Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 3rd, 2018

How the solar system was won

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

When Stanley Kubrick hired Arthur C. Clarke to work on the project that became 2001: A Space Odyssey, they didn’t have a title, a plot, or even much in the way of a premise. In Kubrick’s introductory letter to the author, he had written only that his interest lay in “these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character”:

1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on earth in the near future.
3. A space probe with a landing and exploration of the moon and Mars.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that almost none of what Kubrick describes here ended up in the finished film. The existence of extraterrestrial life is the anthropic assumption on which the entire story rests; there’s no real attempt to sketch in the larger social context; and the discovery of the alien artifact—far from having any impact on society—remains a secret until the end to all but a few scientists. There’s already a thriving colony on the moon when the main action of the story really starts, and Heywood Floyd only turns up after the monolith has been found. All that remains of Kubrick’s original conception, in fact, is a vague feeling that he tried to convey early in their partnership, which Clarke remembered later as the desire to make “a movie about man’s relation to the universe—something which had never been attempted, still less achieved, in the history of motion pictures.”

In this respect, they undoubtedly succeeded, and a lot of it had to do with Kubrick’s choice of collaborator. Yesterday, I suggested that Kubrick settled on Clarke because he was more likely than the other obvious candidates to be available for the extended writing process that the director had in mind. (This was quite an assumption, since it meant that Clarke had to be away from his home in Ceylon for more than a year, but it turned out to be right.) Yet Clarke was also uniquely qualified to write about “man’s relation to the universe,” and in particular about aliens who were far in advance of the human race. As Isaac Asimov has memorably explained, this was a plot point that was rarely seen in Astounding, mostly because of John W. Campbell’s personal prejudices:

[Campbell] was a devout believer in the inequality of man and felt that the inequality could be detected by outer signs such as skin and hair coloring…In science fiction, this translated itself into the Campbellesque theory that earthmen (all of whom, in the ideal Campbell story, resembled, people of northwestern European extraction) were superior to all other intelligent races.

Clarke had broken through in Astounding after the war—his stories “Loophole” and “Rescue Party” appeared in 1946—but geographical distance and foreign rights issues had kept him from being shaped by Campbell to any real extent. As a result, he was free to indulge in such works as Childhood’s End, the ultimate story about superior aliens, which was inspired by Campbell’s novel The Mightiest Machine but ran its first installment in the British magazine New Worlds.

Clarke, in short, was unquestionably part of the main sequence of hard science fiction that Campbell had inaugurated, but he was also open to exploring enormous, borderline mystical questions that emphasized mankind’s insignificance. (At his best, in such stories as “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God,” he managed to combine clever twist endings with a shattering sense of scale in a way that no other writer has ever matched.) It was this unlikely combination of wit, technical rigor, and awareness of the infinite that made him ideally suited to Kubrick, and they promptly embarked on one of the most interesting collaborations in the history of the genre. As an example of a symbiotic organism, the only comparable example is Campbell and the young Asimov, except that Clarke and Kubrick were both mature artists at the peak of their talents. Fortunately for us, Clarke kept a journal, and he provided excerpts in two fascinating essays, “Christmas, Shepperton” and “Monoliths and Manuscripts,” which were published in the collection The Lost Worlds of 2001. The entries offer a glimpse of a process that ranged freely in all directions, with both men pursuing trains of thought as far as they would go before abandoning them for something better. As Clarke writes:

It was [Kubrick’s] suggestion that, before embarking on the drudgery of the script, we let our imaginations soar freely by developing the story in the form of a complete novel…After various false starts and twelve-hour talkathons, by early May 1964 Stanley agreed that [Clarke’s short story] “The Sentinel” would provide good story material. But our first concept—and it is hard now for me to focus on such an idea, though it would have been perfectly viable—involved working up to the discovery of an extraterrestrial artifact as the climax, not the beginning, of the story. Before that, we would have a series of incidents or adventures devoted to the exploration of the moon and planets…[for which] our private title (never of course intended for public use) was How the Solar System Was Won.

And while 2001 arguably made its greatest impact on audiences with its meticulous art direction and special effects, Kubrick’s approach to writing was equally obsessive. He spent a full year developing the story with Clarke before approaching the studio for financing, and although they soon realized that the premise of “The Sentinel” would work better as an inciting incident, rather than as the ending, the notion of “incidents or adventures” persisted in the finished script. The film basically consists of four loosely connected episodes, the most memorable of which—the story of HAL 9000—could be eliminated without fundamentally affecting the others. But if it feels like an organic whole, this is largely thanks to the decision to develop far more material than could ever fit into a novel, much less a movie. (Clarke’s diary entries are filled with ideas that were dropped or transformed in the final version: “The people we meet on the other star system are humans who were collected from earth a hundred thousand years ago, and hence are virtually identical to us.” “What if our E.T.s are stranded on earth and need the ape-men to help them?” And then there’s the startling line, which Clarke, who was discreetly gay, records without comment: “Stanley has invented the wild idea of slightly fag robots who create a Victorian environment to put our heroes at their ease.”) It verged on a private version of development hell, without any studio notes or interference, and it’s hard to imagine any other director who could have done it. 2001 started a revolution in visual effects, but its writing process was just as remarkable, and we still haven’t caught up to it yet. Even Clarke, whose life it changed, found Kubrick’s perfectionism hard to take, and he concluded: “In the long run, everything came out all right—exactly as Stanley had predicted. But I can think of easier ways of earning a living.”

Quote of the Day

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What difference would there be between the reading of an opus in which all the mechanics of the universe were expounded, and study of the universe itself? Almost none: we would still be able to understand only a portion of that great book; and should the impatience and curiosity which rule us—and so frequently interrupt the course of our observations—introduce disorder into our readings, our knowledge would become as fragmented as they are; losing the chain of inductions, and ceasing to perceive previous and subsequent relations, we would soon have the same gaps and the same uncertainties.

Denis Diderot, “Encyclopedia”

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April 3, 2018 at 7:30 am

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