Saturday, June 3, 2017

Reading 2001: A Space Odyssey

Proof of purchase.
Note:  This post is filled with spoilers about the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey

After investing much of my free time on my Nietzsche blog in the first half of 2017, I decided it was time for a mental break, a change of pace, and I wanted to read something purely entertaining.  I was browsing through my collection of old paperbacks from my high school and college days when I spotted Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and wanted to give it a try.  

The film 2001 is one of my all-time favorites (I plan to review it in the near future) and the novel was written simultaneously as Clarke worked with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay.  My paperback is one of the oldest books in my library.  I don't have a clear memory of it anymore but, I think my grandmother bought it for me circa 1970, around the time the movie was re-released and came to my small town theater.  

I couldn't understand a lot of the novel when I first read it around age 10. I could tell it was about a space voyage and discovering alien life, but why were there monkeys at the beginning of the story? What happened to that astronaut at the end?  The idea of a “Star-Child” was a impenetrable mystery to me.  I read the novel a couple of more times during my teens and found it to be more accessible for my imagination with each reading, but I haven't really revisited it as an adult until now.  My yellowed paperback survived a bunch of personal moves and lifestyle changes before settling in my house in 1993.

I had forgotten how different the novel is from the movie. The general narrative is the same but the details differ greatly.  For example, the film (in part) is about humanity's first mission to Jupiter, but in the novel the destination is Saturn.  Still, there are more similarities than differences.  I enjoy Clarke's classic (by today's standards) writing style.  He is erudite, concise, technical with a touch of the poetic, mysterious, at times frightening and just plain fun to read, even if the prose feels a bit dated at times.  I am normally a slow, methodical reader, but 2001 only lasted a few nights for me. Part of that is Clarke's style and brevity.  Part is the enthusiasm with which I read it.

The novel is divided into six sections.  The first involves prehistoric humanity, the second a trip to a Moon base, the third concerns the journey to Saturn (or Jupiter), the fourth and fifth pertain to mysterious happenings around one of Saturn's moons.  The final section in both the book and the movie is about, well, shall we just say a "trip" and leave it at that for now.

Clarke offers the reader marvelous details that bring his story to life in each section of the novel. There is not much in the way of character development in either the book or the movie. Unlike, say, The Windup Girl, where the narrative is totally character-driven, 2001 is driven by technical details of a grandiose near-future in space from the perspective of the mid-1960's.  It is essentially an optimistic (yet tragic) tale as far as what humanity would have supposedly accomplished some 40 years in the future during a time where the “space race” between the USA and the Soviet Union was a daily reality.

This is not a weakness, however, because 2001 is an allegorical story.  It is filled with obvious, and not so obvious, symbolism meant to be interpreted.  Clarke and Kubrick never reveal what the story is “about,” however. Their intent, rather, is that it be open to interpretation.  But, whatever it is about, it involves mysterious monoliths configured in a 1 x 4 x 9 ratio that serve as givers of intelligence and as scouts for whatever race designed them.  This monolith “teaches” an ape-man, Moon-Watcher, to kill.  The reader understands that this affects human intelligence as a whole and, indeed, human survival.  What the monolith “means” is left open, unexplained, you can decide for yourself.

There is the wonder of a spacecraft docking with a space station above the Earth, then going on to the Moon base where a monolith has been uncovered after it was buried there millions of years ago.  It sends out a sharp signal directed toward Saturn (Jupiter in the movie).  Months later a space mission is sent to the target of the signal.  In the novel, that turns out to be Saturn's third largest Moon, Japetus.
That's sort of when the “action” really starts.  The spacecraft's sophisticated AI computer kills four crew members for psychological reasons (conflicted programming).  The sole surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman, exits the space craft and ends up traveling into what seems an awful lot like a wormhole although Clarke never uses that term. The novel and the film both become very strange at this point, perfect for the trippy 1960's.  Bowman ends up taken in by the same undefined higher, alien intelligence that built the monoliths. Under the care of that intelligence he ages and dies and is reborn as the Star-Child, who then, in the novel but not in the film, detonates all the nuclear weapon satellites circling the Earth in that near-future, wondering what to do next.  The End.  As I said, figure it out for yourself.

