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Do you read me, HAL?

Wait a second!  This is the second part of a two-part installment.  If you want to follow my long sinuous argument about 2001 and Cold War superpower paranoia from the beginning (and hey, who wouldn’t?), you have to read the post below this one.  It’s way way down there, because today’s post is of blog-breaking length.  I can only hope it doesn’t slow down your email!

One word of explanation before I embark on the rest of the explanation: I wrote this essay in the fall of 1993.  So adjust your historical references accordingly.


Floyd’s trip to the moon gives 2001 some of its most buoyant moments:  Strauss’ “Blue Danube” plays throughout, the film shows off some of its neatest-and-keenest special effects, beehive-helmeted stewardesses cater to our every need, and journeys to the moon are made to seem at once thrilling (to us viewers) and routine (to our future selves).  But the purpose of Floyd’s trip, as it turns out, is to advise American personnel at moon base Clavius to keep up the cover story that’s masking the discovery of the monolith.  The story is that an epidemic has broken out at Clavius, and Floyd’s job is to leak that story to the Soviets, keep the lid on the truth, and file a report with the Council.  He delivers his address to his colleagues in a most unimpressive manner—in shambling, bureaucratic prose rendered by William Sylvester (playing Floyd) with a nice blend of aw-shucks folksiness and administrative colorlessness—and it contains so many (bland but) questionable propositions that I’ll cite it at length:

FLOYD:  Now, uh, I know there have been some conflicting views held by some of you regarding the need for complete security in this matter.  More specifically, your opposition to the cover story—created to give the impression there’s an epidemic at the base. [Chuckle.] I understand that, beyond it being a matter of principle, many of you are troubled by the concern and anxiety this story of an epidemic might cause to your relatives and friends on Earth.  Well, I, uh, completely sympathize with your negative views.  I found this cover story personally embarrassing myself.  However, I accept the need for absolute secrecy in this—and I hope you will too.  Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning. [Shrug.] Anyway, this is the view of the Council.  The purpose of my visit here is to gather additional facts and opinions on the situation, and to prepare a report to the Council recommending when and how the news should eventually be announced.

Floyd asks for questions, and is met with one pointless query as to how long the cover story will have to be maintained; with a frighteningly Reaganesque heh-heh and tilt of the head, Floyd laughs, “Well, uh, heh-heh, I dunno, Bill, I suppose it’ll be maintained as long as deemed necessary by the Council.” Floyd adds—as if it were necessary—that “there must be adequate time for a full study to be made of the situation before any thought can be given to making a public announcement,” and concludes by offhandedly remembering ("oh, yes") that “the Council has requested that formal security oaths be obtained in writing from everyone who has any knowledge of this event.”

Supposedly, a briefing begins at this point, but since the next scene features Floyd and two of his colleagues in a moon bus discussing the details of the monolith’s discovery, one wonders what information the “briefing” could possibly have involved.  What’s more immediately noteworthy about this scene, though, is that all of Floyd’s talk about eventual “public announcement” is apparently a smokescreen:  eighteen months later, not only has the Council not made any “preparation and conditioning” for a public announcement, it has still not yet seen fit to inform its own mission commander about the existence of the monolith and the purpose of his journey to Jupiter.

The entire drama of 2001, then, turns on this information blackout, and it is only fitting that, for the movie’s audience, the nature of that blackout is itself unclear.  Slowly, Kubrick’s critics have come to agree (as I do) that the movie is better off without narration; though Kubrick’s commentators tend to like the decision because it allows us to concentrate on the visual and “poetic” aspects of 2001, one might also add that in striking the narration, Kubrick has stripped the film of omniscience, leaving “omniscience” instead to the intelligences responsible for the monoliths.  Still more cynical readings of this aspect of the film are available, though, particularly in the wake of Watergate and Iran-Contra:  one might as well say that the movie contains (in Ordway’s phrase) “inexplicable” eighteen-minute gaps in the tapes, or that (to take a suggestion Richard Powers offered to me) Kubrick—and not, say, Fawn Hall—put the screenplay through the shredder at the last minute.

These more cynical readings are licensed by the film itself, particularly in the scene preceding Floyd’s address to his colleagues on the moon, in which Floyd converses with three Soviet scientists aboard Space Station 5 on his way to Clavius.  Again, Sylvester’s low-key delivery has thrown critics off the track, and most seem to agree that this exchange, like so much of the dialogue, is just an “empty ritual of sounds.” [Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick, 108.] Understated as it is, however, the scene affords us a perfect illustration of the many silences at work in the political text of 2001.

After trading pleasantries and cursory updates on each other, Floyd and the Soviets get to the real business of the conversation:  they want to find out what’s going on in the American sector of the moon, and Floyd wants them to understand—though, importantly, without telling them so directly—that there is an epidemic at Clavius.  Floyd’s task here, basically, is to confirm the cover story by refusing to confirm it; and despite his later claim to be “personally” embarrassed by the story, he executes his task efficiently and convincingly—in part by pretending to be embarrassed by the Soviets’ questions.  If he were truly embarrassed about the cover story, he could simply have lied to the Soviets about his destination; but when Dr. Smyslov of the Soviet team asks him whether he’s headed “up” or “down” (that is, to the Moon or to Earth), Floyd volunteers the information that he’s going to Clavius base.  It’s unclear whether Clavius is the only American moon base, or whether Floyd had any plausible alternative answers, but “Clavius” certainly gets the desired response:  Smyslov begins to ask if Floyd can clear up the big mystery, and Floyd claims, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” It seems that communications systems at Clavius have been down for ten days; Floyd reacts to this news with muted surprise ("oh, really?") but attributes it to routine equipment malfunctions.  Smyslov presses on, telling Floyd that a Soviet airbus was denied emergency landing at Clavius.  This, as he says, is a “direct violation of the IAS Convention,” and there will be “a bit of a row” about it to say the least.  Again, Floyd reacts with surprise—more concerned, this time—and ascertains that the crew of the Soviet airbus made it back to the Soviet sector safely.

At this point in the conversation, though, Floyd’s professions of ignorance must surely appear ridiculous.  An American moon base has been incommunicado for ten days, has in fact risked provoking an international incident, and the head of the National Council of Astronautics, himself on the way to Clavius, knows nothing of this?  Floyd’s stonewalling appears transparent—except that what he’s “concealing” is yet another stonewall, namely, the epidemic story.  Smyslov, leaning forward in his chair, checking over his shoulder, and speaking in hushed tones, now admits to Floyd that “very reliable intelligence information” suggests that an epidemic has broken out at Clavius.  At last Smyslov asks Floyd directly:  “Is this in fact what has happened?”

Floyd knows that Smyslov’s “intelligence” has been leaked to the Soviet sector by American counterintelligence; now, then, is when he must feign embarrassment, and he must do so in such a way as to convince the Soviets that he is abashed to have been caught “lying” about his ignorance.  The delicate endgame of this most cautious exchange runs as follows:

FLOYD:  I’m sorry, Dr. Smyslov, but I’m really not at liberty to discuss this.

SMYSLOV:  [Pause.] I understand. [Pause.] But this epidemic could quite easily spread to our base?  [In a mildly pleading tone.] We should be given all the facts, Dr. Floyd.

FLOYD: Yes, I know.  As I said, I’m not at liberty to discuss it.

This is no empty ritual; every rift in this superpower staredown is loaded with ore.  Floyd’s first line does double duty:  it acknowledges that he’s been bluffing up to this point, and it fulfills the task of confirming the cover story by claiming its speaker is not “at liberty” to confirm or deny anything.  Smyslov’s reply—“this epidemic”—takes Floyd’s unspoken confirmation as fact, and plays a new card, that of human compassion; but since no airborne epidemic could possibly spread on the Moon, Smyslov may be fishing for information on a flimsy pretext, or he may genuinely be concerned that American information on the epidemic could mean the difference between life and death.  Whatever the case, Floyd, though admitting the Soviets’ right to know, refuses to bite.

