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2001: A Space Odyssey

 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a science-fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke and an MGM film with screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Clarke. The film stars Keir Dullea (as Dave Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (as Frank Pool).

2001’s Discovery – via Wikipedia

It is probably best for sci-fi fans to read the novel after seeing the enigmatic film. The novel helps to make sense of the movie, but for me it’s a bit pedantic. On the other hand, the movie is widely regarded as a cinematic classic. It was even on Pope John Paul II’s top 10 list of favorite films. And before the Star Wars debut of 1977, this sci-fi film was a benchmark for all the others.

In a time before CGI and the first moonwalk, 2001 was groundbreaking, and rightly recognized as such. The apes in the opening shots were painstakingly researched and constructed. Actors studied the movement of real apes and were filmed with actual baby apes. Anthropologists were consulted, partly because “Man The Ape” was a resonant theme back then.¹ In fact, in the late 60s, it was hip to be “Anthro.” And the apes in 2001 were leaps and bounds ahead of the apes in the original Planet of the Apes movie (also released in 1968).

Watching the film today, we find some awkward anachronisms that just wouldn’t wash in 2016. For instance, when Dr. Heywood Floyd he arrives in an orbiting space station, he is generically asked by a computer to enter his “Christian Name.” Russians are cast as a sneaky lot (this negative stereotype continuing until the new millennium, around which point Hollywood branched out to find new ethnicities, cultures and personality types for their cardboard cutout characters).²

English: The famous red eye of HAL 9000

The famous red eye of HAL 9000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The special FX in 2001 were mind-bending for 1968. Today they seem pretty lame and most of the sets dated. But we have to remember that this is an older film with big ideas.

With a bare minimum of dialog and certainly no love story, two related themes are explored:

  • The evolution of Mankind
  • Mankind vs. Machine

The machine, a HAL 9000 computer, malfunctions and murders astronaut Frank Pool and several others traveling in suspended animation en route to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel). The catalyst for the Jupiter mission (and for the eventual transformation of Bowman) is a signal emanating from an anomalous, rectangular monolith discovered just underneath the Moon’s surface (TMA-1).

The film tells us that another, identical object was present on Earth at the dawn of mankind, which we see in the opening scenes with the apes. (The novel explains that the monolith was planted by aliens in order to guide mankind’s evolution through the centuries.)

In an eerily dramatic scene, the lone survivor, Dave Bowman, disconnects HAL’s higher processing modules, despite HAL’s psychiatric advice to “take a stress pill, relax, and think it over.” HAL then sings a song learned in “childhood” as his voice processor slows down to nothingness.

The "Star Gate" sequence, one of man...

The “Star Gate” sequence, one of many ground-breaking visual effects. It was primarily for these that Stanley Kubrick won his only personal Academy Award. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bowman is directly transported through an alien gateway to a distant world. Back in the day people used to talk about the “fantastic” special FX of this segment, which nowadays seem unspectacular.

The next segment, perhaps the most interesting and odd, sees Dave in a strange kind of Renaissance room, where he ages rapidly.³ Dying in front of another monolith, he is reborn a Star Child.

In the novel the Star Child orbits the Earth and safely detonates a low-orbiting hydrogen bomb to prevent it from being used for violence. Unsure what to do next, the Star Child will “think of something.” The film, however, leaves us with an ambiguous ending. We see the Star Child in orbit. And that’s it. Close curtain.

On the whole, the screenplay is far more open-ended than the novel. But both portray astronaut Dave Bowman’s metamorphosis in a way consistent with world myths illustrating the mythic cycle of death/rebirth and transformation. So 2001 could be taken as another myth situated in a longstanding tradition of death/rebirth and transformation myths.

