On Reading 2001 for the First Time

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Cindy Wagner

Cindy Wagner

[Editor's note: See also "Collaborative Visioning in Science Fiction: 2001 and Minority Report" by Timothy C. Mack]

The first time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey—or rather, tried to watch it—was in college not too many years after it was released. I mostly slept through it, and by the end of the film I suspect others in the audience were as mesmerized by what they were smoking as by what they were watching. In the maybe half dozen times I’ve tried to watch it on TV since, I’ve made it through the film’s entirety just once. By that time, the graphics seemed dated, we still weren’t taking commercial flights to space stations or the Moon, and the placidly sinister mechanical voice of HAL is really all I remember.

Recently I happened upon a vintage paperback edition tucked in my bookcase and took it along for my daily subway commute. Arthur C. Clarke’s writing makes a case for a thousand words really being worth more than a picture. 2001 the novel is based on the screenplay that is credited to both Kubrick and Clarke, but the novel itself is solely Clarke’s creation, a perfect blend of scientific reason and artistic expression.

As futurists, we might have focused too narrowly on the predictions Clarke embedded in this story (especially the warnings of artificial intelligence with humanlike flaws) and in his other works, both fiction and nonfiction. The titles of the articles Clarke published in The Futurist bear this out, such as “Life May Thrive on Planet Jupiter” (October 1968) and “Satellites and the United States of Earth” (April 1972).

But it was perhaps the romantic within this scientist who yearned to explore space himself. Clarke’s forward-looking spirit led him to “predict” in his 1999 book Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! that he would celebrate his 100th birthday as a space tourist. (Clarke died in 2008; he would have turned 100 in 2017.)

As 2001’s protagonist David Bowman gets a view of space no human had ever seen, Clarke elevates travel writing to new poetic heights; yet, the fiction remains fully informed by science. For instance, his narrator observes, “As long ago as 1945, a British astronomer had pointed out that the rings [of Saturn] were ephemeral,” composed of orbiting ice. Clarke follows observation with imagination, showing what the sunset might look like, viewed from within those rings of ice:

As Discovery curved still closer toward Saturn, the Sun slowly descended toward the multiple arches of the rings. Now they had become a slim, silver bridge spanning the entire sky; though they were too tenuous to do more than dim the sunlight, their myriad of crystals refracted and scattered it in dazzling pyrotechnics. And as the Sun moved behind the thousand-mile-wide drifts of orbiting ice, pale ghosts of itself marched and merged across the sky, and the heavens were filled with shifting flares and flashes. Then the Sun sank below the rings, so that they framed it with their arches, and the celestial fireworks ceased.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction reports on the tensions between Clarke and Kubrick in presenting 2001 in words and images:

Audiences were mostly baffled [by the film]; the final moments, especially, are entirely unintelligible without Clarke’s text, which during the first three months of release was not even available as a novel, though it had been written alongside the screenplay and finished two years before the film’s release, only to be embargoed by Kubrick (to Clarke’s frustration). Only with its belated appearance as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—a major work of its author in its own right, and providing clear explanations in Clarke’s usual manner (and voice)—was the tension resolved between Kubrick’s allusive visual suggestion and Clarke’s open rationalism. This peculiar symbiosis of novel and film remains key to the appreciation of both as finished texts; it is doubtful whether either work would seem as impressive without the other.

One lesson for futurists and other creators of visions of the future is that the visions must not only be appealing in a sensory-overloaded cultural environment, but also grounded in science and expressed in ways audiences can understand. When you can turn a theory about orbiting ice into the mechanism for celestial pyrotechnics, I’d say you’ve got something.

Cindy Wagner, AAI Foresight Inc.’s consulting editor, was an editor for The Futurist for more than 30 years. Reach her at CynthiaGWagner@gmail.com.