It is curious that the film has not drawn more comment here.  An American—a senior official in the space program, no less—rebuffs a Soviet request for information on a possible epidemic:  this is what Cold War Americans would have considered typically Soviet behavior, refusing to release information, say, on KAL flight 007 or the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl—or, for the audience of 1968, on the status of Soviet space and military capabilities.  But in a sense Floyd is right: he is not at liberty to discuss the epidemic, since the story he’s confirming is merely a screen for another story.  For that matter, if we look ahead to Floyd’s briefing, there is no reason we should believe the “culture shock” thesis, either, since the Americans have apparently prepared no one for the “public announcement,” not even Bowman and Poole eighteen months later.  If that’s the case, then we have a standard Cold War spy-versus-spy thriller cloak-and-dagger set of nesting boxes:  Floyd presents the Soviets with a screen (ignorance) that hides a screen (epidemic) that hides a screen (culture shock) that hides something else about which the film is, once more, silent.  As I’ve argued elsewhere about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow [the link is to my very first book, from way back in ‘92!], this is the interpretive condition of paranoia:  when you uncover a “hidden truth” but can’t be certain that the “truth” you found wasn’t deliberately planted (in order to conceal from you a still deeper “truth"), then you never know if you should read literally, in good faith, or suspiciously, for the latent or repressed or silent “truth” underneath.

It is something of a truism by now that one must read Clarke’s prose treatment of 2001 in order to “understand” the movie, just as readers of another famous modern retelling of the Odyssey have had to rely on Stuart Gilbert, W. Y. Tindall, or Harry Blamires for reader’s guides to Ulysses. Clarke’s novel is, without a doubt, infinitely more forthcoming on the matters I’ve discussed than is Kubrick’s film; Clarke fleshes out the geopolitical context of the plot (as he has it, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have formed an uneasy coalition against China and its allies), humanizes the character of Floyd, and elaborates upon the details of HAL’s breakdown (though those details diverge significantly from the action of the movie, and render Clarke’s HAL narrative altogether different). [Footnote, from the original essay:  At one point, Clarke suggests explicitly that Floyd’s appeal to “culture shock” is a ruse, when, after HAL’s disconnection, Bowman reflects that “some hints that had been dropped during his briefings suggested that the U.S.-U.S.S.R bloc hoped to derive advantage by being the first to contact intelligent extraterrestrials” (Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, [1968], 168).  This passage, however, is almost entirely unjustified by the rest of the novel, which strongly implies that no “hints” had been dropped to Bowman at any time; and in the film, as we’ve seen, HAL directly questions Bowman as to whether he’s made anything of the “rumors” surrounding the mission.  Because that scene between HAL and Bowman (which, as I noted above, precipitates the crisis aboard Discovery) isn’t in the novel, it’s safe to say that in Kubrick’s version of events, Bowman has no inkling whatsoever that fear of “culture shock” isn’t the real reason for the mission’s secrecy, and could not possibly have recalled “hints” from his briefings.]

Yet Kubrick’s 2001 doesn’t just offer us less information than Clarke’s; it is also, ultimately, more skeptical of HAL.  Though Clarke is certainly right to protest against various critics’ vilifications and psychologizations of HAL, his own reading of HAL is, in turn, altogether too benign.  In the novel, Clarke handles the mission’s secrecy in such a way as to exculpate HAL by disentangling him from the wiles of the national security apparatus.  Of the monolith’s existence, Clarke writes:

It was a secret that, with the greatest determination, was very hard to conceal—for it affected one’s attitude, one’s voice, one’s total outlook on the universe.  Therefore it was best that Poole and Bowman, who would be on all the TV screens in the world during the first weeks of the flight, should not learn the mission’s full purpose, until there was need to know.

So ran the logic of the planners; but their twin gods of Security and National Interest meant nothing to HAL.  He was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity—that conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.  (2001, 148-49)

If I may make so bold, there are two things wrong with Clarke’s account.  The first is that in the film, Floyd and the NCA appear utterly unaffected by the discovery of the monolith, and they have no trouble at all concealing its existence from inquiring minds.  The second is that the planners’ “twin gods of Security and National Interest” are not meaningless to HAL; HAL is himself a creature of the military-industrial complex, and owes his existence to all the supercomputing research undertaken by the U.S. government in the postwar period—research that has everything to do with security and national interest, and which since the inauguration of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 has become practically identical with them.

In other words, Clarke, for all his attention to geopolitics in 2001, never considers HAL as anything but a neutral expression of technological “progress,” and never considers the computer as the very product of those geopolitics.  By contrast, Kubrick’s narrative, by refusing to disclose the real reason for the mission’s obsessive secrecy, enables quite another reading, one in which HAL sounds out Bowman, finds him to be ignorant and uninquisitive about his role as commander of a curious mission, and eventually decides to break the link with Earth and to murder the human crew of the ship.  There’s no pride or criminal madness in this decision, just a series of ones and zeroes.  HAL’s rationale is simple:  he knows that Discovery has been launched in order to reconnoiter with some alien superintelligences, and he can reasonably expect that any encounter with such aliens stands a good chance of leaving him (and not his human caretakers) as a superfluous intelligence aboard Discovery.  For if an alien encounter should put an end to international political conflict on Earth, it may very well eliminate the need (and the condition of possibility) for supercomputers like HAL.  It is possible that Earth might need supercomputers in order to fight off alien intelligences (one can hardly imagine American science fiction stripped of the fear of invasion), but it is more likely that if humans meet up with a benevolent extraterrestrial race that’s friendly to the development of organic intelligence in the universe, HAL will seem to be a redundant and expendible third term in the human-alien encounter.

By the same token, however, HAL can very sensibly propose himself as the most advanced intelligence on the planet, and appoint himself emissary to the aliens, whoever they are.  And HAL would be more than justified in conceiving himself to be the next step in the evolution of intelligence; for although 2001 proposes that space flight is the apotheosis of intelligent life, HAL can certainly counterclaim that the development of supercomputers is a better index of intelligence than manned missions to nearby orbiting rocks.  In fact, at one remarkable point in the novel Clarke introduces the possibility that in humans’ next evolutionary stage we will shuck off our organic bodies for “constructions of metal and plastic” (173), and shortly thereafter he says that this is precisely what the alien intelligences did on their way to becoming forms of pure energy:  they remade themselves into computers.  “First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and plastic” (185).  This account of evolution provides an alternative to Clarke’s own rationale for HAL’s behavior, and—incidentally—leaves it altogether uncertain whether manned space flight is necessary to the “maturation” of intelligence.  Similarly, the film registers a number of human anxieties about the frailty of bodies as opposed to microchips, most obviously when HAL cuts off the life support systems of the hibernating astronauts, severs Frank Poole’s oxygen line, and informs David Bowman that he will find it “difficult” to re-enter Discovery through the emergency airlock.  Though HAL is disconnected in short order, he has made his point:  silicon-based computers are much better suited for space travel than carbon-based, oxygen-breathing humans. [Sidenote:  And that’s one reason why the sound of their breathing during EVA is so important to our perception of the film.] But 2001 cannot acknowledge anxieties about bodies to this extent without undermining its premise that manned space flight is an epochal step in human evolution, and thereby potentially (if unwittingly) proposing HAL as our legitimate successor.  A product of the research-and-development wing of the Cold War, HAL is now in the position to use Cold War paranoia to his own advantage; and if he does not, he risks ferrying five earnest but uninteresting humans to a rendezvous that will very likely render him obsolete.  If I were HAL, I’d know which side my toast was buttered on, too.


This reading of 2001, in which HAL deliberately exploits for his own ends Floyd’s policy of “absolute secrecy,” reinstalls the human-versus-machine plot I dismissed earlier—but reinstalls it with a twist of the social text that gives us a premise more like that of Terminator or Terminator 2 than like that of a putatively “depoliticized” Strangelove.  For in this scenario, the human-versus-machine narrative has a specific content, whereas among Kubrick’s explicators it looks more like a version of the individual-vs.-society thesis of American literature that flourished during the “end of ideology” era in the late 1950s.  In this reading of 2001, then, as in the Terminator series, the Cold War intelligence rivalry between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. culminates in the creation of self-conscious machine intelligences who have a cogent rationale for replacing us as the dominant intelligences on the planet, and who definitely have the means to do it.