But let's look a little deeper at this allegorical story.  The novel's (and the film's) first section deals with “man-apes”, specifically Moon-Watcher.  Clarke reveals a great deal about these pre-humans through a narrative of details.  Their life expectancy is about 30 years.  No one can remember anything their ancestors did.  The very idea of ancestors is beyond their ability to comprehend.  They don't know how to use their opposable thumbs very well. They are hunter-gatherers, competing with wild hogs and leopards and other beasts for the scarce berries and fruits nearby the caves where they live. 

Moon-Watcher is bright and slightly large for his kind.  He lives in a constant state of hunger so he is lean and scrawny. He has insomnia, though he doesn't know that.  He stays up at night watching the stars from the edge of his cave.  He has a theory that he can catch the Moon in his hands except there are no trees around tall enough.  

Suddenly, an upright rectangular object appears, fixed in the ground, along the path to the watering hole.  The tribe's male man-apes approach it with caution.  Moon-Watcher is the first to touch it. Then he sniffs it and tries to bite it.  But he learns he can't do anything with it, it is like a rock to him. So, after the passage of days with it just setting there, he and the rest of the tribe ignore it as just part of the background like the hills and scrubby trees.

But, one day out of the blue the monolith makes a sound and attracts certain males including Moon-Watcher.  It seizes control of them and makes them do all sorts of things.  It makes Moon-watcher flex his hands in certain ways, and use his thumbs differently.  And the monolith plants a deeper teaching.  Moon-watcher soon realizes he can pick up an antler or a bone or sharp rock and grip it and kill hogs with it. These animals have been peacefully coexisting with the man-apes for countless centuries.  Suddenly, now they are food and plenty of it.  Moon-watcher ultimately makes a weapon out of a dead leopard's head.  The tribe grows strong and Moon-watcher kills the leader of a competitor tribe at the watering hole with the leopard skull, taking mastery of the water. Humanity will survive and continue to evolve. Importantly here at the novel:

“Shrieking with fright, the Others scattered into the bush; but presently they would return, and soon they would forget their lost leader.

“For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again.  Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

“But he would think of something.” (page 34)

Fast forward to the year 2001.  Dr. Heywood Floyd is traveling from Washington DC to a Moon base. He has a layover in a magnificent swirling wheel-like space station. The narrative goes into great detail about the function and amenities of the near-future space station and its private rooms, which include “hi-fi” sound.  Clarke dates himself with this no longer relevant term, as well as with other words and phrases throughout the novel.  It is a product of the 60's. But there is irony in the fact that most of the dated terms are so far out of date that someone reading the novel today for the first time might think Clarke invented the terms in order to sound futuristic.

Floyd then travels to the Moon base on a different ship.  He attends a briefing in which he reveals that a rectangular monolith was discovered due to detection of its magnetism. It was dug-up from its burial 30 meters under the lunar surface. It was deliberately buried which means that this would be rather shocking news to many people on Earth. For that reason it is a complete secret.

When Floyd visits the monolith burial site, the upright rectangular slab emits an ear-piercing signal that almost renders everyone around it unconscious.  The target of that signal is Japetus, a moon of Saturn.  For that reason several months later we are traveling on the space ship Discovery with two astronauts tasked with running the ship while three other astronauts are stowed in suspended hibernation.  The novel goes into great detail about the daily operations aboard Discovery. In this manner we learn that the actual running of the ship is handled by an AI supercomputer named Hal.  

After a fairly routine voyage, Discovery arrives at Jupiter where it will use that planet's gravity to catapult it out to Saturn. At this point, Hal detects that a critical orientation component of the ship's communications antennae will fail within 72 hours. Frank Poole space walks to retrieve the alleged faulty unit but extensive testing in the ship's lab can not find anything wrong with it.  This is very strange because the HAL 9000 series computers (of which Hal is one) have never made an error.  Hal proclaims himself to be “incapable of error.”

