Consistency and SFF

Thursday , 28, September 2017 8 Comments

Does it make any sense for these ape-like human ancestors in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey to “suddenly” be imbued with an understanding of tools by “divine fiat” via the alien artifact?

This is a story element that rubs me the wrong way, but given the film’s success and reputation – not to mention the popularity of the scene itself – I had to ask myself why. What is it about this scene, and for that matter the transcendental experience at the end, that bothers me?

On the face of it, it seems a not unreasonable premise for a science fiction story – and in its favor it resonates with the questions that were surrounding human evolution at the time both the book and the movie came out.

The core of 2001 is of course Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel which he apparently wrote in 1948 as his entry in a BBC competition.[1]  But this story only contains the seed of the idea, and forms the basis for the scenes on the surface of the Moon where the first Monolith is discovered in the film.  The rest of the film, and the book that was developed along with it[2]  were grown from this seed, and are very much a product of the late 60s in many respects.

At the time the film was made, we knew much less about human evolution than we do now.[3]   The evidence we had at the time showed what appeared to be a sharp division between clear human ancestors (Homo lineage) who were using tools and fire and clear extinct great ape lineages who we thought were not[4] – ideas proposed to fill this gap ranged from special creation by supernatural agency through to a chance mutation that just happened to have “the right stuff.”  In between, some exotic evolutionary histories were “floated”[5] including Zecharia Sitchin’s ideas on alien intervention.

On top of this, the late 60s saw deep interest in altered consciousness[6] and a growth in interest in alternative ideas.  In this context, it’s hardly surprising to find that evolutionary gap being plugged by what we now see as a slightly silly idea[7] and accompanied by what amounts to a glorious on-screen pseudo-religious experience.

Given this context and the fact that we accept even sillier ideas without blinking in other SF works, why should this seemingly innocent conceit be troubling, especially in a film that was received very well and raved about ever since?[8]

I think the issue is that “science fiction” is a rather large tent and although 2001, Star Wars, ERB’s Mars stories and War of the Worlds are all stamped SF they actually operate under different rules.

The Force is acceptable in Star Wars because, despite being dressed up in space ships, blasters and robots, it’s actually a fantasy so it operates under rules that demand resonance with mythic archetypes.  So long as it’s internally consistent, a lot of the tech etc. can be black-boxed without issue.

ERB’s Mars stories are similar in that the world to which John Carter travels doesn’t have to be Mars – it just happens to have that sign hung on it.  Beginning to end, it operates on mythic levels, so much can be accepted so long as it’s internally consistent.

War of the Worlds again doesn’t need Mars – that’s just a convenient label that forestalls questions as to the origin of the aliens.  The point is the vastly superior tech of the alien invaders, the bumbling, over-confident early response of industrialized humanity, and the irony that the aliens are defeated by the fact we’re too backward to have conquered microbes.  The tech presented is a reasonable extrapolation from things in use or being discussed at the time, in most cases, and the main thrust is the social reaction anyway so we can call this sciencey science fiction.

Here’s where the problem lies:

Most of 2001 appears to be presented as a science/engineering hard SF story.  There’s solid extrapolation, the tech itself and scientific advances are integral, and it appears to be a science mystery.  The scene with the “space flight attendant” delivering a meal, the meeting on the space station, the Moon excavation site with the Lunar Monolith, the suspended animation and other tech of the Discovery One en route to Jupiter/Saturn.[9]

With the “discovery” of the orbital monolith[10] it becomes a first contact story, and to be honest the presentation of the aliens being so far advanced that we can’t even grok them outside a psychedelic experience works, especially in historical context.

However, the premise of “uplift” as the moment of transition from ape to human is jarring in the context of the majority of the film. It’s not an entirely unreasonable riff on the more out-there ideas of the day, but it’s out of step with the majority in the middle – because it breaks the rules:

It invokes mythic themes and deus ex machina in the context of what’s written as a solid engineering SF story.  To my mind, this essentially puts the film (and the co-developed book) in the position of being two quite different stories which have been stitched together, which I think is what causes the sense of “wrongness” in the early ape scene and the transition to psychedelia at the end.[11]

The thing about the film as it is that rubs me in a funny way is that it appears as though Kubrick and Clarke were trying to have their cake and eat it too.

They wanted to make a grand, glorious hard SF masterpiece, a monument to what they saw as the ultimate conclusion of the enormous technical strides that were being made in the 60s. They wanted to paint a future beyond the nerve-wracking nuclear worries of the day, where a (more or less) united humanity stretched out its hand to touch the stars…and learns just how small we are.  This is long before Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” commentary of course, and even before the comments of Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins after they first looked back at the Earth from the Moon, but we had already heard the wonder in the voices of astronauts who had been in orbit and we were starting to get a true sense of the enormity of it all.  I think this is what they were trying to capture through most of the film.

