Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Monday, February 21, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey

I have a confession to make. I've never been able to watch Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of the book. Mitch, my biological father, was really into the 2001 series and the movie. He tried to get me to watch it a few times.

I can make it through the apes and the stewardess walking with Velcro shoes. I think I even made it to the big monolith on the moon once or at least I have an imagine in my mind of men in space suits trying to hold their ears when it emitted a loud noise. But I always find my mind wandering when the satellites are doing their German waltz and then I go find something better to do. Actually, it is possible I even made it to the Discovery since a picture of someone running in a centrifuge looks familiar.

Of course, I have seen numerous spoofs of Hal on TV shows like The Simpsons and Futurama where a computer or spaceship develops human emotions that lead the computer/spaceship to threaten physical harm or death to humans/aliens/robots. Generally, the computer/robot is shown to be malevolent, desiring to possess something and willing to destroy anything that gets in its way. Now that I think about it, the iRobot film follows this plot in that a supercomputer determines that humans are not fit to take care of themselves and must more or less enslave humans for their well being.

The movie and the book were written to go together with the book being published just after the release of the film. If you have both seen the movie and read the book, I think you will agree with me that the order is wrong. The movie is largely a visualization without a complete narrative to nicely link all the images together. It is also vague, or enigmatic if you want a more positive sounding word.

For example, a bunch of apes see this big black slab and go, well, bananas and start smashing things with bones. You can somewhat deduce that this is the discovery of tools and weapons but what did that have to do with the monolith? The book treats this part of the tale seriously. A group of hominids, not yet human but nearing, wake up one morning to discover the monolith. Each evening, the monolith captures the attention of the group to run tests. The hominids are hungry, near starvation and extinction. The monolith manipulates the bodies and minds of the creatures to suggest to them new ways of doing things and to inspire within them the concept of being sated. Over time, many months, some of them begin to use tools such as bones as weapons to take down meat. This is not only the discovery of weaponry and tools but also a discovery of meat as part of the hominid diet. Later, nearly by accident, the hominids discover that these weapons can also be used for defense (against a leopard) and offense (against a rival group with whom they compete for food). Once the hominids reach this state in their development, the monolith disappears. But now the hominids have the concept of tools, which will lead them through 3 million years of development until mankind, the heir of the hominids, is ready to explore space.

The monolith is evidence of an alien life that, yearning for intelligent company, encourages and develops the mental faculties of other species. It rescues the hominid species from extinction in the hope that eventually, the species would grow. A beautiful idea of benevolent alien interaction. You can watch Star Trek TNG episode The Chase (6:20) which has a similar plot. As does Clarke's Childhoods End. So far I have made references to three works, none of which I have written about, all of which I enjoyed very much.

Is this even implied in the movie? Why is it that everyone remembers the music and HAL but not the hypothetical alien life and possible human evolution to something greater than what we are? We tend to think that evolution stops here, that life as we know it is the best this planet can do. Clark seems to think that we are capable of becoming more, even at the precipice of nuclear war.

HAL is also a more interesting problem. An intelligent computer capable of completing the entire mission on his own, HAL has been programmed with a single moral: to tell the truth. This mission requires that he violate that one moral. The difficulty HAL faces in concealing and deceiving causes him to develop a neurosis. The very bad things that he does (killing 4 people, for example) are a result of his attempt to rectify his cognitive dissonance. It is implied that HAL, being a computer of extraordinary capabilities, such as the power to solve problems through heuristics, also is capable of emotions. HAL shows both concern and fear in the novel (probably in the movie, too), as well as anxiety over his deceit. HAL also has a very real fear of death. While Bowman wants to shut off portions of HAL's system to fix errors and reboot (how very like modern computers, eh?), HAL understands this as death since he is unfamiliar with sleep and does not understand that he can come back after being shut down. I suppose that in HAL's mind, he was defending his life when he killed the others.

I do have something positive to say about the movie, it was beautifully scientifically accurate as far as space travel was concerned - as was the book. The artificial gravity created by centrifuge, the food and toilet issues, walking in zero gravity, the design of the Discovery, the lack of sound in space, time delay in communications (which I think were rather optimistic but so was getting to the Moon in a matter of hours), the look of the hominids was based on works by anthropologist and all-around-awesomist Leakey. There are some problems in the film, most of which could not be avoided (like the way liquids and small solids would move in zero gravity). But overall, I think they did their homework.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In the episode Pen Pals in Star Trek TNG, Wesley is having a difficult time leading a small geological survey team and asks for help from Commander Riker. It is his first experience being in charge of a team and all of those under his authority are older and more experienced than him. He cannot determine if and when he should yield to the wisdom of others or trust in his own wisdom. In particular, Wesley believes a certain scan should be conducted but the person he asks says that it would be a waste of time. Wesley is concerned not only that he cannot lead but that he may make a mistake and eventually one of his mistakes will cost a life.* This survey is something of a test and a practice lesson for Wesley to prepare him both for the academy and for his much-anticipated role as the smartest, bestest, most specialist leader of all leaders in the universe.**

Riker's advice:
"In your position it's important to ask yourself one question: what would Picard do?"

This is much more useful advice, I think, than trying to figure out what Jesus would do since Jesus never had to deal with things like farm subsidies, animal abuse, challenging ammoral laws institutionalized by a democratic vote, paying off student loans. In fact, I can't think of very much a 1st century Jewish Palestinian peasant and a 21st century atheist American scholar have in common. But me and a 24th century scholar with an interest in archaeology, semantics, horse riding and fencing, committed to truth and exploration . . . I can think of a lot we have in common. And while we may not share a cup of Earl Grey, his tact and decision making skills are something everyone can aspire to.

*Wesley does have the scan completed and the information gained from it is vital in saving the inhabitants of a nearby planet.
** Yeah, sometimes the magic of the Mary Sue gets on my nerves.