion that humanity was too aggressive for its own good, the result of them teaching us how to harness an appetite for killing other animals and members of our own species? This is the premise that is explored in the finale 3001: Final Odyssey, and which was left on a cliffhanger note. Unfortunately, Clarke died in 2008, leaving fan fiction authors to speculate on how this would all play out…
Note: this is not a reference to the terrible movie or its even more terrible sequel! No, in this case, I am referring to the wider franchise, as exemplified by its many video games, comics, novelizations, and even the independent (non-crossover) movies. In these cases, we get a glimpse of two races that predate humanity by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Their outward characteristics alone make them cool, and they are both pretty badass in their own special ways. But what is especially cool about them is the fact that very little known about them, other than the fact that they are very, very dangerous!
“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”. That is how the Alien, or Xenomorph in AVP terminology, was described in the very first movie. Their origin is unknown, as is the timeline of their existence and the circumstances of their evolution. However, one thing is clear: on this last note, it must have been something pretty harsh! I mean really, how difficult must life have been on their homeworld for something like the xenomorph to have emerged. They proliferate at an alarming rate, require living being to gestate, and are designed purely for the hunt!
Overall, their race is divided into two symbiotic and interrelated species. First, there are the “Facehuggers”, the spidery creatures that attach themselves to living creatures and implant them with embryos. This in turn gives rise to the “Chestbusters”, the warrior aliens that seek out, kill and capture creatures for the Facehuggers to use. At the top of the pyramid is the Queen, a Chestbuster who has evolved to become the egg-layer who gives birth to more Facehuggers. An interesting chicken and the egg type arrangement, and something which only adds to their mystery!
The Predators, on the other hand, are relatively straightforward. At their core of their society lies a warrior ethic, where each and every male member of their species is trained to be a hunter. In time, hunters accumulates honor and seniority within their culture by attaining as many kills and trophies (i.e. skulls) as possible, preferably from different species. In fact, it is rumored that a single scene from Predator 2, in which an Alien skull appeared in a hunter’s trophy case was the basis for the whole AVP crossover.
In addition, there are also some clear and apparent rules to the hunt. First, each hunter is drawn to arenas of conflict. In the first movie, one chooses a hunt in Central America where a guerrilla war is taking place. In the sequel, one travels to LA during the height of the drug wars. In both cases, the get a sense of their terrain, taking out the easy prey first, and gradually working their way up to the top carnivore. At first, they rely on their advanced weaponry and stealth. But when at last they face off with the strongest prey, they fight them in the open in hand to hand combat.
God knows how long they’ve been doing this. But given their obvious level of technology, its clear they are not exactly recent additions to space race!
The “AncientHumanoids”: Now this was one I didn’t much like, but it’s an example of the concept of ancient astronauts nonetheless. And it comes to us courtesy of Star Trek: TNG. from an episode named “The Chase” (episode 146). In it, Picard’s old friend and mentor turns up dead in the course of an expedition which he claims could be the most profound discovery of their time.
After retracing his footsteps, Picard and the Enterprise are joined by three other search parties – one Klingon, one Romulan and one Cardassian – in orbit around a dead planet. When they reach the surface, they find that all the clues lead to a recording left behind by an ancient species. In the recording, the humanoid alien tells them all that they are the progenitors of every sentient race in the quadrant, that their DNA was planted on countless worlds. This is apparently why so many species are humanoid, and means that humanity shares ancestry with all these would-be enemies.
Heartwarming, and kind of cool if it weren’t such a convenient explanation as to why all aliens in the Star Trek franchise are humanoid. This is something that’s always annoyed me about the franchise. It’s not enough that all the aliens speak English and look like people, minus the occasional molded plastic on their faces. But to make matters worse, they always got to make a point of drawing attention to their humanoid forms. So when it came right down to it, this episode felt more like a contrived explanation than a homage. Personally, I would have thought that limited budgets would be the reason, but what do I know? I’m no xenobiologist!
The First Ones:
Another favorite which comes to us courtesy of the Babylon 5 universe. According to the expanded storyline, the First Ones were the first beings to achieve sentience in the Milky Way Galaxy. By the time of the show, most of them had left our corner of the universe in order to explore other galaxies and what lies between them. Only two remains behind, ostensibly to act as shepherds to the younger races. They were known as the Vorlons and the Shadows. However, in time, the two races turned on each other because of their diametrically opposed ideologies.
