The Future in the Past (2001: A Space Odyssey)

We live in the future that we used to read about: our smartphones bear more resemblance to The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy than to Bell’s telephone and there are people living on a space station above our heads. When I first read about helicopters and submarines in Jules Verne at the age of twelve, they were already reality; it was then difficult to grasp that to the author all this had been a fictional future. Good for Verne. There are plenty of contrary examples: books in which the authors were so wildly off the mark that we can only wonder at what they were thinking. Science-fiction? In many cases, the word science ought to be crossed off.

But not in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey.


An Iconic Date: 2001

In 1968, when Arthur C. Clarke wrote the book and Stanley Kubrick shot the film 2001: A Space Oydssey, 2001 must have seemed impossibly far off. Neither of them were young exactly; which one of us dares take living into our 70s or 80s for granted?

As it turned out, Arthur C. Clarke did live long enough to see the iconic date come and go (he died in 2008). Sadly, Stanley Kubrick, who was the younger of the two, fell short of the 21st century; although only by a year so at least he too would have had a pretty good idea of what 2001 was going to be like.

Was it like they had imagined it?

Stanley Kubrick, self-portrait, 1949 [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

The Future in the Past

Well, humanity has not yet travelled to Jupiter, much less through an alien star-gate, but apart from that Clarke & Kubrick did, in many ways, extremely well to describe the future.

Now I’m a scientific expert; that means I know nothing about absolutely everything.

(Arthur C. Clarke: 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Bear in mind that 2001: A Space Odyssey has been written and shot only seven years after the first manned space flight, three years after the first space walk and a year before the first Moon landing; Clarke & Kubrick were largely entering uncharted territory and they did so with panache. Kubrick’s scenes on the Moon remain convincing even after we have seen real footage of astronauts on the Moon and I needed no imagination to visualise Dr Floyd reading the news on his Newspad; I only had to glance over to the other end of the sofa, where Mr Anglo-Saxonist was doing exactly that on his iPad. Computers in those days used to take up entire rooms and as for the internet, I don’t think it even existed as an idea. Yet Dr Floyd was reading the news on his Newspad, just like we do now. Even the date wasn’t far out.

As for another of Clarke’s ideas, the rotating ring to simulate gravity for the crew of a spaceship, it has almost become a cliché in science-fiction since 2001: A Space Odyssey; most recently you could see it in The Martian. And it’s not only other science-fiction authors who took the idea up: in 2011 NASA in fact designed such a spaceship for the planned mission to Mars. In the end, Nautilus-X never got off the drawing board but that was owing to lack of money; there’s nothing wrong with the underlying science.

Nautilus-X (NASA) [public domain]
But if some of the science behind the story holds up fine, the book and the film dated in other respects. In 2001 as imagined by Clarke, the Cold War division still persisted in a bipolar world in which only the US and Russia mattered and women were mostly relegated to the traditional gender roles of the 1960s. Clothes, hairstyles, manners and decor are similarly old-fashioned.

It was the mark of a barbarian to destroy something one could not understand…

(Arthur C. Clarke: 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Despite of the defining year in the title, despite of those elements of the story or its visualisation that are clearly dated, there is a certain timeless quality to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps this explains why, although the future from 1968 has now became our past, we still read this book and watch this film. 2001: A Space Odyssey is iconic: off the top of my head, I can’t think of another science-fiction story that had the same impact as Clarke & Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Symbiosis

Now, before you make a movie, you have to have a script, and before you have a script, you have to have a story; though some avant-garde directors have tried to dispense with the latter item, you’ll find their work only at art theatres.

(Arthur C. Clarke: Back to 2001)

Scene from the flim (exhibition photo by Matthew J Cotter via Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0]
I said Clarke & Kubrick’s masterpiece just as I spoke of Clarke & Kubrick in tandem throughout: because 2001: A Space Odyssey is a curious combination of a book and film produced, pretty much, side by side. And they work together. I wouldn’t recommend watching the film as substitute for the novel: you would struggle to make sense of it. All the explanations are in the book. On the other hand, if you don’t watch the film because you’ve already read the book you really miss out. Kubrick’s film is beautifully shot, albeit to the modern audience it would seem very slow. But this slowness means that you have time to savour every perfect image, appreciate the implications of every scene; it allows tension and curiosity to build up slowly, almost as if in real time. You get to feel the emptiness of space, the wonder, the strangeness of the alien object… you live this film as it unfolds on the screen.

Which is why you should watch it in the cinema. Not on your TV at home or your laptop on the train. There are elements (starting with the opening sequence when you watch a dark empty screen for about five minutes with the music swelling around you) that would be pretty incongruous anywhere but a cinema which allows you to shut out the real world completely and get lost in Kubrick’s magic.

And then marvel at the special effects; this is from before the time of CGI but none the less convincing for it.

The Twenty-First Century

Science fiction could now be made far more convincing by science-fact.

(Arthur C. Clarke: Back to 2001)

1968 was forty-nine years ago (I should know); almost half a century. When I was a child, we contemplated the 21st century with awe and a slight disbelief. Were we really going to be living in the 21st century? There were people who thought the world would come to an end in 2000 and not only uneducated ones: does anybody still remember the Y2K scare? Now it’s behind us.

I don’t know how Clarke & Kubrick did it: by genius, I suppose. If I had to imagine the world in 2050, I’d be clueless. I just know this: I’d like to live long enough to see a spaceship with a rotating ring arrive at Mars.

(They could call it HMSS Arthur C. Clarke.)

You might also like:The Rise and Fall of Artificial Gravity by Richard Hollingham (2014, BBC Future)
⇒ Nautilus-X: A Real Spaceship At Last by Fragomatic (2014, YouTube)
⇒ A copy of the Nautilus-X presentation by NASA (26/01/2011)
⇒ 12 Out-of-This-World Facts about 2001: A Space Odyssey
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2 thoughts on “The Future in the Past (2001: A Space Odyssey)

    1. It’s not too late. 🙂 I’ve never seen the film until recently after I decided to te-read the book (previously I tead it when I was a teenager). I’m very glad I’ve taken the time both to read it again and then to watch the film.

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