Monday, January 01, 2001
Future of ‘Space Odyssey’ isn’t now
By DAVID BROOKS, Telegraph Staff
We have no hotels in space, but we do have genetic engineering. No video-phone calls from orbit, but a World Wide Web. No helpful artificial intelligence, but no killer artificial intelligence, either.
In other words, as the kitchen calendar flips over to match one of the best movie titles ever to grace a theater lobby, a comparison of “2001” and 2001 really proves just one thing: Guessing the future is a tough, tough game.
Which isn’t necessarily bad.
“I’m glad that we can’t predict technological innovations,” said Jeanne Cavelos, a Mont Vernon-based science fiction writer. “It means that we are making leaps, taking unexpected side trips and learning wonderful things that we had no idea we were going to go.”
“The Soviets kept doing those five-year plans and they never worked the way they wanted them to. We’re just complex beings, and live in a chaotic world that is full of surprises,” she said. “I like surprises . . . well, most surprises.”
Cavelos is one of a trio of New Hampshire science fiction writers – people whose job involves peering ahead and writing down what their mind’s eye sees – asked by The Telegraph to comment on the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” as the real year 2001 arrives.
The three – Cavelos, James Patrick Kelly of Nottingham and Melissa Scott of Portsmouth – were happy to talk about this seminal work by director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the script based on his short story.
As you might expect, they were all quite familiar with this most famous of science fiction films, flaws and all.
“Sometimes the good parts are the parts that are wrong: ‘Look, it’s a Pan Am shuttle!’ ” chuckled Kelly, recalling famous scenes of a passenger-carrying space plane. “And now, Pan Am flies out of Pease Air Force Base.”
(Instead of going into space, aviation pioneer Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991 before being resurrected in New Hampshire as a shadow of its former self.)
Of course, Kubrick and Clarke are hardly the first to have a famous work with a year as the title go awry: George Orwell didn’t exactly nail 1984.
But this is 2001, so “2001” is the topic of discussion. And it presents some obvious conversation points.
For example, Kubrick and Clarke were also wrong about computers.
Computers are central to “2001,” thanks to its most famous character, a deranged artificial intelligence called HAL. (That name, Kubrick insisted, came from the term “heuristic algorithm,” and not from moving IBM one letter down the alphabet.)
Nonetheless, “2001” was way too optimistic about thinking machines. There’s no HAL in sight, which may not be too bad since it murders an astronaut.
“We haven’t had the big jump that Clarke and Kubrick saw. We haven’t had that task of confronting something that we built that’s as smart as we are. Computational power has gone in a different direction,” said Scott.
“The big thing . . . that has not come to pass is intelligent computers,” agreed Cavelos. “I think a lot of scientists who worked in the field at the time thought that was at least possible . . . that’s one area of science where we’ve moved more slowly than we thought we would.
“But we’ve progressed incredibly in other aspects, such as size – look at how big the computers are in ‘2001’; they’re huge. Now I have something with comparable power to HAL sitting on my desktop – however, it’s not intelligent the way HAL was intelligent.”
The film also missed when it came to networked computers. There’s no Internet in sight.
“One of the things that struck me is that we’ve really sort of turned directions around. Instead of going into outer space, we’ve concentrated on virtual space,” said Scott. “That’s where the ‘2001’-like stuff is happening: the World Wide Web. It has become a place more heavily populated than Kubrick’s orbits.”
The trio’s consensus? “2001” is a great movie that got a lot of predictions right, as big as the physics of docking ships and as small as Velcro shoes; and a lot of predictions wrong, as tiny as no light-emitting diodes and the entire lack of commercial space flight.
The biggest errors, though, may be sins of omission.
“They didn’t foresee or deal with the biological progress that we’ve made. I think that’s a huge element of our technology – the decoding of the genome, gene therapy techniques under development, taking a gene out of a trout and putting it into a tomato,” said Kelly. “It’s not there at all.”
“Still,” he added, “biology always gets short shrift in science fiction – aside from clones, of course.”
The 2-hour, 19-minute film, ranked by the American Film Institute as the 22nd best U.S. movie ever made but also derided by many as tedious and confusing, is hard to synopsize. It tells the story of an alien civilization’s “monolith” – once described by Mad magazine as looking like the box that the U.N. building came in – that turns apes into humans during “the dawn of time,” and zaps astronauts when it is found on the moon in 2001.
That discovery triggers a fact-finding trip to Jupiter, punctuated by shipboard battles with HAL, that culminates in a psychedelic ending that is either brilliant or baffling, or perhaps both, but certainly isn’t a very good prediction of what we’re seeing outside our windows.
Kubrick and Clarke are hardly the first to peer ahead at the turn of the millennium and miss the mark.
Way back in 1888, Edward Bellamy’s novel “Looking Backward,” a science fiction bellwether, painted our current era as a utopia with Victorian technology. Three-quarters of a century later, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein wrote the novel “Door Into Summer” and guessed that by 2001 we’d be knee-deep in intelligent robot maids, sort of mobile HALs with dust mops.
None of them foresaw the Internet or genetic swapping, either.
Which leads to the writers’ biggest comment: Predictions in fiction aren’t really predictions at all.
“There are two basic reasons we get it wrong,” said Scott, after pointing out a miss in one of her own novels.
“The first is that science tends to advance in both steady progress and in big jumps that change the rules. It’s very easy to extrapolate the straight progress . . . it’s very, very hard to predict the paradigm shifts, because they are born out of genius, intuition, luck, the overload of an existing system.
“But the other reason is that an awful lot of science fiction isn’t really about the future – it’s about the present. It takes hot-button issues for today, and looks at them in a setting that allows them to exaggerate some aspect of the problem.”
“For example, (the science fiction novel) ‘Dune’ is very much a novel about ’60s-’70s ecological concerns,” she said. “Even when people seem to be writing most about the future, they’re really talking about that which concerns them immediately and today.”
With that in mind, Kubrick and Clarke weren’t predicting Pan Am trips and alien monoliths, says Kelley.
“They expressed a sense of possibility that was happening in the ’60s. We didn’t know we weren’t going to be contacted (by another civilization) imminently. Maybe they were waiting for us to step out the door and shake their hands,” he said.
And finally, adds Scott, don’t scorn the misses.
“It’s a good thing that the fictional (predictions) are wrong. The heart of fiction is conflict, after all, and that which makes a great novel is not always something you’d want to live through,” she said.
“Yeah,” Cavelos agreed, pondering the movie’s enigmatic final scene. “I’m not sure I’d really want to be around that Star Baby.”
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