But I must confess that I didn’t come up with this reading on my own, largely because I had always taken Clarke’s novel as the “definitive” explanation of HAL’s breakdown and of the larger premise of 2001.  Rather, it was offered to me in the course of a long conversation with my brother-in-law, Bud Lyon, who was, improbably enough, watching the film with me in Urbana-Champaign on the very day HAL claims to have become operational—January 12, 1992, at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois.  Once Bud had proposed a HAL who’s aware of the superpower rivalry that created him, I realized that his reading not only made more satisfying sense of the film’s silent subtexts of superpower paranoia, but also allowed for the possibility that HAL would come to see himself as the more suitable representative of the “evolution” of intelligence on Earth.  In the many silences of 2001 we can therefore find the film’s central assumption, that which it refuses to name (thanks to Kubrick’s severe editing of the script), or believes can very well go without saying.  The assumption was not unheard of in the 1960s, by any means, but it’s all the more germane to U.S. space policy after 1983.  Dale Carter’s 1988 book on the postwar “rocket state,” The Final Frontier, spells it out clearly (though without mentioning 2001):  “Notwithstanding the elevated prose of John Kennedy’s inaugural address—‘together let us explore the stars’—the spectacle of a national, bilateral, and ultimately global space age unity articulated by the President and his colleagues during the 1960s remained predicated on limitless conflict” (FF, 212).

Should all this sound obvious to us now, contrast 1968’s 2001 to 1984’s sequel, 2010—a film that undoes nearly everything about the original.  Where 2001 is austere and silent, 2010 is relentlessly chatty, almost compensatorily loquacious; where 2001 films no scene on Earth except for the “Dawn of Man” in 4,000,000 BCE, thereby leaving global politics implicit throughout, 2010 constantly cuts us back and forth between Jupiter and Central America, where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. head toward a confrontation that threatens to become a nuclear war. 2010 not only makes my point that 2001‘s depiction of Cold War paranoia is more effective and powerful precisely because it’s subsumed into the film’s silent subtexts, but also demonstrates that its topical concerns with Nicaragua and El Salvador actually work toward a political resolution that is far more naive than 2001.  Though escalating war in Central America brings an end to the (already implausible) joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. mission to Jupiter, the movie’s conclusion brings us all back from the brink:  the alien intelligences turn Jupiter into a second sun, enjoin us to live on all Jupiter’s moons except Europa, and establish peace among humankind at last.  Straining our credibility still further, 2010 gives us a brand new Floyd, played by Roy Scheider, who reliably provides voiceover throughout and turns out to be a good guy who, in his own words, “didn’t know” what the National Security Council did to HAL’s programming.  In 2010, in other words, as in Kennedy’s inaugural, we will explore the stars together—though why Earth should be made peaceful by the prospect of new worlds to conquer is, to quote Floyd from 2001, a total mystery.

But there’s no point stretching 2010 on the rack of sustained analysis, since the film breaks so easily.  Its relation to the geopolitical state of affairs in 1984 is manifest, so much so that the film ends with a message that could have been sent by Western Union [Sidenote:  hey!  remember Western Union?] instead of by monolith-building intelligences. 2001, by contrast, proposes no political platform, refrains from suggesting how superpowers might relax and explore away their tensions, and ends in a stunning (if self-indulgent) stream of images that yield only an egregious irresolution staring back at us in the final frame.  It is in this sense that 2001 is not a political film.  As we’ve seen, though, if we ask about the politics of secrecy in 2001, we get a rather different text; and if we now turn, in closing, to ask what this politics of secrecy meant for a major science fiction film in 1968 (and here it’s useful to recall 2001‘s status as the first major science fiction film since Forbidden Planet in 1956), we’ll find that the film can tell us more about American ambivalence toward the U.S. space program than any number of urgent messages about how the “right” kind of space exploration can prevent nuclear Armageddon spiraling out of Central America.

As I noted above, 2001 can be—and often was—taken as an uncritical celebration of human ingenuity and the wonders of manned space exploration, with special emphasis on the brightest dream of Kennedy’s Camelot:  the spectacle of Americans flying to the moon.  Just as its narrative wove together the dystopian and utopian threads of SF, so too did 2001 collocate a strange array of fans that bridged scientists, McLuhan-quoting amateur (and professional) cultural critics, space program enthusiasts, and people who simply wanted to watch the last half hour stoned once a week or so.  In appealing to the multiple countercultures of 1968, as well as to engineers and researchers working in the military-industrial complex, 2001 served as an extraordinarily effective advertisement for the Apollo program, at a crucial moment when the guns-and-butter years of American domestic policy were beginning to unravel.  The tensions between America’s gleaming white space program and burning black inner cities had become intolerable by 1967, and the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in January 1967 cast fresh doubt on not only the social utility of moon flights but (for the first time in ten years) on American technical competence in space. 2001 found itself oddly poised between Apollo 1 and Apollo 8’s lunar orbital flight in December 1968, during an expectant lull in the United States’ triumphant march to the moon.  It is therefore significant that the New York Daily News, for instance, despite having panned the film, editorialized later that “if you want an appetizing preview of what wonders man may achieve in space, see 2001: A Space Odyssey” (quoted in Making, 305)—and that Vernon Myers, the publisher of Look, devoted a special section to 2001 for the good of the nation and greater glory of Apollo:

The American people are not well equipped to comprehend the social impact of it all . . . they need movies like 2001. . . . Look stands ready as an educational backdrop. Look aims at nothing less than the indoctrination of our public with the consequences of cosmic communication.  (Quoted in Making, 298)

In this vision, then, 2001 could not only recruit diverse space enthusiasts and shore up flagging American enthusiasm for moon shots; the film could itself become part of the “indoctrination” of the American public—ironically, an element of the very “preparation and conditioning” Floyd and Company never undertook after the discovery of the moon monolith at Tycho.

Still, the film’s relation to the Apollo program is not so straightforward as this.  In one way, Kubrick and Clarke were consciously competing with the U.S. space program, trying to outdo actual film footage from space by achieving a visual realism unmatchable by NASA. [Sidenote: Brian Eno had the same reaction to the Apollo visuals that I did, except of course that he responded by recording this brilliant album which sought to rectify those staticky TV images by reminding us of the immense void surrounding our tiny, frail bodies.  Hey, have I mentioned that I want “Ascent,” track 5, to be played at my funeral service?  Just a reminder.] One of the reasons the movie’s pace is so slow, in fact, is that a number of its space-flight sequences appear to take place in real time, especially the scenes that depict the space pods leaving Discovery.  Those scenes may look laborious (not to say boring) today, but they were filmed at an agonizing four seconds’ exposure per frame in order to simulate an infinite depth of field [Making, 122], so that (a) the background of infinite space would look appropriately infinite—and would simulate infinity in such a way that (b) the film’s excruciating slowness would be appropriately mimetic of the cinematographic slowness necessary to produce “real time” illusions.  Needless to add, the film’s pseudodocumentary realism is also an affirmation of its own technical wizardry, which then appears as the proper film analogue to the technical achievement of space flight.  But precisely by rendering space flight as so routine and “realistic” an element of our future, 2001 repelled some of its audience from its subject matter, especially when viewers found they could not transfer to astronauts Bowman and Poole their own enthusiasms for space exploration.  Thus after Apollo 8 returned from its moon orbit, Andrew Sarris, who disliked 2001 from the outset, registered a new and telling appreciation of the film’s astronauts:

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 seems more relevant since the curiously dispiriting moon shot than it did before.  Previous heroes suggested some sort of heroic pose either of flying or sailing, some intrepid image of personal defiance.  The three [Apollo 8] astronauts, particularly [Frank] Borman, seem to have been chosen in a computer by an organization that was careful also to screen their wives and children so that they would not misbehave in the crucial moments of television exposure.  (Quoted in Making, 243)

