Category Archives: Movies

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.

  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.

Raskolnikov, C’est Nous

A cartoon of Newt Gingrich reading Slan.

Compulsive readers get used to finding unexpected connections between books. I also make random connections while wasting time on the internet. Sometimes, like now, this leads to a blog post’s worth of dubious, rambling speculation and crazy theories.

A few days ago I read a blog post at Welcome to My World by Martin McGrath called “Why Does SF Hate Ordinary People?”1 finding a strain of contempt for ordinary people in certain science fiction and fantasy novels.

“Ordinary” has many definitions, so before proceeding I should explain what, in this case, it doesn’t mean: As I write, among the memes stumbling around the internet is a quiz based on a new book by famed statistic-mangler Charles Murray. It supposedly measures how much contact you have with “ordinary” Americans. Actually, it asks questions based on a stereotype of rural white midwesterners (Can you identify this NASCAR driver? Do you have a fridge full of Pabst Blue Ribbon?) and suggests anyone who can’t answer in the affirmative is living in a “bubble.” It must be a very large bubble. It would have to contain most of the country’s actual working class.

The culture-war definition of “ordinary” is not what this blog post is about. Being staggeringly bored by cars driving in circles very fast is not less legitimate than being entertained by them. Another term for making judgements about culture is having taste.

These “ordinary” people have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are not wealthy, famous, heroic, or adventure-prone. They hold down middle- or working-class jobs and keep regular schedules. Their biggest worries aren’t crusades, revolutions, or the impending apocalypse; they’re rents or mortgages, health care, child care, and putting food on the table. They’re “ordinary” only in the sense that they live like the vast majority of people in our society–or whatever fantastic society they call home, which may or may not have mortgages but certainly has people whose main concerns are not the stuff of high drama. As an example McGrath cites Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie potboiler Zone One, which judges the average American too inept to survive an emergency, valorizing, in McGrath’s words, “the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the ‘burdens’ imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together.”

When I finished reading McGrath’s post my brain turned to thoughts of Newt Gingrich. Which sounds, I grant you, quite the random leap. I can explain. See, in one of the endless series of Republican presidential debates, Gingrich revealed a cunning plan to solve school budget problems and reduce the dropout rate: child labor.

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”2

Not long after the debate I read a post by “Kay” at Balloon Juice, “Only the Elites Insult the Working Adults Who Pick Up After Us,” that made explicit something not everyone picked up on:3

While it’s certainly interesting that opposing child labor laws is now a mainstream position on the Right and among conservative news personalities, I hear something else entirely in Gingrich’s statement than the pundits and politicians heard. Newt Gingrich told us all last night that nine year olds can replace the grown men and women who currently do these jobs. Newt Gingrich believes janitors and cafeteria workers and people who work in school libraries and offices can and should be replaced by children.

That’s how much respect Gingrich has for the work that these people do.

Gingrich, of course, is an SF fan who loves Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and has co-written several alternate history novels. McGrath, on his blog, traces a thread of science-fictional disrespect for the ordinary back to the “golden age” of SF, when:

…the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence.

Which is true. And not necessarily political; I was reminded of Gingrich, but McGrath sees disdain for the ordinary in both right-leaning and left-leaning SF. The thing is, I don’t think “Why does SF hate ordinary people” is the right question. You might ask it about fiction in general.

Dostoeyvsky parodied this attitude over a century ago in Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov, the self-styled “extraordinary” man. According to the Raskolnikov theory the world revolves around powerful, charismatic Great Individuals, the lynchpins and keystones of civilization. If they’re in politics, our safety and security depend on their strength and resolution; if they’re in business, our prosperity depends on their innovation and creativity. Whatever these extraordinary people do, we can’t hold them to the same rules the rest of us follow. Sometimes, to get the job done, they have to break them. You might remember these ideas from such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, but it’s also the premise of every second Hollywood action movie, ever.4

A few days after McGrath asked his question, Gareth Rees’s post about the teapot-tempest stirred up by a book review at Strange Horizons led me to Caleb Crain’s New York Times review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work:

Describing a manager who feeds him lunch, de Botton writes that “years of working around noisy machinery had left my host mildly deaf in one ear and given him a concomitant habit of leaning in uncomfortably close during discussions, so close that I began to dread his enunciation of a word with a ‘p’ or a ‘g’ in it.” For good measure, de Botton adds that the man bores him, perhaps as a result of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” If de Botton were genuinely concerned that work today lacks meaning, surely here was an opportunity to ask questions. But is he worried that work today lacks meaning? Or just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should?

