Uncanny Valley Digest: Arthur C. Clarke (and Kubrick’s) 2001: A Space Odyssey

Our 2001: A Space Odyssey discussion was a voyage of Discovery! (wink) Welcome to our new members, and thank you for your participation. It was also great to see folks who’ve become prized and familiar over the past 5 years. (Yes, that’s right, readers, this summer is our 5th in the Valley. Here’s to many more!)

We started the discussion with what we liked about the book: the readability, the predictions (like the app-style UI of reading the news sounds just like an iPad), Clarke’s light touch and fun with science and technology popularization, the impressiveness of the long journey through time and across the entire solar system, the tiny creative ways in which Clarke teaches the reader about science and physics. (Even though you may only weigh 30 pounds on the Moon, you’ve still got that 180 pounds of mass, so be careful when changing direction, it’ll be harder than it seems.)

Suhail was particularly taken with the subtlety of HAL’s corruption. HAL was set on the course for psychosis because he was ordered by Mission Control to withhold information from the crew regarding the existence of the monolith. But it goes even deeper. In essence, Mission Control gave the monolith assignment to HAL, making the crew redundant backup workers that HAL was required to keep alive. HAL cracked, then panicked, because he was tasked to lie to the crew. Where does murder come from? Can a computer commit it? In this vein, David mentioned that Clarke very literally takes us into Mashahiro Mori’s original Uncanny Valley, regarding the aesthetic moment when a robot resembles a human just truly enough to creep out a real human.

The second half of the discussion was about what we didn’t like about the book: the obvious, to the point of being almost entertaining rather than offensive, western white male characterization of women (and reality) as mere extensions of space-man’s noble goals. The naming of space pods after women because of “their unpredictability.”  Also, Clarke’s lack of a voice other than his parochial pedagogical scientist-father narrator.

Chris thought the book might have been more interesting if Clark had tried inhabiting characters that weren’t mere duplicates of himself (basically all knight-in-shining armor western problem solvers like Heywood Floyd, Frank Poole, Dave Bowman, et al.) Clarke’s conceit runs deep in that regard because he basically frames all of the evolution of intelligent life on earth as a process meant to lead homo sapiens into space ships. Kind of silly when you take it in the big picture. Clarke does not seem to know how to write about the true unknowns, the inscrutable puzzles of existence. He has to fit everything in a box. But since the end of the book is literally about transcendence, there is some difficulty in making the ending come together.
Suhail: “He doesn’t have a mystical voice.”
David: “He can’t tackle the sublime, the Eldritch, the unknown. Life isn’t that certain and simple-”
Suhail: “-but Clarke is.”
Group: HAHAHAHAHA!

Kubrick's 2001: A Space OdysseyMovie/Book Relations: The movie significantly enriches the book’s characterizations. Alternately, the book makes the movie’s scenes (the dense, long shots) make more cohesive sense. Kubrick’s characters are a lot richer than Clarke’s. It’s a great symbiosis, even with the inevitable alterations which an adaptation to the screen brings. (Especially the technical “show-don’t-tell” syndrome, Clarke’s authoritative jargon for his enthusiastic popularization of science.) Lots of the book and the movie come off almost like an R & D video for Lockheed Martin. (Here’s how it’ll be, folks.)

David: “This book is precisely what sci-fi is reacting against now. A really racist sexist paradigm that convienently ignores the uncertainties of reality. I’m proud of today’s sci-fi for tackling this paradigm, actually.”

This lead to some discussions about Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, and way beyond, to where science fiction may have began. On the origins front, we were torn between Shelley’s Frankenstein being the first sci-fi, or Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream).

BANANA BREAD BREAK! (Thank you, Marta!)

Octavia E. ButlerAdditionally we kicked around some demarcations for what constitutes science fiction. For example, Octavia Butler’s genre-straddling Kindred is considered sci-fi because of the time travel, but doesn’t contain a single technological element after that. It’s mostly a historical novel, but it works as sci-fi somehow, because it shows us the world of slavery through the perceptions of a modern feminist. Suhail thought that sci-fi was marked by any presence of “fictional technology.” David added that sci-fi is characterized by an attempt to “literalize the figurative.” This bit of the talk got good, but my notes are insufficient, because I was so involved.

The 2001 novel, written from 1964-68 (before the moon landing, mind you) is the last ornament on Golden Age sci fi, science popularization, cheap gender and culture tropes, lots of love for the gear, explaining how the hard science might actually work. Nikita mentioned how this was similar to Gernsback’s Ralph 124C41+.

Nikita: “The element of sci-fi where explaining the technology is a pleasure in itself.”

Lena: “The science fiction and fantasy arena could be anything. So why not make it anything? Where are the diversities? Why the hostility toward other voices?”

Wrap-up: A great book, and movie. It’s worth your time, but also give yourself a chance to see how much things have changed (especially culturally) based on Clarke’s approach.

Please join us next week where we discuss “The Star,” by H.G. Wells.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!
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For more detail, here are page-by-page reading notes.

Clarke’s Introduction
viii – Going for “mythic grandeur”
xvi – Written in 1964-68, before the moon landing.

Part 1 Primeval Night (p. 1 – 40)
The history of humanity in 33 pages.