But they also seem to have wanted to create a transcendent SF work, a “religious” experience embedded in the sterile human world of technology.

It’s perhaps important to note here that Clarke’s work frequently has religious themes, and in fact he had a long courtship with the paranormal that seems to have ended in the 80s or early 90s.  Clarke described himself variously as a pantheist (what he insisted be printed on his dog tags when he was in the RAF), an atheist, and a crypto-Buddhist (though he always maintained that Buddhism is not a religion) but his work actually explores all sorts of religious ideas, and this in combination with his fascination with the paranormal I personally think reflects a deep interest in the nature of self and identity, and actually was probably born out of his rational, scientific outlook on life and an openness to exploring whether mystical or paranormal ideas might have some foundation in fact.

Likewise, Kubrick himself has said that he didn’t intend the film to imply “God” but rather that it’s an exploration of the possibility that there might be intelligences in the universe so far removed from us that for all intents and purposes they might appear to be gods.  In fact, he has been quoted in an interview with American Cinematographer as going so far as to claim that the entire film is a refutation of the idea that there might be a god, saying:

“This film is a rejection of the notion that there is a god; isn’t that obvious?”[12]

Given this knowledge of the attitudes and ideas of the two creators of the film, it seems unlikely that when we say “religious experience” they would have made a version of this film that literally required the experience to be religious, so reinterpreting elements of religion as being echoes of some kind of species-level memory, or even deliberate messages from our “sponsors” would seem to fit with the sort of thing they might consider using to generate a mythic version of the story.

Honestly? This is a very complex film.  It famously has far more non-dialogue scenes than dialogue scenes, and so is almost entirely a visual work – it’s incredible how such complex ideas can be communicated via nothing but (admittedly incredible) screen craft.

I enjoy this firm very much every time I see it[13] but I’d be lying if I said I completely understood what Kubrick and Clarke were aiming for.  This really is a great film in my opinion (though of course I am biased[14]), and I certainly wouldn’t demand it be “remade” to “fix” the dissonance that bothers me.[15]

But the fact is that two very different stories are being attempted here, and to me they don’t seem to go together – the “rules” for each clash, and realising this can, I think, help to improve our own efforts.  The take-away, basically comes down to this:

1.       Stories can be divided into clear types (this is quite separate from genre)

2.       These types have their own unique “rules of engagement” that follow from their foundations and the expected internal logic.

3.       It might be possible to mix types (and therefore rules) but it will be a tricky process, and you will risk jarring the reader/viewer.

If we look back, I think we can see a number of films and (less often) books that famously suffer from criticism that can be traced to just this jarring effect – for just two very obvious examples:

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – takes the “black box sciencey” core elements of the Star Trek universe and tries to graft on quasi-religious themes, including a rather ridiculous interaction with “god”.  While Star Trek had explored the nature of gods and beings far beyond mere humans in the past, the way in which the matter was engaged in this film was more mythic than materialist, and it rubs many viewers the wrong way.[16]

Star Wars prequels –  I won’t get into the weeds here, as there are many things to critique if the Internet is to be believed, but one element that gets routinely mocked is midi-chlorians. You might think that anyone who freely accepted the concept of the Force in the original trilogy shouldn’t get so worked up about these microorganisms that apparently are the conduit between intelligent beings and the Force – but the issue here is again a mismatch between the sort of story Star Wars is (fantastic SF with strong mythic elements) and the nature of the midi-chlorian speculation – by trying to explain the Force “scientifically” in something approaching real-world terms, the films clash with the mythic elements and the result is an almost visceral reaction in some people.

As 2001 shows, even when blended by masters like Kubrick and Clarke, the combination of different story types can cause issues.  2001 works but the clash causes a roughness that wasn’t necessary.

The type of story you’re trying to tell is important – not because some types are superior to others, but because it takes a very, very careful hand to blend types successfully.  You must be aware of what you’re doing and think through the implications very carefully, or you will be courting disaster.


[1] The story apparently failed to place in that competition, but was subsequently published in the magazine Ten Story Fantasy in 1951, and republished several times in the next 2 decades. The apparently out of copyright version of this story is available online here.

[2] An early example of book-film marketing tie-in.

[3] Remember, the book was written concurrently with the making of the film, and the release in 1968 is long before important discoveries in paleoanthropology that inform our thinking now: Australopithecus spp were only just being accepted as human ancestors, and Homo habilis had only recently been accepted as a separate species.