This is aimed at the same target, but from a different direction. It’s the contempt of the counterculture for the squares–contempt from outside as opposed to Raskolnikov’s contempt from above. Contempt from outside sees regular, orderly lives as a curse and the people who live them as dupes or zombies. It sees white collar workers as gray killjoys, blue collar workers as Morlocks. They’re buttoned-down and repressed; obstacles to be routed around, or beaten-down victims who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to loosen them up and teach them to enjoy life. Contempt from outside sees Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces telling the waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees, and thinks Bobby DuPea is a free spirit sticking it to The Man rather than, as I think the filmmakers intended, an asshole.

Gingrich sees “ordinary” people as inept, inferior–in comparison his own success is proof of his competence. De Botton sees “ordinary” people as limited, unimaginative–in comparison, he’s deeper, more free. What these attitudes have in common is that they help their holders define themselves as something other than ordinary.

I don’t think many genuine full-time Gingriches and de Bottons exist. In real life, hardly anyone hates ordinary people. In real life, most of us are ordinary. But these kinds of contempt are basic assumptions in many books and many movies–fundamental to the narrative’s world view–and, as long as we’re reading or watching, we go along with it.

The reason is simple: in fiction, ordinary is boring.

It’s hard to hold an audience’s interest in a very long and intricate description of a hero washing dishes. We’ve washed our own so often it takes genius to show us anything fresh. Fiction centers around the most important, most dramatic events of its characters’ lives; unusual, extraordinary events, even adventures. The characters who aren’t going through big changes aren’t the main cast, they’re the extras. Fiction skips the quotidian details.

At this point Raymond Carver busts into the room, waving a copy of Best American Short Stories. “Hey!” he says. “I’m standing right here, y’know!” And Ray has a point. Huge swathes of stories, ranging from great to unreadable, anchor themselves in the everyday. As pro-genre as I am, I’ll admit when it comes to ordinary people the novels filed under “literature” have a better track record than the ones that get filed under “genre.” Heck, sometimes the skill with which a book deals with the ordinary determines where we file it. Still, the protagonists of even the weightiest of serious literature have deeper thoughts and more passionate affairs than most of us have most of the time. If the protagonist is an Uncle Vanya or a Madame Bovary, living entirely without excitement or drama, chances are the story is about how he or she wants that to change:

I am clever and brave and strong. If I had lived a normal life I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoieffski.

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

In reality, thinking like Vanya lead people into weird places–especially if Vanya starts listening to Raskolnikov. Maybe, thinks Vanya, I can be Raskolnikov, too! Yeah, maybe now he’s filed away in a tiny beige cubicle. But the Great Individuals didn’t get their amazing, superhuman abilities by educating themselves or devotedly practicing their craft. Their talents just sort of came to them, because they’re special. Just like, deep down inside, he’s special. Someday he’ll be Great, too. All he has to do is believe in himself.

Our popular fiction is swarming with spunky nobodies discovering natural God-given talents–not skills, because they rarely need to work at them–and overcoming hidebound establishments and opposition from nay-saying friends and family to fulfill their dreams. Often this is a fantasy-hero thing–see The Matrix, Star Wars, or other stories about Chosen Ones who inherit their powers, or unleash their inner badass after very little training. I’m often struck by the contrast between modern adventure movies and older Hitchcock-style thrillers whose average heroes muddled through extraordinary adventures without manifesting heretofore unsuspected Kung Fu.

In the movies, the follow-your-dreams hero is as likely to become an entertainer, or some other kind of celebrity. These stories combine the “special person” narrative with the “outsider vs. the squares” narrative–their heroes succeed because they’re more soulful and free-spirited than the hoi polloi. Who are–to bring this essay back to the point–us, in the audience, watching.

It’s tempting to identify with the hero’s point of view even when, technically, that point of view doesn’t like us very much. One of the attractions of fiction is that people think in stories. We make sense of our lives by organizing them into narratives in which we’re the central characters. We feel like protagonists, exceptional people. In a way, from our own viewpoints, we are exceptions: every one of us is the only person whose head we live inside–the one person whose thoughts and point of view we have full access to, as we have access to the thoughts and POV of a novel’s protagonist. It’s the protagonist that we measure ourselves against, not the extras and walk-ons. When the narrative point of view tries to open some space between the hero and the herd we instinctively side with the hero.