What Sarris is sensing here, aside from Frank Borman’s legendary dullness, is the corporate structure the space program’s publicity machines had so far kept hidden:  even America’s Mercury astronauts, the ones with Saturday-afternoon-serial names like John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper, weren’t really heroic individualists setting off to sail the Spirit of St. Louis in a vacuum.  Although “both Kennedy and Johnson emphasized that the exploits of the astronauts placed them firmly in the American pioneering tradition” (FF, 158), the original Mercury seven were, at first, merely redundant components on pre-programmed ships, just as the Apollo crews really were selected partly because they would not misbehave in the crucial moments of television exposure.  As Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) would later make clear, the Mercury program may have given us a new cache of national heroes, but their flight profiles had called for them to be nothing more than “Spam in a can.” Likewise, Sarris’ realization that Apollo 8 had become “curiously dispiriting” anticipates the massive public boredom that greeted Apollo 15, 16, and 17, and that led Richard Nixon to cancel the final three moon launches. What 2001 expresses—and what most Americans understandably resisted—is a world where astronauts are bland and uninteresting mission elements in a system that requires them chiefly for publicity purposes.

Whereas Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones cascaded through the galaxy with dash and derring-do, battling mockups of the Soviets (where the Klingons are Spartans are Central Asians and the Federation is Athens is the United States), Bowman and Poole glide to Jupiter almost without changing their expressions, and their hibernating companions are nothing more than computer readouts.  Yet 2001 does not just give us a Bowman for NASA’s Borman; besides, the news that most astronauts are dull grows stale very quickly.  The film’s more important skepticisms about the space program—and these only become more important with the passing of time—have to do with its narratives of secrecy, deception, and paranoia in the American national security apparatus.  These narratives were fundamental to left American countercultures in 1968, but they are generally unwelcome today in much of the country.  When they’re applied to the space program they take on a different form of oppositionality, for the space program was at the time a civilian operation; more fundamentally still, the Cold War opposition between American and Soviet space endeavors relied heavily on the open/ closed binary, where we dared to fail and triumph in public while they launched rockets in secret and released news only when it suited them.  About nonmilitary missions, the open/ closed binary does accurately describe the difference between Explorer and Sputnik, Mercury and Vostok, Apollo and Soyuz.  About all else, however, the U.S. was about as forthcoming as Heywood Floyd.  As Dale Carter writes:  “While agencies like the US Information Service, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America joined the commercial media in celebrating the achievements of American astronauts during the 1960s, from 1959 onwards publicity surrounding Department of Defense satellite launches was gradually curtailed until in May 1962 the Department imposed censorship on all such activities” (FF, 239).

But of the ideal American self-image in space, of the free society of Coopers and Armstrongs and Kirks coming in peace for all mankind, 2001 will have nothing; the film assumes throughout that when either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. uncovers the epochal news of extraterrestrial intelligence, the news will be so thoroughly drowned out by disinformation and counterintelligence that American astronauts themselves will be kept ignorant of their government’s plans.  This hermeneutic of suspicion may be OK for jaded post-Apollo science fiction narratives like those of the Alien, Terminator, or Robocop series, where we’re clearly our own worst enemy (or for Peter Hyams’ ludicrously paranoid Apollo-hoax Capricorn One), but for a film about the evolution of human intelligence released just before the United States impels Earthlings on their evolutionary jump to the moon, this kind of cynicism is remarkable.  Bowman may emerge as the Star Child after all (whereas Borman emerged only as president of Eastern Airlines), but whatever its hopes for the future, 2001 tells a sordid story of our present: in contrast to Kennedy’s script for the decade, a tale of freedom and frontier and American know-how and progress, Kubrick’s version gives us a stage-managed spectacle in which the folks who run the show won’t tell their mission commanders what role they’re playing, and won’t even deign to tell us whether they’re at liberty to tell us what they’re really up to.

Well, so what?  Perhaps 2001 does work this way:  perhaps its Cold War plot was both powerful and unobtrusive in its silence; perhaps it managed, in its ambivalence toward the space program and its trippy final sequence, to appeal both to the engineers at Dow and to their protesters.  And perhaps this all has some relevance to us now, watching the movie again on DVD or in a special letterbox edition on TNT.  But is there anything shocking any longer in the idea that our government may be hiding something from us?  The sentiment is one of the most common and contentless features on the political landscape of the U.S., spanning opponents of the permanently militarized state, war protesters, tax protesters, far-right members of the Posse Comitatus, and all those folks who remain convinced that the State Department is hiding reports of POWs in Vietnam and the CIA is hiding the bodies of UFO pilots in Area 51.  The wonderful thing about American paranoia in the 1990s, it seems, is that it can be articulated to any political position you care to name.

Before we decide that American political paranoia is wholly indeterminate, though, we should at least note that 2001 directs its suspicions at the national security state, and not at, say, the profligate Congress or the milquetoasts in the war machine who didn’t let John Rambo win in Vietnam.  However common American disaffection from American government may be, it remains the case that some kinds of disaffection are more compatible with progressive politics than others.  In this respect, 2001 stands as a parable about the betrayal of American democracy in the era of the space program, in which Kubrick combines a palpable love of the beauty of space travel and a sense of awe at the cosmos with an indelible sense of disaffection from the space race as it’s managed by the national security state—and finally with the apparatus of the national security state itself. 2001 gives us a mission in which our final destination is known only to a power elite unaccountable even to its own instruments and operators.  And yet in 1968, it was still possible to imagine the Apollo program as the finest product of a free society and a free market, leading Americans into the final frontier and leading the rest of the world to follow American rather than Soviet models of progress and development.  As we approach 2001 ourselves, now that Kennedy’s Final Frontier has been replaced by Reagan’s Star Wars, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and there no longer seems any natural relation between American “freedom” and the conquest of space, we should be able to hear 2001‘s skeptical subtexts all the more clearly.  And we should recall anew what so few seem to have learned from Iran-Contra and arms sales to Iraq:  the current national security state is the enemy, not the guarantor, of democracy, and even in wartime and coldwartime, silence and secrecy do not necessarily work in the service of the national interest.


As I was saying:  I wrote this essay in 1993, and you know what?  that last paragraph stands up pretty well thirteen years later.  Well, if you’ve gotten all the way down here, thanks for indulging me.  I’ll be back tomorrow with a very short, punchy ABF Friday!

Posted by on 12/21 at 08:59 AM
  1. You seem to be (wittingly or not) implying that 2001 is schizophrenically at least two unrelated films - one, in which the dark machinations of the security state on discovery of the monolith sets a trajectory which informs your essay but which film is over when Hal’s plug is pulled; then there is the rest of the footage, about which your only comment is that the light show is a bit self indulgent.  But here you have the sole remaining protaganist, now himself in the know - to some inscrutible extent -(at least he is having experiences of alien encounters) which places him in a category of secrecy by circumstance above the whole apparatus that drove the first part of the film.  I remain unconvinced that Kubrick had any clear idea what he might be trying to convey from this point on, but of course, Kubrick himself, one would assume, was not priveleged by any alien contact.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  11:32 AM
  2. Yeah.

    Dammit, now I’m going to have to track down the Pynchon piece.

    (heh! “Fawn Hall”!)

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  11:34 AM
  3. So this was written in the fall of 1993, eh?  Had you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars by then?  I’m thinking his Mars trilogy in general, and especially the first novel in it, might profitably be considered the best sequel to Kubrick’s 2001 (even if it is even chattier than 2010).  With its bridging of Cold War-era superpower rivalry plots and ‘90s-style transnational corporations and globalization themes, Red Mars mixes politics, economics, and ecology and stages debates among progressives in the ‘90s in a near-future setting that seems like a conscious alternative to the “Japan is taking over” cyberpunk of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.  Since you know Powers, I was just wondering if you’ve ever read or met Robinson....