The Vorlons believed that development and progress came from order. In the course of their long history, they travelled to many worlds inhabited by sentient races and began tampering with their evolution. In each case, they presented themselves as angels, thus ensuring that sentient beings would see them as creatures of light and truth. In addition, they fostered the development of telepaths for use in the coming wars against the Shadows, whom they knew to vulnerable to psionics.
To illustrate this, the Vorlons are often presented as being aloof and rather stodgy figures. In fact, Lyta Alexander, one of the show’s secondary characters, commented that despite their power, the Vorlons are a highly sensitive people who do not react well to change! In the course of the show, they were initially hesitant to commit their forces to fighting the Shadows, they were extremely irked when Kosh (their ambassador to B5) was killed, and when Sheridan went – and presumably died – at Z’ha’dum, they began destroying entire worlds in the hopes of erasing every trace of the Shadow’s influence.
In addition, their esoteric, mysterious nature was summed up with one question that they would ask anyone who was privileged enough to speak to them: “Who are you?” If ever you found yourself being asked that, odds were you were meant for some higher purpose, one which the Vorlons had a hand in arranging!
The Shadows, by comparison, were much more enabling and intriguing, even if they were a little… oh, I don’t know, shit-your-pants scary! In the course of their history, they too traveled to many worlds as ambassadors, encouraging different people and races to embrace their ambitious, darker side and go to war with each other. Whereas the Vorlons asked “Who are you?”, the Shadows big question was “What do you want?” Again, if you found yourself being asked this question, it meant that you were on their radar and they had big plans for you. The proper response to this would be feelings of flattery followed by abject terror.
In any case, whereas the Vorlons believed in order and stability, the Shadows believed that evolution came only through conflict and disorder. This, they reasoned, is what lead to the development of stronger, more advanced races. As Morden, their own representative to B5 said, humanity would never have come so far so fast were they not constantly “at each others’ throats”. Sure, some races had to be sacrificed along the way to make this philosophy work, but that was all for the greater good. In the end, what came out of it was a series of species that were stronger and better than they were before.
This philosophy eventually led them into conflict with the Vorlons as well as several other First Ones. Many younger races found themselves taking sides as well or just getting caught in the middle. In fact, wars between the two sides became a recurring thing, happening every few thousand years. In the last, which took place 10,000 years before the main story, the Shadows were defeated by the last great alliance between the First Ones, most of whom then chose to leave the galaxy. Then, just 1000 years before the events in the show take place, the Shadows were once again defeated by the Vorlons and an alliance of younger races and forced out of the galaxy entirely. However, as the show opens, we quickly learn that the Shadows are once again returning to their old stomping grounds, and the first spot on the tour is a planet known as Z’ha’dum.
This world is doubly significant because it is this planet where another First One – THE first one in fact – is thought to reside. His name is Lorien, and he is the last of his kind and the sole First One outside of the Vorlons and Shadows that is left in galaxy. All of the others have long since abandoned it, leaving the Shadows and Vorlons to their war and all the other races that have chosen to enlist in it. In the end, however, Sheridan, Delenn and the younger races form their own alliance which they use to draw a line against both races. With the help of those First Ones that they are able to reach and enlist the help of, they are successful. After a brief but decisive fight, both races agree to leave the galaxy with Lorien, never to return. In the last episode, when Sheridan is on the verge of death , he is found by Lorien who takes him to the great beyond where the other First Ones now reside.
Like I said, its a personal favorite, mainly because I felt it was so richly detailed and in-depth.
The Forerunners: Now here is an interesting take on the whole ancient astronauts concept. Whereas in most versions of this idea, aliens make contact with a younger race and influence them for their own purposes, in the Halo universe, things happen in a sort of reverse order. It is established as part of the game’s back story that eons after they died out, the Covenant races came upon the remains of an ancient race which are referred to as the Forerunners. After learning how to reverse-engineer their technology, the Covernant began to merge it with their own and was able to jump thousands of years ahead as a result.
At the same time, they began to develop a religion and even a theocracy based on the Forerunners and what they believed their most important relics to be. These would be the Halo devices, for which the game takes its name. Believing that the Halos were the gateway to the afterlife, or the source of deliverance, the Convenant became obsessed with finding a working Halo and activating it. All of their mythology for the past few thousands years was based on this, and they pursued it with absolute single-mindedness.