Part 2 TMA-1 (p.41 – 104)
All of short Chapter 7. Indicative of a dense technical style. Clarke’s better at this than characters. Lots of detail about how this technical process of space travel might realistically be manifest. (pp. 42, 46, 48, 60-64, etc.)
44, 45- social/political problems are as bad as ever. overpopulation, food supply, starvation, nukes, etc.
49- The last space opera before space travel IRL
51- virus mutations
46- Space travel as common as air travel. Why hasn’t this happened?
47- Trite and flat spoonfed characterization. Just get used to it.
48- Technical detail, plays like an R & D video for Lockheed Martin.
54- Planetary erosion. How many moonrocks are no longer on the moon?
55- Clarke, the great predictor, heh. The tone, though.
56- Movie Note: In the movie, at least he calls his daughter, not the secretary. Flat, Heinlein-y characters
61- Easy to relay in space.
61-62 He oversells space food.
63- Detailed, app-style UI/UX descriptions
65- Am I watching Mad Men? White privilege paragraph
66-68 A well-written passage about scale, where 1000s of feet is miniscule.
72- Art for sanity’s sake.
72-3 Good detail about moon life and weight vs. mass
73- Classic technological optimism style.
77- The space-born humans —- I dunno.
83- Nice contrast to Moon Watcher’s 1st experience with the monolith.
90- Sagan stole this trick in Contact.
94- Good detail.
98- None of the sci-fi writers seem to have predicted the digital camera – heh.
99- What do the primes mean? What are they telling us? That ET realization.
104- The trap sprung.

Part 3 Between Planets (p.107 – 146)
108- We’re going to Saturn, not (as in the movie) Jupiter.
108- The sequel is built in. (Also 137, at Europa)
110- Hibernaculum. A joke to Dave’s homunculus problem. Heh.
110-11 Foreshadowing. Trip lights. emotion
112-3 Space infancy. Mother’s milk.
116- The HAL/IBM joke. Fixed it!
117- Tiny white privilege reveal
117- AI fact check. What course did AI actually take?
119, 129 HAL foreshadowing
120- Chapter 17 Technical. R & D Video for Space Exploration
122- The advancement of cross-disciplinary learning at the expense of colleges and universities.
125- Scientifically speaking, Discovery has Salvadors
128- Clarke’s uptight dweeb side: Why not just let them have their porn and masturbation instead of drugging their sex away?
130- Great scaling of the asteroid belt.
132- The asteroid flyby. Still target practice

Part 4 Abyss (p.149 – 211)
150- An important consequence of isolation.
169- Silence as a response. Tsk, tsk.
180- Poole attacked. Maybe HAL was just trying to get the AR-35, not Poole.
180- When it’s time to emote, it’s all “show-don’t-tell”
182- Movie Note: Poole’s death is very different.
184- How is murder born? Can a computer commit it?
192- Chapter 27. HAL’s mind. The lie. Redundancy. The Fatal Flaw. (123- HAL’s size, 127 Games)
197- A potent image. Trapped in an air bubble in space, from air island to air island.
(And the powerful contrast of how unnecessary all that will be once Bowman transcends.)

Part 5 The Moons Of Saturn (p.215 – 255)
218- BARSOOM. Heh. Nod to John Carter’s Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)?
219- Sounds cruel. Does that even qualify as an experiment?
220- The core of AI is the study of our own human psychology.
220-1 Don’t Panic :o). HAL’s motivations laid out. They forced him to lie, and it made him implode.
225- Heh. Neils Bohr: “Your theory is crazy – but not crazy enough to be true.”
227- For Clarke, technology is a rung on the ladder to God. If consciousness could be housed in a machine instead of an organic body, eventually it wouldn’t need the machine, either. (245 – 6, and 249)
231- Clarke as a science popularizer.
232 Saturn’s rings and the monolith and us.
234- “the western side” of an orbit. Cute white privilege seep.
238- Bowman holding it together.
242- “Call it the Star Gate.” Why? :o)
243- Second monolith, EXPLAINED. Chapter 37 (Part 1 callback)
246- Ensconced in a comforting world-view that all of evolution was set up to lead homo sapiens to spaceships. A playful, and silly, conceit. Clarke’s uptight dweeb side.
249- Star Gate’s job is to bridge the organic to machine interface of mind, to be the next rung on Clarke’s Mind ladder – from body to machine to transcendent spirit in space.
251- “In all history, he was the only man to have seen this sight.” Heh, Clarke’s white privilege pipe dream in a nutshell.
251- Brave, chivalrous Bowman.
254- Bowman won’t be needing air anymore.

Part 6 Through The Star Gate (p.259 – 297)
260- Movie Note: The long psychadelic light show of the Star Gate travel.
261- A nice way to approach hallucinogenics: “a sense of calm expectation.” “The world around him was strange and wonderful, but there was nothing to fear. He had traveled these millions of miles in search of mystery; and now, it seemed, the mystery was coming to him.”
262- seems to be describing an interstellar freeway exchange at these monolith Star Gates all situated on one synthetic planet, a hub of Star Gate pathways.
263- A conceit.
263- Cool shipwreck image! Missed the interchange, ha.
264- A passing ship.
265- He takes his highway.
267- Handy, scientific, globular cluster deduction for guessing how far he might be from home.
269- He visits a binary star system
271- He visits a starship graveyard
275- He visits a dying red star orbited by a tiny brilliant white dwarf, which is drawing up an energy column of flame wider than the earth and several many thousand miles long.
291- Bowman set back to Zero. Next stage in Clarke’s body-machine-transcendence Mind ladder
292- Callback to Part 1
294- The double star was a re-birthing place.
295- Like when a drug trip grazes near “bad,” but all is well. The life form Clarke is trying to describe reminds me of Cordwainer Smith’s “Game of Rat and Dragon” space entities (but less malevolent).
297- Bowman pauses at Earth, stops nuclear war, then heads out to the great beyond. Last page.