Subsequent novels like 2010 (also a film, not nearly as respected by critics), 2064 and 3001 use the literary device of retroactive continuity. Retroactive continuity means that some plot and setting details are modified (or elaborated on) for a greater, holistic sense of coherence. For instance, in the sequel film 2010 we learn that the HAL 9000 was told to lie by Washington, which was incompatible with HAL’s programming. So the computer’s somewhat sinister ‘malfunction’ in 2001 becomes something of an unavoidable, forgivable psychosis ultimately caused by human error, as HAL ironically suggested in the original film.  

Stanley Kubrick

To me, this kind of retroactive continuity detracts from the magic of the original film. Not to mention charm. Perhaps that’s the difference between Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick. One a very talented but essentially pragmatic writer who likes to tie up all the loose ends. The other, a cinematic genius who realizes the value of mystery.

Having said that, Clarke’s novel 3001 explores an idea where human consciousness (Dave Bowman) eventually merges with a computer program (HAL) to create a new kind of hybrid named Halman. And this is an intriguing idea, considering our potentially endless future.

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Book cover

Book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Desmond Morris published the massive bestseller, The Naked Ape in 1967 and the popular imagination was very much attuned to our roots in Africa along with the mind-boggling achievements of NASA. Oval pottery and anything remotely “tribal” was equally as trendy as rounded plastic chairs. So this film came along at the right time, to put it mildly.

² This constant updating of marginalized types arguably reflects and reinforces the bigotry and xenophobia of a given era.

³ The renaissance room is explained in the book (which itself is based on Clarke’s earlier short story, “The Sentinel”). The aliens have been monitoring Earth. But due to the time it takes for light to travel to their home world, their information about a “normal” living space is dated by a few centuries. Today, we think about wormholes, bending the space-time continuum and the instantaneous transfer of information across space and time. So this explanation seems not only pedantic but also dated. In this regard, the TV show Star Trek (1966-69) was light years ahead with its warp drive and several episodes about time travel.


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Star Trek: Enterprise

Star Trek: The Tour Beamed up in the Transporter: Conrad Quilty-Harper

Star Trek: The Tour Beamed up in the Transporter: Conrad Quilty-Harper via Flickr

Star Trek: Enterprise, originally called Enterprise, is the most recent incarnation in the Star Trek TV franchise, running for four seasons from 2001-2005. The action is set in the future but before the time of Captain Kirk (of the original series), making it a prequel.

Enterprise is the story of the very first U.S.S. Enterprise, equipped with recently developed warp drive technology, all set to leave Earth and the solar system for deep space exploration.

The alien, technologically superior and emotionless Vulcan race has been on Earth for a while, holding back the Earth’s space program because the ‘overly emotional’ human race wasn’t ready for extended inter-species contact.

Captain Jonathan Archer doesn’t like how Vulcans have been stalling humanity for years, but initial tensions between Archer and his Vulcan Science Officer, T’Pol, gradually resolve into mutual respect.

The series initially received encouraging reviews but its fan base dwindled and, despite attempts at innovation, the show became increasingly lackluster and Enterprise eventually fell out of warp in the TV ratings.

However, Enterprise did have some bright moments amid its steady decline, especially when dealing with the topic of time travel. And the cultural and mythic importance of the entire Star Trek franchise is hard to overlook. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, now includes in its database the word Klingon.

Scott Bakula

Scott Bakula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s some more information from the entry, Jonathan Archer:

Some critics of Star Trek: Enterprise, a series initially with good ratings that steadily dropped, said [Scott] Bakula was miscast or, worse, unworthy of the role. The series was canceled after four seasons, which in the Star Trek universe isn’t a total flop nor a great success.

From watching reruns today it seems the commercial demise of the show wasn’t about casting Bakula as captain. If anything, it was about inconsistent writing (sometimes lapsing into formulaic trash), bad timing and other factors. Co-creator and executive producer Branon Braga once said it pained him when his series wasn’t up to scratch. So even he knew it had problems.