So in this way, the Forerunners had a profound impact on the development and beliefs of the Covenant, but not intentionally. Rather than coming to the Convenant while it was still in its infancy and manipulating them for their own purposes, the Covenant instead found them, but only after they were long dead. In addition, they were influenced by their own assumptions about the Forerunners, and not anything they chose to tell them. And in the end, this influence had a near disastrous effect, given that the Halo devices were weapons of mass-MASS destruction and not holy relics. By attempting to activate them, the Covenant very nearly brought about their own extinction, and that of every other sentient race in the quadrant. One would think there was a message in all this about the dangers of blind faith and the dangers of deification or something!
The Goa’uld: Here is a perfect example of the ancient astronauts theory, so bang on that you’d think it was tailor made to fit the premise! In the Stargate universe, which has expanded considerably over the years, an advanced extra-terrestrial species known as the Goa’uld came to Earth during the neolithic period and had a vast influence on our history. In the original movie, this involved a single alien who took on human form and appointed himself God Emperor over his human subjects. This, in turn, gave rise to the Egyptian civilization, with the alien-god Ra at its apex.
In addition to creating ancient Egypt though, Ra was also revealed to have taken human beings through the Stargate, an means of near-instantaneous interstellar transportation, and established similar civilizations on distant planets. On each of these, the Egyptian motifs of pyramids and the cult of Ra persisted, in some cases for thousands of years. Meanwhile, back at Earth, a revolt unseated Ra and he fled into the cosmos, to be found thousands of years later when humans accessed the Star Gate on Earth.
In the expanded universe, we learn that the Goa’uld were merely one of many races that visited Earth and appeared as gods to humanity because of their advanced technology. But whereas most had benign intentions, the Goa’uld were concerned solely with establishing slave colonies on many worlds throughout the universe. In addition, their interference extended to other less advanced races as well. As a result, humanity is now faced with the task of preparing to face this and other threats, all of which involve highly advanced races that have visited Earth at one time or another and could very well be hostile.
Although it was not too good a movie (in my opinion), the concept is still a very fertile one! It’s little wonder then why it was made into a series, one which has done quite well for itself. Aliens came before, they may come again… Can we stop them this time. Who knows? Spooky stuff!
The Orions: In the video game series Master of Orion, there is yet another take on the concepts of ancients aliens. In this turn-based strategy game, players select from different alien races that inhabit the galaxy and begin the process of colonization and expansion. In time, the concept of the Orions comes up. It seems that each race, though they are different and possess varying special abilities, have their own legends about this particular race.
One of the aspects of the game is to find the Orions homeworld, a place full of secret and advanced technology, but which is defended by a powerful robotic starship known as the Guardian. Whoever is able to destroy this ship and land on the planet is the most likely to win the game. This is advisable, seeing as the how the purpose of the whole game is to become the undisputed master of the galaxy – the Master of Orion, as it were 😉
The Xel’naga: Another example of this concept which comes to us from the gaming world. of which fans of Starcraft will no doubt be instantly familiar with! Translated literally as “Wanders from Afar”, the Xel’naga were apparently a race from a distant galaxy that was concerned with creating the perfect life form. In the course of their lifetime, they apparent “seeded and cultivated thousands of various species” (from the SC game handbook). This included the Protoss and Zerg, two of the major players in the game, and figures pretty prominently in the game’s backstory.
In the case of the Protoss, the Xel’naga thought that they had found beings that possessed “purity of form” and began manipulating them. However, when they revealed themselves to the Protoss, the latter turned on them and they fled. They discovered the Zerg shortly thereafter, a species which they believed possessed “purity of essence”. They began by enhancing them from the small, parasitic larvae that they were, but found that they were too primitive. They therefore developed the Overmind as well to give them purpose and direction, but this only made matters worse. In time, the Zerg found the Xel’naga, who had chosen to remain hidden this time, and consumed them.
In the course of the game, Xel’naga ruins make only one appearance, in the form of an ancient temple which possesses the ability to sterilize the planet of all other species. However, other ruins are apparently featured in one of the game’s novelizations. Otherwise their is no mention of them, their existence merely constituting part of the story’s deep background.