[4] In the 60s Jane Goodall’s research was only just beginning to challenge the perception of chimpanzees as purely vegetarian foragers, with evidence of tool use and complex social structures that could be compared to humans.

[5] Gratuitous pun referring to the Aquatic Ape “Theory”

[6] This was perhaps the peak of Timothy Leary’s popular visibility.

[7] New information on tool use among non-human primates and even other more distantly-related animals, as well as new information on the human lineage itself makes the shift from pre-human to human more obviously a gradual one, eliminating the need for a “missing link”

[8] Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for the film myself, having seen it in the ship’s cinema on an Atlantic crossing.  I’d already been introduced to SF&F via Doctor Who and Star Trek reruns on the BBC, and having been forced allowed to watch things like the Planet of the Apes and various of the 60s era Greek-myths-made-film, but this is the one that is burned into my memory and is the foundation, I think, of my fandom.

[9] The destination changes between the books in the series, but was Jupiter from the first in the film.

[10] Is this a spoiler? They knew there was an “anomaly” there when they sent the Discovery One in the first place.

[11] Let me be clear: I actually really like the Thus Spake Zarathustra ape scene at the beginning, and could be persuaded to like the closing religious experiences (which are actually not a bad surrealist pastiche) but they clash with the bulk of the film.

[12] I tried to find the origin of this quote, but sadly the original publication seems not to be digitally extant, and the only source cited seems to be Warren Smith’s 2010 book Celebrities in Hell

[13] Despite the fact it underscores the promises that we’d be on Mars in the 80s and into the outer system by the early 2000s.  Promises that were still being made when I started being seriously interested in SF, but which had died by the time I was old enough to really appreciate it.  Killed by the Reagan era, really.

[14] See footnote 8

[15] And to be honest, I would mock and revile any effort to remake the film anyway – I hate remakes with a burning fire.

[16] The film obviously has other flaws as well, as a wealth of critical reviews are quick to point out.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    An excellent reflection about storytelling.
    The moral of the story for me: be careful when mixing genres as they can be incompatible and the inherent tension is unresolvable.
    So choose your mixes carefully


  • Bruce says:

    If they called it the Riverine Ape theory I’d buy it. Or Swamp Ape- John Hawks had a link to some You Tube showing chimpanzees using pointed sticks to hunt.

  • I didn’t see any inconsistency between the opening scene and the rest of the film, at least thematically. The monolith does the same thing at three different periods in human evolution. For me the implication of the first scene was that the monolith had been guiding human development for a very long time, and that the use of bones as tools and the use of spaceships as tools were both the result of alien meddling. The end sequence implied to me that the further human evolution into an altered state of being was just more of the same, part of the same experiment.

    I found the film nihilistic and depressing, but not inconsistent.

    • Xavier Basora says:

      Misha’ve articulated why I never liked movie but could never finger it:it was the nilism that so turned Off.also I didn’t like the extended Gliden paint commercial either.
      Guess Clarke has never appealed to me and never cared for his stories

  • Skyler says:

    NASA was always seen as a Moondoggle by SJW’s who wanted the money for social programs. Contrary to Pournelle and Corey, a Welfare State will not explore and colonize the Solar System.

  • deuce says:

    “The story apparently failed to place in that competition, but was subsequently published in the magazine Ten Story Fantasy in 1951.”

    Donald A. Wollheim’s one pulp mag while editor at Avon:

    Not too shabby. Van vogt, Leiber, de Camp and Derleth…almost 30% of the issue was composed of future Appendix N listees (appendicees?). It also sported a very early cover by future Doc Savage artist, James Bama.

    Don Wollheim: nurturing and promoting pulpish/Appendix N talent for five decades.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    With you on midichlorians. I played with an SW:EU thing once where we find yet another Force-user splinter group–made up of ex-Jedi who bailed when midichlorians were discovered. Finally, a hint of a scientific basis for the study of the Force, and they were told they must worship the things instead.

    “The first time some Master said, ‘Trust your feelings, my young Padawan. The midichlorians will tell what to do, the Schism became inevitable…”

  • DanH says:

    2001 is neither inconsistent nor nihilistic. At it’s core it is a fairly straightforward tale of alien uplift of humanity from semi-sentience to an ultimate non-corporeal form.
    Their ultimate intents and purposes are utterly alien thus rendering then unknown and unknowable.
    The movie is an artistic statement, one that relies on extreme visualizations surrealism, symbolism and metaphor in place of exposition and dialogue. All the while presenting it within a very realistic and plausible near-future technological and socio-political setting.
    None of the characters have any answers, only questions and suppositions and this is all that the audience is left with as well.

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