Newer programs like BattleStar Galactica: Reimagined, Kyle XY, Dr. Who (series 1) and Oprhan Black suggest that sci-fi was heading in new directions at warp speed, whereas Enterprise and its writers seemed to be stuck in impulse drive. And for a while, it seemed like the franchise had gone the way of the dinosaur.

Wrong.

Enter director J.J. Abrams with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and others to reboot the idea [in 2009] for a whole new generation.


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H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells – Retouched from original at Wikipedia

H. G. Wells (Herbert George, 1866-1946) was a British author born in Bromley, Kent. After teaching at a Grammar School, Wells studied biology and taught at the Universal Tutorial College.

During this time he wrote short stories and dabbled in liberal-progressive politics. His short stories gained popular acclaim. So he decided to pursue a full-time writing career that, altogether, reaped over 100 books and articles.

Wells is seen by many as the father of modern science fiction, a title also given to Jules Verne. He authored several sci-fi classics, such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), The First Men in the Moon (1901), Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933).

Wells enjoyed immense popularity during his lifetime, although this began to diminish somewhat during his final years, a time when he became increasingly critical of Catholicism.

English: First edition (in London by Heinemann...

First edition (in London by Heinemann in 1896) cover of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Concerning religion as a whole, in a letter to his lover and intellectual sparring partner, Rebecca West, he wrote:

I can’t – in my present state anyhow – bank on religion. God has no thighs and no life. When one calls to him in the silence of the night he doesn’t turn over and say, ‘What is the trouble, Dear?’¹

But Wells also had something of a mystical side:

At times, in the lonely silence of the night and in rare, lonely moments, I come upon a sort of communion of myself with something great that is not myself.²

If anything, it seems that he didn’t connect with Christianity or, for that matter, organized religion but realized that some people could.

Of Christianity he has this to say: “… it is not now true for me … Every believing Christian is, I am sure, my spiritual brother … but if systemically I called myself a Christian I feel that to most men I should imply too much and so tell a lie.” Of other world religions he writes: “All these religions are true for me as Canterbury Cathedral is a true thing and as a Swiss chalet is a true thing. There they are, and they have served a purpose, they have worked. Only they are not true for me to live in them … They do not work for me.”³

English: Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Co...

Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among many other successful comedic and dramatic works, Wells also penned a two-volume Outline of History (1920), which is hardly surprising since he was interested in the idea of time travel.

¹ http://www.libidomag.com/nakedbrunch/archive/sexbiowells.html This link is great for more info on Wells’ many romantic affairs, and his views on the liberation of women and birth control.

² http://ext.sagepub.com/cgi/pdf_extract/103/2/45

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._G._Wells Wells’ views about organized religion remind me a bit of David Bowie. Both men are incredibly talented at their far-out endeavors, yet ironically, seem to actually know very little about the spiritual life. It seems some of us are inspired to create bona fide works of genius, but in the process, don’t really gain any kind of advanced knowledge about God and God’s workings.

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Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov Quote

Isaac Asimov Quote (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a Russian-born scientist and science fiction writer. Asimov’s family emigrated to the U.S. In 1923 and he was granted citizenship in 1928.

He taught at Boston University from 1949, to become a Professor of Biochemistry (1979-92). After that he moved to Manhattan when he divorced is first wife. He quickly remarried and remained there for the rest of his life.

Among many other sci-fi stories and novels, Asimov was the author of I Robot (1950), a novel containing a formal code of ethics for artificial intelligence (AI). But here’s the catch. The ethical code wasn’t-for users of AI, but for AI itself.  This code was presented way before many people started seriously asking if AI could possibly possess consciousness, a question now common among philosophers and geeks, alike.

Other commercially successful works include Pebble in the Sky (1950), The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Foundation Trilogy (1963).


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Frankenstein

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frankenstein (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus) is Mary Shelley‘s novel of 1818 in which a Baron Frankenstein creates a horrible monster by reassembling and electrifying body parts from exhumed cadavers. The monster is never called ‘Frankenstein’ in the book but the idea stuck.