Which is fine. The danger comes when too many of our stories define their heroes as better than everyone else. Stories are one of the big ways a culture or subculture spreads its values. Hearing a message over and over again habituates us. It can become part of the cultural furniture, something those who share these stories unthinkingly assume to be true.

There’s long been a toxic strain in SF fandom, a subculture-within-a-subculture that actually believes SF fans are superior to the common horde. Some fans in years gone only half-jokingly coined the phrase “fans are slans,” comparing themselves to the scorned superhumans of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Even today SF appeals to more than its fair share of inflated egos. Even those of us with no interest in formal, organized fandom run into these people when we make the mistake of reading an internet comment thread. Would-be writers convinced their self-published zombie-vampire-dragon trilogies would sell millions if the market weren’t conspiring against them. Self-styled omni-competent men who think all they need to reveal their true potential is the breakdown of civilization. Guys who whine about “political correctness” if a book’s protagonist is female or gay or something.

Part of getting along with people, functioning in society, and maintaining a working sense of empathy is keeping in mind that, though we’re our own protaginists, so is everyone else–to others, we’re supporting characters or extras. If we find this tough to accept, maybe our culture–whether “our culture” means SF fans or American culture in general–isn’t hearing that message often enough. We could stand to be more comfortable in our ordinariness.

  1. Via ↩

  2. And yet Gingrich is upset by a janitors’ union negotiating for a living wage. I guess it’s because he’s an elite! ↩

  3. Via ↩

  4. As well as a lot of comics. R. Sikoryak once drew a mashup of Crime and Punishment and Batman, with Batman as Raskolnikov. They fit together frighteningly well. ↩

Two 2001s

My favorite science fiction movies are the ones that don’t spend two and a half hours yelling and throwing things at my face. This is why I recently watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again. It’s quiet and slow and never boring.

(I assume anyone reading this knows the story: a monolith forcibly evolves a prehuman; millions of years later, the discovery of another monolith prompts a mission to Jupiter; the ship’s computer goes crazy and kills most of the crew; yet another monolith turns the survivor into a magic space baby. Level up!)

The Movie

Movie poster

2001 looks strikingly different from current Hollywood science fiction. At the moment the coolest future Hollywood can imagine is one drained of all colors but dirty gray, dim gunmetal blue, and body-fluid orange. Apparently sometime in the 21st century the visible spectrum will contract Seasonal Affective Disorder. But then, nearly every Hollywood future is either an apocalypse to struggle through or a dystopia for a self-absorbed hero to topple explodily, so I understand why the color graders are depressed. 2001 has its share of beige and sterile white, but, y’know, it’s a cheerful sterile white. And it’s joined by the computer core where David Bowman lobotomizes Hal, lit with the dark red of an internal organ; and Bowman’s mysterious minty-fresh hotel room; and a rack of spacesuits that might have been sponsored by Skittles bite-size candy. 2001’s future might be worth looking forward to–new worlds to explore, new life forms to discover, magic space babies to evolve into. It feels that way partly because the future is pretty. Listen to the score: the spaceships don’t dock, they waltz.

Studios tend to pigeonhole SF as an action genre, and tend to assume too little of action movie audiences. I often bail on these movies for being too loud, too fast, and too dumb. It’s interesting how little 2001 explains, and how little it needs to. 2001 gives just enough information to suggest what’s happening, and trusts the audience to make connections. The movie doesn’t tell us why Hal kills Discovery’s crew. Hal proudly tells an interviewer that the Hal 9000 computer has never made an error. Hal reads Bowman’s and Poole’s lips as they debate shutting him down for repairs following his mistaken damage report. We can work it out for ourselves.1 I’m mildly jarred when, later, Hal explains to Bowman about the lip reading–Bowman didn’t know about it, so it’s not like this dialogue doesn’t make sense, but the audience knows from the way the movie cut between shots of the crew and Hal’s eye. Watching 2001 I get used to not listening to needless explanations. Over half the movie has no dialogue at all.2 It’s the most effective demonstration in sci-fi film of the principle of “show, don’t tell.”