One to the best aspects of the novel is the subtly revealed psychotic transformation of Hal from a reliable mission assistant into a murderer.  2001 is one of the first to novels to examine the the psychological fabric of an AI, so it is pioneering in that way.  Throughout this section of the narrative Clarke exposes us to Hal's actual power and capabilities – and its internal dialog, its questioning and confusion.  The reader observes a strange paranoia as it slowly grips the supercomputer.

“The time might even come when Hal would take command of the ship.  In an emergency, if no one answered his signals, he would attempt to wake the sleeping members of the crew, by electrical or chemical stimulation.  If they did not respond, he would radio Earth for further orders.

“And then, if there was no reply from Earth, he would take what measures he deemed necessary to safeguard the ship and to continue the mission – whose real purpose only he knew, and which his human colleagues could have never guessed.

“Poole and Bowman had often humorously referred to themselves as caretaker or janitors aboard a ship that could really run itself.  They would have been astonished, and more than a little indignant, to discover how much truth that jest contained.” (page 96)

“Nowadays one could always tell when Hal was going to make an unscheduled announcement. Routine, automatic reports, or replies to questions that had been put him, had no preliminaries; but when he was initiating his own outputs there would a brief electronic throat clearing.  It was an idiosyncrasy that he had acquired during the last few weeks; later, if it became an annoyance, they might have to do something about it.  But it was really quite useful, since it alerted his audience to stand by for something unexpected.”  (page 134)

Then the unexpected (and virtually inexplicable) happens. Hal apparently freaks out that it has made an error over the antennae fault and becomes concerned that the two astronauts will disconnect his higher computing functions and controls. So Hal murders Poole during the astronaut's spacewalk to reinstall the antennae unit.  Poole's lifeless body goes flying off toward Saturn (Jupiter in the movie). Bowman is shocked.

“Even now, he could not fully accept the idea that Frank had been deliberately killed – it was utterly irrational.  It was beyond all reason that Hal, who had performed flawlessly for so long, should suddenly turn assassin.  He might make mistakes – anyone, man or machine, might do that – but Bowman could not believe him capable of murder.” (page 143)

Among the many allegorical aspects of 2001 is the importance of killing for the protecting and furthering of intelligence, both animal and artificial.  In the novel, Bowman's first concern is to save the hibernating crew members (in the movie he goes after Poole's body).  He orders Hal to give him manual control over the three hibernators.

“'All of them, Dave?'


“'May I point out that only one replacement is required.  The others are not due for revival for one hundred and twelve days.'

“'I am perfectly well aware of that.  But I prefer it this way.'

“Are you sure it's necessary to revive /any/ of them, Dave?  We can manage very well by ourselves.  My on-board memory is quite capable of handling all of the mission requirements.

“Was it the product of his overstretched imagination. Wondered Bowman, or was there really a note of pleading in Hal's voice?  And reasonable though the words appeared to be, they filled him with even deeper apprehension than before.

“Hal's suggestion could not possibly have been made in error; he knew perfectly well that Whitehead must be revived, now that Poole was gone.  He was proposing a major change in mission planning, and was therefore stepping far outside the scope of his order.

“What had gone on before could have been a series of accidents; but this was the first hint of mutiny.” (pp. 144-145)

Hal delays granting Bowman manual control long enough to kill all three hibernators.  Bowman has no choice but to venture into Hal's memory storage chamber and disconnect his higher intelligence functions.  Like Poole's initial trip to retrieve the antennae unit, Bowman's disconnection of Hal is told in great technical detail in the novel.

Hal's troubles are never clearly defined, though Clarke suggests it has to do with confusing affects on the AI of being programmed to keep the objective of the mission a secret (from the two astronauts it interacts with) and protecting the mission (from the two astronauts it interacts with).

“For the last hundred million miles, he had been brooding over the secret he could not share with Poole and Bowman.  He had been living a lie; and the time was fast approaching when his colleagues must learn that he had helped to deceive them.  

