This year marks the 50th anniversary of the best SF movie ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I actually saw it when it first came out, and have seen it many times since then. I think I’ve also read everything by Clarke and seen everything of Kubrick’s.
Yet what strikes me these days is how far off the movie is on, well, everything:
- The prime use of intelligence is not murder. The opening scene has the monolith uplifting a hairy hominid, who promptly starts using tools to kill his enemies. Yet the distinctive characteristic of homo sapiens is not violence, but cooperation. We live in vast social groups, and achieve enormous wealth because of trade. Chimpanzees are actually much more violent than people. Note that the famous jump cut from the flying bone to the flying orbital nuclear weapon was already wrong in 1968:
The Outer Space Treaty had already banned nukes in spaces in 1967. It was easily passed because having nukes outside of one’s immediate control is a really terrible idea. Having a dark view of human history is not rare, of course, and this movie was made not long after the worst war ever, but it’s still not right.
- None of the space tech happened, and none of it will for the foreseeable future. There was an orbital space plane, the Shuttle, but it was a disaster from the start. Rotating a space station for gravity means that far more mass is needed for structural support, at enormous expense, and you’ll have pieces flying off. Moon bases aren’t in the cards because there’s nothing to do up there. Nuclear rockets have all been cancelled because of safety issues. Manned space flight in general is fading – the last space tourist was nine years ago, and many fewer individuals are flying now. (see The Human Population of Space).
- We’re not close to HAL’s general artificial intelligence. More and more specific human abilities are now able to be done by machine, from image and speech recognition to language translation, but those are isolated programs. Machines don’t make their own way in the world. They don’t have their own will for just the reason shown in the movie – they’ll then do what we do NOT want. AI programs are expensive industrial software, not children. They better damn well do the right thing or else their programmers will all be fired.
Why does all this matter? Because 2001 was as good as it gets for SF. It hit most of the field’s tropes – aliens, space, robots – and did it as well as anyone could do in 1968. No sound in space, no dogfights in vacuum, no whizzing past nebulae. It took on big themes like technology and evolution, and what transcendence looks like. It still has that core feeling of SF, of alienation and wonder, but its future just never happened.