2001 spends a surprising amount of time watching people run through commonplace routines, the kind of action most movies gloss over. The “Dawn of Man” sequence shows how the prehumans live before the monolith shows up because we need to see how they began to understand how they’ve changed. But you might wonder why 2001 shows every detail of Heywood Floyd’s trip to the moon–sleeping on the shuttle, eating astronaut food, going through the lunar equivalent of customs, and calling his daughter on a videophone. When the film moves to the Discovery the plot doesn’t start rolling again until we know David Bowman’s routine, too.

In 1968, science fiction was in the thick of the New Wave, a label given to the younger SF writers writing with more attention to good prose, rounded characters, and just generally the kinds of ordinary literary qualities that make fiction readable. These were never entirely absent from science fiction, but the “golden age” of the genre was dominated by a functional, didactic style exemplified by the work of Isaac Asimov. Some fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas.”3 In golden age SF, the ideas were king and everything else existed only to serve them. The characters were mouthpieces for the ideas. The prose was kept utilitarian–“transparent” was the usual term–to transmit the ideas with minimal friction. Writers used less of the implicit worldbuilding that dominates modern SF, relying on straightforward exposition to describe the world and particularly the scientific gimmicks they’d built their stories around. Stories often described in intricate detail actions that, to the characters, were routine.

Translate these expository passages to film and you have the scenes of Heywood Floyd taking a shuttle to the moon. This is not inherently bad. I’d argue that it takes more talent and effort to write a good book in this grain than it does to write traditional fiction, but a witty or eloquent writer can do as he or she pleases.4 So can filmmakers as proficient as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull, 2001’s effects supervisor. I can see why some viewers lose patience with 2001, but I personally am not bored.

The Book

Book cover

Of course, 2001 does exist in prose. 2001 was a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke; while Kubrick wrote the script, Clarke wrote the novel. The movie was so far ahead of its time that, even with its 1968-era design work, it still looks fresh. So when I followed up this viewing of the movie with Clarke’s novel, which I hadn’t read in so long that I’d forgotten it completely, I was surprised it was so old-fashioned. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been: 2001 the movie’s virtuoso style is built from an old-fashioned plan. I just hadn’t noticed until I reread the novel, which seems unaware the New Wave ever happened. Clarke’s prose lacks the style of Kubrick’s direction, and without actors to give them life the characters are revealed as perfunctory sketches, functions rather than subjects. They demonstrate aspects of the universe, and witness its wonders, but the universe itself is what matters.

It’s striking how much space Clarke devotes not to telling us what someone is doing now, but what they would do, could do, were doing, or had been doing. Sometimes 2001 reads like the kind of nonfiction book you’d give to children to teach them how grown-up jobs work. (“At midday, he would retire to the galley and leave the ship to Hal while he prepared his lunch. Even here he was still fully in touch with events, for the tiny lounge-cum-dining room contained a duplicate of the Situation Display Panel, and Hal could call him at a moment’s notice.”) Clarke’s purpose is not only, and maybe not even primarily, to tell a story. He wants to make the audience understand Heywood Floyd and Dave Bowman’s entire universe. Clarke’s 2001 is the opposite of Kubrick’s. The movie is gnomic, open to multiple interpretations. The book wants to tell us something, and it’s going to make it absolutely clear.

Unfortunately Clarke, while not really bad, doesn’t quite have the writing chops to deliver compelling exposition–or at least he wasn’t exercising them here. Still, the book occasionally improves on the movie, mostly by expanding on it. 2001 is over two hours long, but the book has more space.5 The movie’s “Dawn of Man” segment keeps its distance from its subjects. We don’t get to know any of the prehumans. We can’t really even tell them apart. The novel can get inside the mind of the prehuman Moon-Watcher. After Hal, he’s the most vivid character in the book. (On the other hand, it says something about 2001 that the most vivid characters are an ape-man and a paranoid computer.)

In both film and book, the climax of the “Dawn of Man” comes when Moon-Watcher intuits the concept that makes him, in Clarke’s words, “master of the world”: the tool. Specifically, a weapon–Moon-Watcher needs to hunt and to defend himself from leopards and rival bands of prehumans.

The movie then makes its famous jump cut from bone to satellite. The book tells us something the movie doesn’t: the satellite is part of an orbital nuclear arsenal. If the unease running under the surface of the novel’s middle section seems muted now, it’s because it needed no emphasis in 1968: it went without saying that humanity might soon bomb itself into extinction.