FinalThoughts: After looking through these and other examples of ancient astronauts, a few things began to stand out. Like I said before, sooner or later aliens serve an anthropological purpose in science fiction. Or to put it another way, they will always play the role of mirror and meter stick. On the one hand, they are the means by which we project aspects of ourselves onto others so we can study them better. On the other, they are means by which we measure our own flaws and development.
But above all, aliens tend to fall into any one of four categories based on where they fit into the moral and technological spectrum. This spectrum, which I made up myself (!), breaks down as follows:
Benevolent/Malevolent:How aliens behave in our favorite franchises and what purpose they serve often has much to do with their basic motivation. In short, are they kind of benevolent, enlightened overseers as envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, or are they hostile, conquering species as envisioned in War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? In either case, the alien serve a basic purpose: as a commentary on humanity. Their murderous ways are our murderous ways, their benevolent, technical perfection what we aspire to be. As Nixon is said to have muttered to JFK’s painting: “Men look at you, they see what they want to be. Men look at me, they see what they are.”
Advanced/Nascent:Another important aspect to the aliens in question is their level of technical development. And, interestingly enough, this can have much to do with their moral character. Oftentimes, the aliens in a franchise are both advanced and malevolent, blowing up the White House Independence Day-style or trying to make us one with the Borg! Other times, they are advanced and enlightened, technology and evolution having erased whatever primitive impulses they might have had, but which humanity still possesses. And in other cases still, their are aliens who are less advanced than humanity and are either ethically challenged because they are behind the times, or noble and “untainted” because they haven’t been perverted by civilization’s greed and avarice. It’s a toss up, really, where the benefits and downfalls of technological progress are seen as having an influence on moral and social development.
Again, these are all mere projections, designed to focus attention on moral and ethical dilemmas that arise out of our collective history. Still, it is fun to take these various examples from popular culture and see where they line up on the moral/technological graph. That way we can see where different franchise place their aliens in terms of the overall spectrum. And like I said at the beginning, its a cool concept. I mean seriously, wouldn’t it be cool if it were actually true? No one can prove aliens didn’t visit Earth thousands or even millions of years ago and mess with our evolution, right? Yeah, it’s not exactly a sound basis for a scientific theory, but a very fertile source for science fiction!
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!)
I love science fiction, always have, always will. But it’s the kind of science fiction that I love which I think is an important distinction. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that sci-fi comes in two varieties: classic and commercial. The classical kind is the traditional variety that people take seriously, like H.G Wells, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, and Alastair Reynolds (These are just some of my favorites, they are by no means the only authors who were great at establishing sci-fi as a serious literary form.)
Commercial sci-fi, by contrast, is your basic stuff that owes much to the original masters but really didn’t follow in their footsteps. Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Gate, et al (awful lot of stars in there!) are all examples of this. This isn’t to say I didn’t like these shows, I grew up on Star Wars after all! But to be honest, I never really found them particularly inspiring. In all honesty, when it came to my own writing, they were more an example of what NOT to do.
Also, credit must be given to a friend of mine who once said that science fiction really isn’t a genre at all, it is a vehicle. A vehicle who’s purpose is to deliver a message. What that message is and how it is conveyed is what I think differentiates classic sci-fi from the commercial type. Without a doubt, Frank Herbert’s Dune was the most inspirational work for me in that it delivered so much, and did so in a way that was both profound yet subtle. He didn’t have muppet-style aliens who’s sole purpose was to reflect on humanity, he wasn’t preachy, his characters weren’t one-dimensional and his plots were never quick and tidy. Characters were complex, his commentary was challenging, and his universe was rich and developed.
He was one of the greats that got me into writing sci-fi. Originally, back when I was still in school, I thought it might be cool to write a science fiction series. I always loved drawing futuristic worlds and sci-fi stuff, but mainly I wanted to create my own universe. After reading his series, it occurred to me that I could turn my own ideas into short stories or even a full length novel. I’ve crafted one full-length, called Legacies, and several shorts that are either set in the same universe or are completely independent. Since that time, I’ve also delved into some work that is a bit more contemporary, set in today’s world but with a sci-fi feel and spin.
The topics I like to cover are human evolution, extinction, exploration, colonization, society, technology, the cutting edge of things, and yes, even extra-terrestrials. The longer I am here, the more I hope to post and share. Hope y’all like what I have to offer! Enjoy!