2001: A Space Odyssey was boring. There I said it. I know you were thinking it. After the chimpanzees smash bones to Thus Spoke Zarathustra there are about a hundred minutes of nothing until we get to, “Open the pod bay doors,” followed by a light show that requires the high of psychedelics to be appreciated.
That 2001 was boring did not stop it from becoming the most influential film made in my lifetime. The accurate (1968 accurate) depiction of space flight with ships matching rotation and a Pan Am stewardess clomping along in gravity boots were a needed reality check to Star Trek’s Enterprise and Lost in Space’s Styrofoam sets.
Whenever my monopoly-controlled internet connection fails, and Alexa cannot turn off my bedroom lights or tell me the time, I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s vision and that glowing eye of Hal. (Hal is not a wake word for Alexa because the false positives generated by a single syllable sound).
(Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL, died on the day I started writing this post. Like Arthur C. Clarke, his best work was not 2001: A Space Odyssey. For thirty-two seasons, Douglas Rain played Shakespeare’s most intriguing and iconic characters for Stratford Festival, but HAL is how he is remembered).
As mind-numbingly dull as 2001 is, it was not Clarke’s dullest work. The award-winning Rendezvous with Rama takes that prize. I tried reading Rendezvous with Rama when I was in college. It put me to sleep every session. I folded more than half the pages on that old paperback over from rolling on top of it in the middle of a nap.
The problem with both these works is in the details. The excruciating details that made them ground-breaking, award-winning works of science fiction that contributed to the modern block-buster. Even Lost In Space’s ROBOT inherited HAL’s certainty that it knew better. In The Fundamentals, Charles and Earl Clark are an homage to sir Arthur, and Keith Hobson’s confinement to a wheelchair was born from a Wikipedia picture of Clarke at his home in Sri Lanka.
Clarke’s influence reaches beyond fiction; every chuckle at last week’s claim by a Harvard astrophysicist that Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft was born in Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Rama was a cigar-shaped object from interstellar space, travelling at impossible speed.
While Arthur C. Clarke’s novels have had an oversized impact on science and science fiction, it was his short stories that influenced me. When forced to count his words, Clarke did his best work. You can find most of them in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke.
“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”Arthur C. Clarke
Here is the genesis of everything dull. The Sentinel became 2001: A Space Odyssey, but—limited by column length—makes its point without the exposition and accuracies of space travel. Star Trek’s teleporter was a human telegram in 1937’s Travel By Wire. Aliens living as humans and influencing, or abandoning, our civilization was 1938’s Retreat from Earth.
As early as 1939, Clarke speculated that all the ideas for science fiction had been used up and gives us his division of Science Fiction from Fantasy. In the following decades, he proves himself wrong on the first part and horrifyingly correct on the second with stories like Whaky, Technical Error, Loophole, and Castaway. From the distant future, Venusians visit our world to learn how we lived through archeology. Their conclusions are surely as wrong as ours about past human civilizations.
“Much blood has also been spilled on the carpet in attempts to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. I have suggested an operational definition: science fiction is something that COULD happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that COULDN’T happen – though often you only wish that it could.”Arthur C. Clarke
While The Sentinel gets most of the credit for 2001, other stories contributed to the groundbreaking snore-fest. Breaking Strain is about being trapped in space. It spawned another forgotten work; a movie named Trapped in Space.
If you listen to the Audible version of this book on noise cancelling headphones, you will feel Clarke’s prescience while listening to Silence Please. In the introduction to Times Arrow Clarke reminds us how hard it is for a science fiction writer to stay ahead of technological progress. A challenge I have now concluded follows Moore’s Law.
Everything here is good, but two stories stand out for me. The first is The Nine Billion Names of God where a Buddhist monastery request the aid of a supercomputer to calculate all the names of god. With the job complete, the stars over the Tibetan sky wink out of existence. The other is one that takes on added meaning with each passing decade: I Remember Babylon.
In I Remember Babylon communists intend to use a communication satellite to broadcast an un-censorable mix of pornography, gore, and propaganda into every American household. The plan is to use America’s consumerism, and amoral capitalist ideals to overthrow the government. Internet porn, social media, fake news, Napster, bit torrent, newsreaders, and unmoderated comment sections were not on Clarke’s radar. In the story, pornography was as modest as the figures on Indian temples engaged in sex acts; acts that cam-girls now do in Wal-Mart changing rooms.
Stephen King said:
“writing is telepathy over time.”
Clarke succeeded beyond most of his peers. Clarke’s work shapes modern cinema and television. As for Arthur and me, we have another connection through The Planetary Society.
Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Lois Friedman, The Planetary Society is a nonprofit foundation that does actual engineering projects. The biggest of these is Louis Friedman idea of a solar sail. Named Cosmos 1, they packaged the original solar sail project into a refitted nuclear missile and launched from a submarine in the Barents Sea. The rocket failed short of the intended orbit. Had it succeeded, Arthur C. Clarke proposed a reverse Babylon project to track the sail’s progress. The idea was to create a citizen tracking service using satellite TV dishes to find and track the solar sail’s signal from space. That mission failed in 2005 and thirteen years later, the CubeSat version of the sail has yet to reach orbit. In the intervening years, JAXA launched IKAROS an Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun. This ship solar sailed, but the acceleration was so small as to be negligible.
“One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion. It is the most malevolent and persistent of all mind viruses. We should get rid of it as quick as we can.”Arthur C. Clarke
Before 2001, the year had a singular vision; travel to the outer planets with Pan Am flights to space stations orbiting the Earth. After 2001, the year is remembered for a singular horror. That we, as a collective species, could not come together to create Clarke’s vision of 2001 is a singular disappointment. Instead of a future built on science, we have a present poisoned by religion. Instead of a common good, we have endless divisions magnified by the Babylon projects of 24-hour news, social networks, and political campaigns. Every year, across the globe, trillions of credits are spent on sowing division, then profiting from that division with the production and use of weapons. The beginning of this century looks very much like the beginning of the last. Nationalism festers across the globe. Neighbors are intruders if we cannot profit from them, and worse if they cannot support themselves. 2001: A Space Odyssey might have been a boring look at a potential future, but at least it was a hopeful one. There is little of that left in today’s rational realms.