When Bowman returns to Earth as the Starchild, his first act is to destroy the nuclear satellites–and then the book repeats the “master of the world” line. If humanity made its first evolutionary leap when it picked up weapons, says 2001, its next great leap won’t come until it learns to put them down again. Apparently this theme appeared in an earlier draft of the movie’s script but didn’t make it into the final film. It doesn’t feel like the movie is missing anything–it is, after all, already pretty full–but the novel is better for the symmetry.


A monolith.

The theme shared by both novel and movie is evolution–and here we come to the original reason I started this essay: evolution in science fiction is weird. Several crazy evolutionary oddities crop up over and over in SF, and 2001 makes room for them all.

People who don’t know much biology often think evolution tries to build every species into its Platonically perfect ideal form. In this view, humans aren’t just more complex or more self-aware than the first tetrapod to crawl out of the ocean: we’re more “evolved.” This is as pernicious as it is foolish–in the early 20th century, true believers in evolutionary “progress” used the idea to justify eugenics and “scientific” racism.

Despite that, in many science fiction stories evolution has a direction. This direction is usually entirely unlike the direction the eugenicists were thinking of. Not usually enough, mind you–a few of these “perfect” humanoids look disturbingly blonde–but science fiction people mostly evolve into David McCallum in the Outer Limits episode “The Sixth Finger”–people with big throbbing brains and, more importantly, godlike powers. (Also, at least on TV, they tend to glow.) Depending on the story, this might be a metaphor for either social and technological progress (if the more highly evolved beings are wise and authoritative, like Star Trek’s Organians), or absolute power corrupting absolutely (if they’re assholes like Star Trek’s Gary Mitchell). The crew of the Enterprise met guys like this in every other episode of Star Trek–Gene Roddenberry’s universe has more alien gods than H. P. Lovecraft’s. In media SF huge heads are optional; powers aren’t. Especially in comic book sci-fi–think of the X-Men, the spiritual descendants of A. E. van Vogt’s Slan. Sometimes people evolve into “energy” or “pure thought”–or, in modern stories, minds uploaded as software. In Clarke’s own Childhood’s End the human race joins a noncorporeal telepathic hive-mind. In 2001, the Starchild destroys the Earth’s orbiting nukes with a thought. In science fiction, sufficiently evolved biology is indistinguishable from magic.

The suddenness of David Bowman’s transformation brings up another point: in science fiction, evolution happens very fast, not in gradual steps but in leaps. It works like the most extreme form of punctuated equilibrium you’ve ever seen–a species coasts for a few million years in placid stability, until bam: a superbaby is born! With three eyes and an extra liver and telepathy! In biology, this is known as saltation, or more colloquially as the “Hopeful Monsters” hypothesis. Nobody takes it seriously… except in science fiction, where you actually can make an evolutionary leap in a single generation. This is the premise of Childhood’s End, and The Uncanny X-Men, and Slan. Theodore Sturgeon used it in More Than Human. Sometimes this is a metaphor for the way an older generation struggles to understand its children. More often it’s simply artistic license. Evolution takes millions of years, but fiction, unless it’s as untraditionally structured as Last and First Men, deals with individual human lives. To talk about evolution, SF writers collapse its time scale to match the scale they have to work with.

Some SF, particularly in TV and film, twists saltation even further away from standard evolutionary theory: evolutionary leaps don’t just happen between generations. People can evolve–or devolve–in midlife, as David Bowman is evolved by the monolith. In the world of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for instance, you can go in for “evolutionary therapy” and come out with a Big Head. In my plot summary I used the words “level up” ironically, but it really is like these writers are powering up their Dungeons and Dragons characters–suddenly, the hero knows more spells. Written SF usually tells these stories with some kind of not-exactly-evolutionary equivalent–in Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave all life on Earth becomes more intelligent when the solar system drifts out of an energy-dampening field; the protagonists of Anderson’s “Call Me Joe” and Clifford Simak’s “Desertion” trade their human bodies for “better” bodies built to survive on alien worlds. TV shows just go ahead and let their characters “mutate.” Countless episodes of Star Trek and Doctor Who are built around this premise, the most awe-inspiring being Star Trek: Voyager’s legendarily awful “Threshold”, in which flying a shuttle too fast causes Paris and Janeway to evolve into mudskippers.6 This is, again, artistic license: stories focus on individuals, not species. The easiest way to write a story about biological change is through metaphor, by putting an individual character through an impossible evolutionary leap.

