Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Mightiest Machine

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.”

The ultimate trip

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On Saturday, I was lucky enough to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times, but watching it on a pristine new print from the fourth row allowed me to pick up on tiny details that I’d never noticed before, such as the fact that David Bowman, stranded at the end in his celestial hotel room, ends up wearing a blue velvet robe startlingly like Isabella Rossellini’s. I was also struck by the excellence of the acting, which might sound like a joke, but it isn’t. Its human protagonists have often been dismissed—Roger Ebert, who thought it was one of the greatest films of all time, called it “a bloodless movie with faceless characters”—and none of the actors, aside from Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL, are likely to stick in the memory. (As Noël Coward reputedly said: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”) But on an objective level, these are nothing less than the most naturalistic performances of any studio movie of the sixties. There isn’t a trace of the affectation or overacting that you see in so much science fiction, and Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and particularly William Sylvester, in his nice dry turn as Heywood Floyd, are utterly believable. You could make a strong case that their work here has held up better than most of the more conventionally acclaimed performances from the same decade. This doesn’t make them any better or worse, but it gives you a sense of what Kubrick, who drew his characters as obsessively as his sets and special effects, was trying to achieve. He wanted realism in his acting, along with everything else, and this is how it looks, even if we aren’t used to seeing it in space.

The result is still the most convincing cinematic vision of space exploration that we have, as well as the most technically ambitious movie ever made, and its impact, like that of all great works of art, appears in surprising places. By coincidence, I went to see 2001 the day after Donald Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council, at a very peculiar ceremony that was held with a minimum of fanfare. The event was attended by Buzz Aldrin, who has played scenes across from Homer Simpson and Optimus Prime, and I can’t be sure that this didn’t strike him as the strangest stage he had ever shared. Here are a few of Trump’s remarks, pulled straight from the official transcript:

Security is going to be a very big factor with respect to space and space exploration.  At some point in the future, we’re going to look back and say, how did we do it without space? The Vice President will serve as the council’s chair….Some of the most successful people in the world want to be on this board…Our journey into space will not only make us stronger and more prosperous, but will unite us behind grand ambitions and bring us all closer together. Wouldn’t that be nice? Can you believe that space is going to do that? I thought politics would do that. Well, we’ll have to rely on space instead…We will inspire millions of children to carry on this proud tradition of American space leadership—and they’re excited—and to never stop wondering, hoping, and dreaming about what lies beyond the stars.

Taking a seat, Trump opened the executive order, exclaiming: “I know what this is. Space!” Aldrin then piped up with what was widely reported as a reference to Toy Story: “Infinity and beyond!” Trump seemed pleased: “This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don’t really don’t know. But it could be. It has to be something—but it could be infinity, right?”

As HAL 9000 once said: “Yes, it’s puzzling.” Aldrin may have been quoting Toy Story, but he might well have been thinking of 2001, too, the last section of which is titled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” (As an aside, I should note that the line “To infinity and beyond” makes its first known appearance, as far as I can tell, in John W. Campbell’s 1934 serial The Mightiest Machine.) It’s an evocative but meaningless phrase, with the same problems that led Arthur C. Clarke to express doubts about Kubrick’s working title, Journey Beyond the Stars—which Trump, you’ll notice, also echoed. Its semantic content is nonexistent, which is only fitting for a ceremony that underlined the intellectual bankruptcy of this administration’s approach to space. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter when I say that Trump and Mike Pence have shown nothing but contempt for other forms of science. The science division of the Office of Science and Technology Policy lies empty. Pence has expressed bewilderment at the fact that climate change has emerged, “for some reason,” as an issue on the left. And Trump has proposed significant cuts to science and technology funding agencies. Yet his excitement for space seems unbounded and apparently genuine. He asked eagerly of astronaut Peggy Whitson: “Tell me, Mars, what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?” And the reasons behind his enthusiasm are primarily aesthetic and emotional. One of his favorite words is “beautiful,” in such phrases as “big, beautiful wall” and “beautiful military equipment,” and it was much in evidence here: “It is America’s destiny to be at the forefront of humanity’s eternal quest for knowledge and to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown. And I could say the great and very beautiful unknown. Nothing more beautiful.”

But the truly scary thing is that if Trump believes that the promotion of space travel can be divorced from any concern for science itself, he’s absolutely right. As I’ve said here before, in the years when science fiction was basically a subcategory of adventure fiction, with ray guns instead of revolvers, space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, when the genre began to take itself more seriously as a predictive literature, outer space was grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of the future. Space exploration seemed like an essential part of our destiny as a species because it happened to be part of the genre already. As a result, you can be excited by the prospect of going to Mars while actively despising or distrusting everything else about science—which may be the only reason that we managed to get to the moon at all. (These impulses may have less to do with science than with religion. The most haunting image from the Apollo 11 mission, all the more so because it wasn’t televised, may be that of Aldrin taking communion on the lunar surface.) Science fiction made it possible, and part of the credit, or blame, falls on Kubrick. Watching 2001, I had tears in my eyes, and I felt myself filled with all my old emotions of longing and awe. As Kubrick himself stated: “If 2001 has stirred your emotions, your subconscious, your mythological yearnings, then it has succeeded.” And it did, all too well, at the price of separating our feelings for space even further from science, and of providing a place for those subconscious urges to settle while leaving us consciously indifferent to problems closer to home. Kubrick might not have faked the moon landing, but he faked a Jupiter mission, and he did it beautifully. And maybe, at least for now, it should save us the expense of doing it for real.

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