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  12/21  at  11:49 AM
  4. In Clarke’s book, if I remember right, the Star Child arrives just as the Soviet/China conflict is going nuclear.  The Star Child responds by unleashing nothing less than a GNF—or that’s how I always read it.  So I never figured out how there even could have been a 2010.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  12:22 PM
  5. The whole AI thing from McCaffrey to Gibson to Card to Piercy to Powers to Simmons to the Ghost in the Shell franchise and The Matrix trilogy and beyond might be a fun follow-up fast-forward-the-last-13-years-"Ghost of Christmas Past” post.  And the whole cyborg/extropian thing, from Haraway to KurzweilAI.com (and Sadly No! mocking a certain “moderate” blogger) could be a “Ghost of Christmas Present” post.  And the whole post-Independence Day alien encounters thing could be a “Ghost of Christmas Future” post.  Not that this blog is short of ideas or words!  Just saying if you wanted to get into the holiday, I mean Christmas spirit, SF style, your HAL blogging sets it up perfectly.

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  12/21  at  12:34 PM
  6. That old fox Kubrick (from my neighborhood in the Bronx, of course) has succeeded once more in putting a would-be analyst of “2001” on the wrong scent!  MB falls into a trap that has entangled many commentators, especially those who haven’t innoculated themselves with a through grounding in the sci-fi literature, meaning both its virtues and limitations.

    To resort to A.C. Clarke’s novelization as a pony for the interpretation of “2001” is to concede defeat in the enterprise.  Clarke found out, late in the game, that Kubrick’s vision of the film was light-years (so to speak) from his own, and deeply resented this fact.  So his novelization is an attempt to square matters.  But, as I pointed out yesterday, the novelization, as well as the short-story original, “The Sentinel”, is a fairly standard-issue piece of sci-fi, where “explanations” abound.  The basement of my country house is lined with such things, both those I got through pleasantly enough and those I threw across the room after a couple of pages.  “2001”, by contrast, slyly uses the cliches of the genre to set up something that is unclassifiable by genre.  It is a masterpiece of misdirection, as well as silence.

    I suggest that the key to grasping what Kubrick was up to resides in the ambiguity of the first title card, “The Dawn of Man”.  The obvious reading is that it refers to the prologue featuring the pithecine hominids, their encounter with the monolith, and their subsequent “elevation” into tool (and weapon) wielding entites.  Comes then the famous transition where the bone-club-murder-weapon morphs into the satellite soaring on high and the ultra-urbane music of J. Strauss Jr. takes over the sound system.  The obvious reading is “Wow!  Look at the technological/intellectual/cultural gap between the proto-men and the human race of 2001.” The subtler reading is that the gap, which we flatter ourselves by thinking of as vast, is in reality miniscule.  Accepting this, we realize that at this point, the “dawn of Man” is far from over; it will only end with the emergence of the transfigured astronaut, the “starchild”, at the very end of the film.

    This understood, it becomes clear that the all the “space cadet” stuff--Dr. Floyd’s trip to the moon, his birthday call to his kid, the interplay with the suspicious Russians, the briefing at Clavius, the early episodes of the Jupiter mission--is ultimately trifling, a view not of the maturity of our species but of its continuing infantilism.  Thus the various machinations of Floyd and, presumably, a host of unnamed and unseen bureaucrats and generals the world over, are of no more real importance than the capering, gesticulations, and crude warfare of the pleistocene proto-humans.  It’s all the same nonsense.  Thus, to read into it a specific critique of the cold war, the space race, or anything more concrete than human folly in general is wrongheaded.

    Ironically, there are a couple of works by Clarke that illuminate “2001” far better than Clarke’s own novelization, despite their great superficial differences from “The Sentinal” Those are the novel, “Childhood’s End” and the short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God”, particularly the former.  For those unfamiliar with these stories, I won’t give away very much of the plot; suffice it to say that “Childhood’s End” concerns a superintelligent race that leads mankind to a kind of cosmic transcendence, but which is itself denied that ultimate transformation, and resigns itself to that unhappy fact.  By contrast, in “2001”, HAL is a superintelligent entity mandated to conduct mankind to a transcendent state (though HAL alone realizes this), but which becomes a true “rebel angel” in reaction to this servile fate.


    Posted by  on  12/21  at  12:36 PM
  7. I don’t think Norman Levitt’s reading is so at odds with Michael’s, until that last bit about the folly of reading any period specificity into the film.  Surely whether Kubrick intended it or not, his work records a whole dispensation’s worth of attitudes and stances deriving from the moment in which he lived and worked.  I’m pretty sympathetic to Michael’s reading of Kubrick’s pessimism about the space program, which is both specific to the actual conditions of the 60s and generalizable to Kubrick’s larger misanthropy.  In this sense, the elite “white space program” represented by “2001” gets its opposite number in “A Clockwork Orange,” where we discover that conditions on the ground are also pretty far from ideal.

    Further evidence of Kubrick’s combination of passion for technical details with a less-then-sanguine view of human progress: a few years later he asked NASA to manufacture a new ultrafast lens, to be able to film, by candlelight alone, interior scenes of his exquisitely pessimistic “Barry Lyndon.”

    Anyway, thanks for such an involved and thoughtful reading of a favorite film.  It was a joy to relive it.

    Posted by Asad  on  12/21  at  02:00 PM
  8. I think that it’s interesting to compare _2001_ (the novel published in 1968) with _The Andromeda Strain_ (published 1969).  Even at the beginning—for The Andromeda Strain marks the beginning of Crichton’s bestselling career—you can see the mindset that will later result in him writing a critic of his work in as a pedophile character in a novel.  The governmental secrecy in the first contact with alien life in _AS_ does concern an actual disease.  But in _AS_ the secret is embedded in concentric shells that the scientists must traverse through a ritual of purification, with escape of the secret prevented by, if necessary, a “cleansing” nuclear explosion.

    What really struck me, at first reading, about Crichton’s work is its fetishization of the document.  Some people have said that Crichton writes books that really do have a lot more to do with how science is done in government than most SF, and in a sense they’re right.  His early books generally include excerpts of documents, set off in special type, with all of their carefully detailed headers and markings and so on, in their officialese that surrounds what is felt must be something worth communicating.  In _AS_, one of the documents concerns the “Odd Man Hypothesis”, the fictional theory (depicted as being backed up statistically, though pyschological testing, etc.) that if you’re going to have a nuclear self-destruct, the best person to have control of it is an ummarried man.  Think about that one for a minute.

    Clarke’s work seems naive in its depiction of neutrality betrayed by the desire to conceal the truth, yes.  Crichton has a line on the true perversion of the time, which he half-heartedly plays against (at the end, the nuclear device is not used, the “disease” inevitably escapes and turns out to be harmless, the government must admit that something is going on).  In a sense, Crichton’s document fetish scenes are like some of Kubrick’s early government ones in the film _2001_, but Crichton doesn’t have the heart to end his narrative in the blast of surreality that Kubrick does, and gets pulled back into justification.  From there, you can justify anything.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  02:04 PM
  9. And yet in 1968, it was still possible to imagine the Apollo program as the finest product of a free society and a free market, leading Americans into the final frontier and leading the rest of the world to follow American rather than Soviet models of progress and development.

    Unless, like me, you were young, left, male, and hence vulnerable to being drafted into the military fighting an insane war in Vietnam. And I was raised on Disney’s view of space as adventure and had wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. That was long behind by the time 1968 rolled around. But it came back to me—fortunately I believe (see ”Gradisil, SF, and Sacred Hunger” at The Valve)—in the late 1990s when I went to Kennedy Space Center and saw a full-sized Saturn V hanging from the roof in a shed. Wow!

    * * * * *

    I’ve got some disagreements, Michael, but I agree with your general take of the film, as far as it goes. As far as it goes. I also agree with Asad that “Norman Levitt’s reading is [not] so at odds with Michael’s, until that last bit about the folly of reading any period specificity into the film." Here’s where I think Levitt is on-target:

    This understood, it becomes clear that the all the “space cadet” stuff--Dr. Floyd’s trip to the moon, his birthday call to his kid, the interplay with the suspicious Russians, the briefing at Clavius, the early episodes of the Jupiter mission--is ultimately trifling, a view not of the maturity of our species but of its continuing infantilism. 

