When we read 19th century science fiction novels, like Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or The Time Machine, we don’t think those books accurately describe the past. We read them as timeless stories and disregard when they were written. Most readers consider them standalone works of art. However, readers with inclinations to literary sleuthing will study why Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H. G. Wells wrote their stories. Even though those tales weren’t about actual events in the 1800s, those stories tell us a great deal about when they were written. Writers react to their local space and time, revealing their own psychological history, even when they are imagining life in the future.
When recently rereading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I tried to imagine how people in 2116 would remember Clarke, and the year 1968. I assumed future readers will look back on the 1960s in the same way I wonder about the 1860s while reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey months after I saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Back then, I saw it as a story about the future. Looking back from 2016, I realize it’s a story about the 1960s, and Arthur C. Clarke.
2001: A Space Odyssey works a number of science fictional themes common for its time:
- Ancient aliens nudged the cognitive evolution of early humans
- Humans travel to the Moon and planets in the near future
- Ancient aliens put device on the Moon to let them know when we leave Earth
- Humans will invent artificial intelligence that surpasses our own
- AI can be a threat and our successors
- Earth will be horribly overpopulated by the 21st century
- Ancient aliens left an interstellar subway for humans to use
- The goal of evolution is pure disembodied intelligence
- The Omega point of evolution is indistinguishable from God
When 2001: A Space Odyssey first premiered in theaters, film goers and critics were blown away. Many, if not most, were baffled by the ending. I’m not sure younger generations realize what an event 2001: A Space Odyssey was when it first came out. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on Miami Beach, when it opened as a “road show” – we had to buy advanced tickets for reserved seats. Science fiction up till then had been books and magazines that geeky introverts read, and science fiction films and television shows were aimed at adolescents (although many adults watched them). Science fiction fandom was a tiny subculture. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave science fiction recognition and class. Unfortunately, much of it’s audience left the show baffled, babbling about the trippy light-show, and the weird ending.
The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey was written concurrent with the film, and is not a novelization of the movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey did not appear on versions 1-3 of the Classics of Science Fiction, but recently popped up on version 4, with 17 citation lists. It was on 46% of the lists it could have been on. If you look at those lists you’ll see the story is gaining in popularity. Why? I have to assume that’s partly due to the lasting impact of the Stanley Kubrick film, but since I just reread the novel, I think it might be because of the novel itself. It does hold up. And it does explain the mysteries in the movie.
However, I’m wondering why Arthur C. Clarke wrote this story, and why it appeals to so many more people today. Would you want to be Dr. David Bowman? Did Clarke? This is his second novel where humans transcend their bodily form. I’ve always thought of Clarke as an engineer, but in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he’s a mystic. Of course, Clarke’s first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is about humanity ten billion years in the future. It makes me wonder if Clarke was discontent with his era, and his puny physical form. Did Clarke secretly want god-like powers? Don’t all kids who read superhero comics?
We think science fiction is about the future, but that’s not really true. Science fiction is always about the present. In 1953, when Childhood’s End was first published, the Doomsday Clock was at just 2 minutes to midnight. Is it any wonder that Clarke believed we needed to throw everything away on planet Earth and start over? In the 1950s, even the most hard-science SF magazine, Astounding Stories, had embraced ESP and psychic research. By the time 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, we were living in the Age of Aquarius, and the pop culture had become psychedelic. The Doomsday Clock had moved back to 7 minutes to midnight. Did space travel and New Age philosophies give us hope?
By 1991 the Doomsday Clock had eased back to 17 minutes to midnight. I think during all those years 2001: A Space Odyssey had lesser appeal. In 2015, the clock was moved up to 3 minutes till midnight. I expect it will go to 2 minutes soon. I’m wondering if renewed interest in this novel is due to dire times? Certainly the 2016 election makes everyone feel humanity is too stupid to survive without help from higher powers. But how many people would really want ancient aliens to provide our salvation? Personally, I find the idea insulting, and wondered why Clarke embraced such notions. Then again, I recently wrote “Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas” suggesting that Clarke’s novel parallels our desire for religion.
Although it’s not perfectly clear in the movie, the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, explains how an ancient alien intelligence interferes with the evolutionary development of prehuman hominids. Isn’t the opening of the film and novel really another version of the Garden of Eden myth? Instead of a Sky God creating Adam and Eve, a Sky God implants knowledge into the minds of our distant ancestors who live among the animals. It causes them to leave Eden. And if you think about, aren’t the endings of both stories the same – humans are transformed into spiritual beings, leaving Earth to dwell in the heavens with the Sky God?
Now, did Arthur C. Clarke believe this himself, or did he feel as a writer that if he tapped into an archetypal theme it would sell more books? Isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey a perfect story for apocalyptic times? Does this not explain why Childhood’s End was recently made into a television mini-series? When I was growing up everyone felt WWIII was imminent, believing we’d all be blown to smithereens, with civilization devolving into The Flintstones. We’re now living with the threat of the collapse of civilization again, and AR-15s are selling like comic books. On the intellectual stock market, religion is up, rational thinking is down.
Would 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood’s End be appealing stories if times were good? Both tales abandoned Earth. Maybe they appeal to us now because we think Earth is quickly becoming used up, and we need some place to go. It might also explain the rising appeal of dystopian novels.
How else does 2001: A Space Odyssey recall the 1960s? Aren’t the themes I listed above common in many 1960s science fiction novels? Didn’t Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, set the stage for 1960s and science fiction? It was also about superior aliens uplifting humans and transcending the body. It introduced a space-age religion. Doesn’t Way Station by Clifford Simak from 1963 hint at the interstellar highway system Dave Bowman travels? Are the computers in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The God Machine, and They’d Rather Be Right brothers and sisters to HAL 9000?
Doesn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey seem to crib themes from The Phenomenon of Man, the 1959 philosophical work by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, about his theory of human evolution and the Omega Point?
But will many modern readers even know about those influences? If the only book from 1968 to be remembered in 2116 is 2001: A Space Odyssey, how could they? I doubt it will be – but isn’t that how we remember the past? What other books do we remember from 1818 but Frankenstein? Aren’t most folks mental models of history from surviving novels, without any other existing historical context? If you look at other 1968 novels, do any of them portray an accurate portrait of that year? Airport by Arthur Hailey, Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, and Couples by John Updike might be more realistic paintings of mundane existence. I remember 1968, and on the surface, they are close. But novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Stand on Zanzibar and 2001: A Space Odyssey remind me of a psychological view of 1968. They were the most popular novels from that year that ended up on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Do I remember 1968 that way because I read those novels back then, or because that’s also how I felt in 1968?
I doubt Arthur C. Clarke believed ancient aliens monkeyed with our ancestors, or wait for us up in the sky. Maybe he thought they were fun ideas, or even hoped such things were true on his bad days. Most of Clarke’s stories are about about humans engineering their own future.
That’s the science fictional past I remember. As I reread the other Classics of Science Fiction novels in my social security years, I no longer dream of the future, but struggle to remember my science fictional past.
James Wallace Harris
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