“The three hibernators already knew the truth – for they were Discovery's real payload, trained for the most important mission in the history of mankind. But they would not talk in their long sleep, or reveal their secret during many hours of discussion with friends and relatives and news agencies over the open circuits with Earth.

“It was a secret that, with great 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 the first weeks of the flight, should not learn the mission's full purpose, until there was a 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 not aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity – the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.

“He had begun to make mistakes, although, like a neurotic who could not observe his own symptoms, he would have denied it.  The link with Earth, over which his performance was continually monitored, had become the voice of conscience he could no longer fully obey.  But that he would deliberately attempt to break that link was something he would never admit, even to himself.

“Yet this was still a relatively minor problem; he might have handled it – as most men handle their own neuroses – if he had not been faced with disconnection; he would be deprived of all his inputs, and thrown into an unimaginable state of unconsciousness.  

“To Hal, this was he equivalent of Death.  For he had never slept, and therefore did not know that one could wake again...

“So he would protect himself, with all the weapons at his command.  Without rancor – but without pity – he would remove the the source of his frustrations.

“And then, following the orders that had been given to him in case of the ultimate emergency, he would continue the mission – unhindered and alone.” (pp. 148-149)

But that doesn't happen.  Bowman manages to disconnect Hal's higher thinking abilities while leaving the lower levels of ship navigation and maintenance intact.  Then, with Discovery approaching Japetus, Bowman contacts Dr. Floyd, who reveals the entire purpose of the mission to Bowman for the first time.  Soon afterward, Bowman gets in a space pod and ventures out toward the moon's surface where, over the course of the novels last 60 pages, he undergoes a mind-blowing trip and a transformation.

To condense the story down to the most essential fact, Bowman dies and is reborn as the Star-Child. “There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all it peoples.

“He had returned home.  Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies – and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close.

“A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in its orbit.  The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky.  He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the globe.

“Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding on his still untested powers.  For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

“But he would think of something.” (pp.220-221)  

The Star-Child and Moon-Watcher are elevated in their intelligence and in their being by this mysterious higher alien force.  Killing and murder are catalysts for making an evolutionary leap. The exertion of will power is idealized by 2001. Existence becomes an allegory for intelligent expression.  Moon-Watcher and Bowman become kind of the equivalent of Nietzsche's ubermensch, a higher life-form.

I stated earlier that the novel is fundamentally optimistic about what type of world is possible a mere 40 years in the future.  But, of course, all that realized potential is nevertheless laced with tragedy, as seems to be the human way with everything.  Moon-Watcher becomes master of the world when he learns make tools to kill.  Hal experienced a neurotic breakdown and kills. Bowman becomes the next phase of human evolution, a child of the stars with superhuman capabilities, who decides to detonate nuclear weapons.  Murder and destruction seem to be the logical extension and expression of higher intelligence.  But, being an allegorical story, the ability to kill is unlikely to mean anything in and of itself.  After all, the highest intelligence in the novel, whatever it is behind the monoliths, is an enabler, not an executioner. 

As much as anything, 2001 is about the evolution of human potential.  It is not about knowing who we are but rather it is about becoming something new, more powerful and exploring the possibilities of that – whether it be grasping a bone millions of years ago or experiencing the universe in a completely different way as a stellar being.

Possibility and mystery are the twin sources of human wonder.  Typically they work separately or even in opposition to each other.  It is rare to find them in concert but Clarke achieves that in this novel.  The mysteries of the monolith and of the Star-Child are open to interpretation.  And the possibilities of what happens next are as exciting for the Star-Child as they are for Moon-Watcher. This fundamental difference between who we are and who we will become lies at the heart of the novel (and the film).

2001 is a bold psychological and allegorical novel.  It is believable, tangible, puzzling, troubling and opens the reader's mind to larger questions than the simple unfolding of the narrative suggests.  It makes the question “why am I here?” irrelevant and instead replaces it with “what happens next?” And that change of inquiry might be more relevant today than it was in 1968 when 2001 first reached its worldwide audience.

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