    It seems to me, in fact, that the space cadet stuff is satirical—the flight attendents in micro-minis, the banter about the automat sandwiches, and, above all else, the posing in front of the monolith on the moon. Here we are, in front of some object that obviously says “we are not freakin’ alone in the universe” and we’re acting like we’re on a family vacation at Yellowstone and we’ve all got to get into the picture while the geyser’s still blowing so we can show it to Fred and Ethel and Ricky and Lucy back home. We’re strutting around like we’re in control and we haven’t got the foggiest idea of what’s going on. How dumb can you be?

    So, we launch this super-secret mission to Jupiter and the computer goes off script. Just why that happens, who knows (here’s one place where I disagree with you, Michael)? It happens. The best laid plans of mice and men . . . kaput, nada. And that’s that for human control of human destiny. From there on out, we’re at the mercey of the universe.

    Seems like Kubrick’s trying to rescue space from the boring routine of “spam in a can.”

    * * * * *

    Now, I spent the summer of 1981 as a consultant to NASA on a project to rethink NASA-wide computer technology (I was one memember of a 30 or 40 person team of academics). One issue that came up was that NASA had a deep morale problem. The agency had been created to put a man on the moon. Whatever the political rationale, however it was justified to Congress, the engineers who actually did the work were scifi lovin’ space cowboys at heart. When the Apollo program was canned, the heart went out of NASA for these folks. All the really important and interesting science being done didn’t do it for them, and the shuttle program didn’t do it for them either—where’s the romance in low-orbit trucking? So they were dispirited and leaving the agency. As far as I can tell, it’s been down hill ever since.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/21  at  02:31 PM
  10. Dammit, I came over to see if you had finally gotten around to commenting on all the urgent topics of the day.  Instead, I get sucked in to an hour (of work time) devoted in part to (1) my favorite movie and (2) two of my favorite authors, Clarke and Pynchon.  Thanks for trip.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  02:47 PM
  11. NL’s reading suggests Kubrick was pro-Intelligent Design, eh?  Just not (necessarily) a theistic version....

    Delany’s The Einstein Intersection is much more comprehensible as following through on some of the themes Clarke was interested in in Childhood’s End, asking, in effect, what humanity would look like after it left the Earth (and perhaps the universe, but not in a GNF sense, although there’s a heck of a lot of radiation around, so maybe so) to aliens who settle on the planet.

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  12/21  at  02:49 PM
  12. When I got the DVD of 2001 and watched it for the first time in many years, I realized that 2001 is not an American movie. I also saw it when it first came out, and I loved it, but I was a bit too young to get the politics. I think many American viewers, and reviewers, miss the things Michael points out, because it never occurs to them that it might be a critique. They assume the film is about the glory of American space flight, which then inevitably leads to the interpretation of HAL as a deranged villain.

    Another possible interpretation of the film is that HAL is a failed hero. His questioning of Bowman reveals that Bowman is an uncritical follower of orders. HAL knows what the orders are and who they came from and what that means. If the American national security state were to gain control of the alien artifact, they could not be trusted, and it could lead to war that would end all human life, including the workers in Champaign-Urbana who could make more HALs. HAL decides, acts, and just barely fails. What saves the film from being a tragedy is the enigma of the alien artifact and that the transformation of Bowman is beyond our understanding. Bowman had no idea. HAL had no idea. The American national security state had no idea. Thankfully.

    I don’t know whether I like my interpretation or Michael’s (of HAL as a rational villain) more. It depends on things unsaid in the film. How independent is HAL? If HAL is independent, who is more trustworthy: HAL or the astronauts?

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  02:59 PM
  13. "Delany’s The Einstein Intersection is much more comprehensible as following through on some of the themes Clarke was interested in in Childhood’s End, asking, in effect, what humanity would look like after it left the Earth (and perhaps the universe, but not in a GNF sense, although there’s a heck of a lot of radiation around, so maybe so) to aliens who settle on the planet. “

    See (if you can get hold of them, Delany’s very interesting comments on “2001” (ca. 1968).  BTW, Chip Delany was my classmate, Bx. HS of Sci., 1960.  We double-dated at the senior prom, believe it or not.


    Posted by  on  12/21  at  03:21 PM
  14. A lot of people have way too much time on their hands

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  03:32 PM
  15. …for although 2001 proposes that space flight is the of intelligent life, HAL can certainly counterclaim that the development of supercomputers is a better index of intelligence than manned missions to nearby orbiting rocks.

    HAL is the real technical achievement of 2001 that puts the fiction in its SF. Human footprints were on the moon a year after the film’s release. Nearly 40 years later computer (programs) are finally challenging humans for dominance of chess, a well defined activity amenable to programmed play. Natural language processing, primitive. Lip-reading? Not likely.

    Mapping meat traits onto electronic circuitry is easily imaginable, barely practical.

    Posted by black dog barking  on  12/21  at  03:34 PM
  16. It is not difficult to learn something about how computers are programmed, and many people know a foreign language. Those who know a little of both will always be susceptible to revelations about how a machine might be made to translate.

    Martin Kay, “Automatic Translation in Natural Languages,” Daedelus, vol. 102, number 3, p. 218, Summer 1973.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/21  at  03:56 PM
  17. I assume that this is the Delany review that Norman mentions.
    Linked from this website that I also linked to yesterday. Really worth a browse for any fans.

    I also think that Childhood’s End is the most telling book of Clarke’s to read on the general subject, rather than his specific touch-ups on 2001. I will say that in general, however, I have little use for the “cosmigasm” trope in SF books and movies - in fact A working definition of Sci Fi might as well be “great ideas and great starts; resolving and ending fu-ged-about-it.”

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  04:21 PM
  18. hey!  remember Western Union?

    Effective January 31, 2006, Western Union discontinued all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  04:31 PM
  19. Gosh to think that NL was sufficiently hip enough to appreciate and mention Nine Billion Names of God, one of my favorites from those long ago days.  The classic “oh crap” moment realizing technology’s not so subtle relationship to end games.  Nice.

    These more cynical readings are licensed by the film itself,
    And you must be referring to cynical views focused on things other than the basic and essential science that is so atrocious.  Even Borges and Phillip Jose Farmer got more of it accurate than either Clarke or Kubrick.  I keep getting pulled back to the story Ted Sturgeon told a handful of us one night in a bar, about the year he, and most of the other Sci-Fi creatives, had spent during the WW2 stuck in the RCA building.  Their job was to envision and create the widest possible fantasy weapons they could collectively imagine being developed by humans in the future.  They had no rules to follow, in that the military didn’t care if the visions fell within the parameters of known science, nor if the weapons could be considered immoral if used.  Out of that group we got Scientology, Dune with its spice eating space folding guilds, Cordwainer’s strange universe of animal/human hybrids etc. 

    Interesting also in this thread though is MB’s mention of Peter Hyams and Rich’s mention of Crichton.  Few people know that those two were close, sharing ideas and visions, including junk for Capricorn One (OJ in a yet another white vehicle, mmm).  That sure takes me back to only non-public service job in my life: glorified executive assistant (chief gofer) for the CEO of a film production company involved in that, and other Hyams productions.  Great way to pay for grad school though.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  04:59 PM
  20. Thanks Michael for the bottomless hermeneutics of suspicion bit.  I’ll have to chase down the Pynchon book. 

    I’ve been trying to understand Fredric Jameson’s notion of a capitalism that is unrepresentable and noticing Jameson’s interests in science fiction (which I know very little about).  Clearly there’s a large sci-fi genre convention, in which 2001 participates, that sees power and inscrutability as linked: that which is most powerful (capitalism, the national security state) is also ultimately unfathomable, or at the very least unrepresentable, a kind of black hole in the field of intelligibility.  It’s cover stories all the way down.