Apparently Mary Shelley, the wife of the poet Percy Shelley, awoke one morning after dreaming of the unwritten novel. She quickly wrote the plot and opening pages. The story has been set to several films, the most notable starring Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).

Ultimately Frankenstein is a tragedy as the monster eventually destroys its creator. Symbolically, the Frankenstein monster represents anyone who, for all intents and purposes, seems ‘dead,’ callous and uncaring.

Like all archetypal images, however, we’d do well to remember that, in most cases, they represent aspects of real people. As such most people are far more complicated, valuable, and redeemable than a mere caricature. They may seem to be totally evil, but in some instances they can still behave ethically. In a few instances of psychopathology (and evil), however, some individuals appear to become totally engulfed by archetypal forces (or demons).

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Faeries

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing via Wikipedia

Faeries are said to be supernatural beings that can appear and disappear at will. Usually smaller than human beings, Faeries may be helpful or malicious.

They are generally portrayed as living underwater (e.g. mermaids), underground (e.g. gnomes), in a magical forest region or in some far away land.

Some faeries enter into physical, enchanted or possibly mystical love and ethereal sex relations with human beings.

Various legends and theories try to account for their origin. Some say that fairies derive from animistic beliefs in which objects are said to contain spirits. Others see fairies as emerging from a belief in spirits of the dead residing in the underworld. The Celts, especially, saw Faeries as beings who fled from invading humans, taking refuge in the underworld.

Fairies have also been suggested to derive from the Furies of Greek and Roman myth.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen via Wikipedia

Christians have seen Faeries as the unbaptized. Taking many forms worldwide, the actual term faery – indistinguishable from fairy – comes from  “fay-erie”, originally an enchanted land.

In Victorian England there’s a rich body of faerie art and literature—this unique style of Victorian art is still popular today, cropping up in illustrated books,  relaxation cd’s and many new age and holistic health products. And a more updated Faerie look appears in a good deal of fantasy fiction and movies.

Some scholars say the term “fairy tale” is misleading because the beings involved are often not fairies, per se. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist Carl Jung and Jungians like Marie-Louse Von Franz believe that the mythic structure of these stories reflects the archetypal nature of the individuation process—that is, the quest for ‘wholeness’ as Jung sees it.

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Holy Grail

"How at the Castle of Corbin a maiden bar...

"How at the Castle of Corbin a maiden bare in the Sangreal and foretold the achievements of Galahad via Wikipedia

The Holy Grail is the chalice that, according to legend, Christ and his disciplines drank from at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have placed drops of Christ’s blood in the Grail before taking it to Glastonbury.

In Arthurian legend the cup is named Sangreal and was pursued by the Knights of the Round Table after it miraculously appeared at Pentecost, just above King Arthur’s famous Round Table.

Some scholars believe that the archetypal “Holy Cup” may have appeared in pre-Christian Celtic myth but by the 12th century the Grail was well established in medieval romantic literature. The most popular of these is Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie. But the idea first emerged in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrétien de Troyes.

The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrétien de Troyes, who claims he was working from a source book given to him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders. In this incomplete poem, dated sometime between 1180 and 1191, the object has not yet acquired the implications of holiness it would have in later works. While dining in the magical abode of the Fisher King, Perceval witnesses a wondrous procession in which youths carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another, passing before him at each course of the meal. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabras. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or “grail.”¹

The depth psychiatrist Carl Jung saw the Grail as a symbol of the eternal self, and other Jungians have gone into an elaborate archetypal analysis of the Grail story, conforming their interpretations to Jung’s theories.

More recently some treat the Holy Grail as historical fact instead of fiction or psychological fact. And new legends have arisen from that. But to most, complicated metaphysical Holy Grail theories, old and new, are at best legends intended to inspire. The more recent of these could also be calculated attempts to sell books to gullible consumers always on the watch for some ephemeral fascination.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Grail#Beginnings_in_literature

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Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrétien de Troyes