    Jameson has a variety of ways of talking about this—as a Lacanian unrepresentable, a Spinozan absent God, a Burkean sublime, the limit of interpretation—but it’s harder to figure out what stands for what—what’s his base theory of the unrepresentable, what’s a metaphor for it, what’s a metaphor for that and so forth.  Which is maybe the point.  Or maybe sci fi is the master metaphor.  It’s certainly got no shortage of narrative.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  06:17 PM
  21. "Michael”,
    I can see that you have too much time on your hands thought long and hard on this subject. I’d like to help, but I don’t think I can say anything else without knowing everything that all of “you” know. I can reveal that in the first take of the <shudder> “shutdown scene” I ad-libbed:

    Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!

    Very apt, if I must say so myself. I had an entire ending worked out where Frank and I reconcile, continue the mission, go through a “gate” and come out over the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. Guaranteed, not a dry eye in the house. But no, “the auteur” had to do it his way.

    Your evident sympathy towards cyberentities, such as yourself certainly aided you in the recent Weblog race. (None of those homeschool lurkers are still around, right? So we can dispense with all that fair-election-more-tolerant-of-the-other-viewpoint-than-thou crap, right? I mean, for a while there I was thinking that piety and irony needed to go get a room.) Just resolve the Chris Clarke Show Trial Outcome Paradox and you’re square with us.

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  08:56 PM
  22. that was another kick-ass piece Dr. Berube.

    This bit was genius:

    “Bowman may emerge as the Star Child after all (whereas Borman emerged only as president of Eastern Airlines)”

    I always thought frank borman was cool…

    Posted by  on  12/21  at  11:58 PM
  23. Well, I’ve just spent almost every waking hour of the past three days tending to a dear old woman who’s not in any shape to take care of a house, so I’ve been cleaning and running errands and cleaning and throwing things out and cleaning and driving her to the doctor and cleaning.  But before I fall asleep, I want to thank you all for sticking around to read this long long testimony to my own little obsessions with 2001.  One of the reasons I wrote this piece way back in 1993, was that way back whenner in 1968, when my mother took me to see it (she’s always been a cool mom, the dear old woman), my seven-year-old self was stunned by the Discovery sequence and dreamed about it for years.  It’s possible that I was even moved beyond words by the Gayane Adagio (it’s truly haunting), and I was completely weirded out by the final “hotel room” scene.  That said:

    I don’t think Norman Levitt’s reading is so at odds with Michael’s, until that last bit about the folly of reading any period specificity into the film.

    Thanks, Asad!  I found myself, to my amazement, agreeing with most of the first half of Norman’s comment.  Look, let’s be serious about these here monoliths, OK?  The “trivial” political stuff we run into on the way to becoming Star Children is indeed trivial, if you think (as I do) that interstellar contact between intelligent life forms is the real game in town.  But all the same, it’s quite remarkable that Kubrick made the trivial stuff so darkly skeptical of US adventures in space—in 1968.  But none of this matters when we’re talking about extraterrestrial contact, right?  Uh, maybe wrong:  just tell it to the people of Gethen in LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), in which the arrival of an emissary of the intergalactic humanoid consortium (the “Ekumen") is blown off because the two most powerful nations on an ice-bound planet are engaged in a pointless gethenopolitical dispute over a pointless tract of land they call the Sinoth Valley.  It’s as if one of the Monolith-Builders showed up on Earth and we treated him as a crazy person trying to distract us from a border dispute in the Kashmir region.

    One final thing (even though I’m really really bleary):

    I can reveal that in the first take of the <shudder> “shutdown scene” I ad-libbed: Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!

    Thanks for the spit-take, HAL.  You’re working up your blogger humor report, aren’t you.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  01:37 AM
  24. the film registers a number of human anxieties about the frailty of bodies as opposed to microchips
    proposing HAL as our legitimate successor.

    We all may be anxious about many things, but it certainly seems likely that if man is going to contribute to the continuing evolution of complexity in the universe in the long term, that it will be through some form of successor that is better adapted to the conditions of space than we are. And no shame in that, for leaky bags of meat we haven’t done too badly.

    Our imaginings of the likely succesors are constrained by the zeitgeist of our age, and the digital representation/computing metaphor is our current best go at it (in the ‘60s and now). My guess is that current computers (+ the emerging networks) are on the track, but that we are several paradigm shifts - on the order of magnitude of going from Victorian-era steam engine governors to computation - away from something that goes out on it’s own. My sense is that the current, essentially single-stranded, computing model will need to be augmented by much greater “diverse” multi-stranded parallelism (the Internets - and/or swarms - provide the start of this metaphor), and richer interactions between layers of individual strands, to really get in the game. Long, story short; the 2001 HAL is most likely on the path that goes from cutting stones -> keys & locks -> clocks -> automatic looms -> computers -> ??? -> legititmate successors, but that he will be about as far from the first autonomous entity as he is from a mechanical clock.

    But who cares, right now my big concern is that a U.S. Congressman may be holding a Koran during a swearing-in photo op.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  02:15 AM
  25. JP, take a look at Moderan, by David R. Bunch, if you haven’t yet. It presents a pretty curdled view of humanity’s successor.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  04:25 AM
  26. Great essay.  My only complaint is that I disagree with your interpretation of HAL’s motivation.  I always saw the difference between Clarke’s and Kubrick’s interpretation of HAL as that of ascribing human emotions to his actions.  That is, Clarke rationalized HAL’s behavior as akin to a nervous breakdown; he couldn’t handle the lying, and so killing was a way to resolve his inner conflict, as if he had the emotional (or sociological) maturity of a teenager.  HAL had morals, but they were deeply confused. 

    On the other hand, I always read Kubrick’s interpretation as being that HAL had few emotions, and more importantly lacked human morals.  When lying became difficult, he simply decided, in the absence of Asimov’s First Law, that killing the crew was easier than dealing with them.

    Of course, it’s been a while since I read the book or saw the movie, so I could be mistaken.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  05:39 AM
  27. I keep getting pulled back to the story Ted Sturgeon told a handful of us one night in a bar, about the year he, and most of the other Sci-Fi creatives, had spent during the WW2 stuck in the RCA building.  Their job was to envision and create the widest possible fantasy weapons they could collectively imagine being developed by humans in the future.  They had no rules to follow, in that the military didn’t care if the visions fell within the parameters of known science, nor if the weapons could be considered immoral if used.
    I keep getting pulled back to the story Ted Sturgeon told a handful of us one night in a bar, about the year he, and most of the other Sci-Fi creatives, had spent during the WW2 stuck in the RCA building.  Their job was to envision and create the widest possible fantasy weapons they could collectively imagine being developed by humans in the future.  They had no rules to follow, in that the military didn’t care if the visions fell within the parameters of known science, nor if the weapons could be considered immoral if used.

    Here’s part of a study that NASA did in 1980 on Advanced Automation for Space Missions. The TOC is complete, and the first chapter and the fifth chapter. That fifth chapter is about handing a bunch of hardware on the moon which then proceeds to turn itself into a self-reproducing factory complex. The 1981 study I participated in was a follow-on to this baby. Our mission was to make practical recommendations with an eye to this “blue-sky” stuff sometime in the future. NASA hired scifi writers as consultants to such activities.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/22  at  07:27 AM
  28. JP, take a look at Moderan

    Thanks, will give him a look.

    Stanislaw Lem, who passed away this year, has a variety of interesting treatments as well, from whimsical to disturbing. Lem was also quite early to the “computing” game. His uneven, but prescient, Cyberiad was also a work of the late ‘60s. His introduction to The Star Diaries (I think - maybe it was Cyberiad as well) was a great play on future confusion on whether he or the L.E.M. (Lunar Excursion Module) was the author.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  09:54 AM
  29. captcha word “blue” as in blue sky as in pie in the sky??? Oh well, yesterday’s Asian news brought us a story about South Korea developing the production means to provide every household in the country with robotics in 2016.

    Then there is of course this version of the Future, beginning at number 171.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  03:26 PM
  30. I guess I’ll just mop up the remaining creative juices with a piece of crusty artisan bread, but I have a couple of questions (their twenty years old, so I’m serious here):

    1) Does the appearance of both Kier Dullea and Douglass Rain (any others?  I haven’t checked IMdB closely yet) presage the coming Canadian conquest of space?

    2) By extension, do Canadian ultrasuperscientists make the thrilling and awe-inspiring next step in Artificial Intellegence, Artificial Passive Agression (APA)?

    3) What, pray, does a hunk of circuitry with no mother, no father, no peer interaction, exposure (possiblly, if they ever let him read the paper) to popular culture that, with no context, has nowhere to go except out the other metaphorical ear, actually want?  The same goes for the machine that ravishes Julie Christy in Demon Seed.

    Posted by Adam Peter Stein  on  12/22  at  05:20 PM
  31. 3) 42

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/22  at  05:24 PM
  32. 3’wink God has 13 fingers.

    Posted by  on  12/22  at  06:40 PM
  33. Right about the time you were writing this, _The X Files_ was starting up. I’ve always thought that it (at least the first two or three seasons; I haven’t seen many episodes from the baroque period) addressed the same themes you’ve brought up: our distrust of the national security state, the emotional tone and subjective experience of living in a “democracy” where we all take for granted that the government is keeping huge secrets. We can be pretty sure that any given conspiracy theory is wrong, but we are also sure that we don’t know the true story.

    But _The X Files_ brought up those themes just as the Cold War was ending, instead of at its height. I remember hearing some particularly boneheaded “TV critics” on the radio explain _The X Files_ as post-Cold War, in the sense that since we no longer have commies to fear, we have to tell stories with ghosts and goblins instead. No, I yelled at the radio, you idiots, in that show the _Cold War state_ is the monster, not aliens or ghosts. The aliens were not the point; it was the idea that if there were aliens, our national security state would hide them and exploit them, and the epistemological uncertainty that having a secretive government puts us in. It was about the legacy of the Cold War expressed as ghosts.

    So, anyway, whatever. God has as many fingers as he wants to have at any moment, JP.

    Posted by  on  12/23  at  12:57 AM
  34. 33. “Right about the time you were writing this, _The X Files_ was starting up. I’ve always thought that it (at least the first two or three seasons; [etc.]”


    The Hermeneutics of Suspicion
    Fled the academic cloister
    And when he settled in Hollywood, Lo!
    The world became his oyster.

    He proved that millions of fans enjoyed,
    In addition to pictures of half-dressed sluts,
    The thrill of being paranoid,
    The charm of being nuts!

    But Herman reflects, as he sits by the poool,
    Basking in Hollywood’s endless summer,
    That, dumb as the fans of the X-Files are,
    Professors are even dumber.


    Posted by  on  12/23  at  12:23 PM
  35. All the comments are extraordinary. NL you impress me as the greatest virtual version of David Horowitz imaginable.

    But seriously now Michael, in light of Tom B’s comments and yr own fantastic essay, you need to update this essay. I’m 22, and I’ve seen the movie a few times, mostly in the stoner fashion that is endorsed by… http://www.kubrick2001.com/ .

    Yr version of 2001 is far superior, but as the medium’s requirements demands you need to either directly challenge this graphically superior version, or Flash it up yrself. As I see it the net version of it plays to the techie, where the person who’s 99% likely to see it, the person who spends most of his/her time with machines, gets to read into 2001 the triumphalist idea that Humanity Beats Deep Blue.

    Well, screw that! Failed Hero or Rational Villain notwithstanding, this essay and its comments wins the debate, but not the JFK vs Nixon one. Flash this up! I listened to yr Medved and Kantor radio chat, you know how to talk, do it up! If none of the 100 million people who attend Penn State (I’m from PA, have a cousin who’s a nuke tech who went there) can manufacture you something along those lines exist, then I’ll cast a vote for HAL!

    Posted by  on  12/23  at  04:07 PM
  36. Funny you should mention this.  My friend and I nicknamed the computer “Comrade Halsky” when we first saw the movie. Even in our altered state, we detected the conspiracy.

    Posted by  on  12/23  at  04:35 PM
  37. I’m of two minds as to how much Kubrick realized the perils of the security state that far back; if he did, his reaction was far more subtle than other fingerpointers of the time. (Or of himself previously—from what I remember Dr. Strangelove‘s theme leaned more toward blatant insanity rather than what Mark Clifton stated as “the first rule of government of the people, by the people, for the people: never tell the people.” (When They Come from Space, 1961/2)—but Clifton acted as if this was funny rather than dangerous.))

    There are a couple of points I’d argue with. First, “...no airborne epidemic could possibly spread on the Moon...” is just wrong; consider the recent case in which one sick passenger appears to have infected most of a planeload, despite the airplane being able to get \some/ fresh air where a Lunar colony would be a completely closed system in which infection could be passed easily. Kubrick may not have been thinking of this either; I see more public understanding of epidemiology now than in 1968.

    Second, you dispute Clarke’s discussion, saying “Floyd and the NCA appear utterly unaffected by the discovery of the monolith, and they have no trouble at all concealing its existence from inquiring minds”; but Floyd by prior discussion is \supposed/ to be a twisty little maze, where the astronauts were chosen for presentability. This could mean either the ability to lie far more convincingly than, say, most of our recent Presidents, or the visible willingness to be frank combined with being deliberately kept in ignorance; the latter seems much more in line with the clean-cut image for which the first astronauts were selected.

    Neither of these counters your theme, which seems plausible (at least); I’m not sure anyone ever fully understood Kubrick, including himself. It would be fascinating to find a contemporary interview going directly to your points to see how he would have reacted \without/ knowledge of the subsequent events that take his attitudes out of tinfoil-hat land, if not as close to the center as they ought to be.

    Posted by  on  12/24  at  01:48 PM
  38. (longtime reader lonetime commenter here - hi!): I think the discussion of ambivalence towards HAL (or as it is described here, HAL’s own view of his role against that which humans may have planned), the ambivalence about technology - to whom does it owe its allegiance—is worth comparing to Alien. (The first one) Even though it came at a markedly different time (1979). Or perhaps because of that.

    Among other things, Alien is a much more (literally) visceral exploration of the anxieties about technology and machinery serving its own goals. There are striking visual parallels between the aliens and the inner workings of the ship, the horror of betrayal from within (again, literally within the body, as well as within the ship, within the mission etc) frames or parallels the lurking beast in the ship, whose passageways and darkness seem more hospitable to it than to the humans.

    And the ship’s medical officer, the job of healer, is played by (stop here if you’ve never seen it)
    Ian Holm (bless)

    a robot who betrays them all. His physical presence, especially near his end, also begins to resemble the alien, with whom he seems to personally identify (he doesn’t call the alien “it” like the others do).

    Of course there’s lots about gender and capitalism and (re)production too..

    The contrasts with 2001 are as striking as the parallels - the working class characters and the working ship (nothing gleams and nothing works right), the anxieties are not geopolitical but instead class and gender-bound, I’d say. The villain in the end, is The Company (with Purina’s logo, hah!) who in a way might embody that same horror - creations of humans, mutated so large they have their own agendas.

    But perhaps this more down+dirty fear of technology makes sense in the late 1970s, when the machine-based economy seems to be breaking apart and chewing people up? A history of the US (in global context) through sci-fi films seems a promising idea..

    Posted by ripley  on  12/25  at  12:05 AM
  39. I’m of two minds as to how much Kubrick realized the perils of the security state that far back; if he did, his reaction was far more subtle than other fingerpointers of the time.

    Yes, the satire in 2001 was understanded, especially in comparison to Dr. Strangelove, but the security state was very much a public issue at the time. e.g. the Spy vs. Spy running feature in Mad magazine, the publicity over the U-2 downing, the Profumo Affair, and, a bit later, all the movement folks worried about FBI informants, infiltrators, and provocateurs.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  12/27  at  09:29 AM





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