Most of the leaps I’ve cited in the last three paragraphs have something in common: they don’t involve natural selection. In science fiction, evolutionary leaps are triggered by outside forces. Sometimes an evolutionary leap is catalyzed by a natural phenomenon, like the “galactic barrier” encountered by Gary Mitchell on Star Trek. The latest trend in evolutionary catalysts is technological. Vernor Vinge has proposed that humanity is heading for a “Singularity”, when exponentially accelerating technological breakthroughs lead to superintelligence, mind uploads, immortality, and just generally a future our puny meatspace brains cannot predict or comprehend. The Singularity is the hard SF equivalent of ascension to Being of Pure Thoughtdom, leading to the less kind term “the Rapture of the nerds.” Plausible or not,7 the occasional singularitized civilization is de rigeur in modern space opera (not always under that name; for instance, lurking in the background of Iain Banks’s Culture universe are civilizations who’ve “sublimed”). Short of the Singularity, a good chunk of contemporary far-future SF involves transhumans or posthumans, people who’ve enhanced their bodies and minds technologically, A pioneering novel in this vein was Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus, about a man whose body is rebuilt to survive on Mars.

Singularities and transhumanism put humans in charge of our own evolution. 2001 puts human evolution in the hands of aliens, as do many other stories, including Childhood’s End. Octavia Butler’s Dawn and its sequels deal with humanity’s assimilation into a species of gene-trading, colonialist aliens. Both books are about humanity’s future evolution, but just as often the aliens have guided us from the beginning of human history, as in 2001–the idea even took hold outside of fiction, in Erich von Däniken’s crackpot tome Chariots of the Gods?. Star Trek explained the similarity of its mostly-humanoid species with an ancient race of aliens who interfered with evolution on many planets, including Earth. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit is a cynical take on the same concept.

So. Having (at tedious length) established that science fiction tends to get evolution (usually deliberately) wrong, what does it mean? Specifically, what does it mean for the ostensible subject of this essay, 2001?

Tales of weird evolution rarely depict change as evil.8 More often they’re about human potential. Evolution is more often a metaphor for progress and growth, personal or social: the Organians are “more evolved” than us not because they can turn into talking lightbulbs but because they possess more knowledge and wisdom. Stories of evolutionary leaps are about the hope that we can become more than we are, the growing pains we suffer in transition, and occasionally the fear that we might not be able to handle our new knowledge and abilities.

It gives me pause, though, that in science fiction growth is so often represented by a kind of evolution that doesn’t exist. As I’ve mentioned, there are narrative reasons for these oddities. An epiphany is more dramatic, and more suited to a story taking place in a limited time-frame, than a geologically slow ongoing process of becoming. And an epiphany can’t come out of nowhere–it needs a specific cause, one more narratively satisfying than the laws of biology. But what we end up with are stories of personal and social progress in which we don’t grow ourselves–we’re grown by outside forces. Our growth as human beings is an emergent property of accelerating technological change, or it’s granted to us by gods and monoliths. In 2001: A Space Odyssey Moon-Watcher doesn’t discover tools himself–the monolith implants the concept in his mind. The human race has to prove it’s worthy of the next step in evolution by traveling to the moon and then to Jupiter, but when David Bowman arrives the secrets of the universe are given to him.

The evolution metaphor in 2001–and in science fiction in general–is a weird, confused, disquieting tangle of optimism, hope, and cynicism. Humanity has the potential to be more than we are, but not by our own effort and not through any process we can control or understand. It’s like science fiction thinks we can’t get from here to wisdom without a miracle in between.

  1. The book explicitly explains Hal’s behavior and its explanation is different from the one we’re led to believe in the movie. ↩

  2. The trivia section of 2001’s IMDB page gives the dialogue-free time as 88 minutes out of 141. ↩

  3. I am not one of them. The description is uselessly vague. What book isn’t about ideas? ↩

  4. This is why I bought Mark Twain’s Autobiography, on the face of it a thousand pages of random Grandpa Simpsonesque rambling: Mark Twain’s grocery lists are worth reading. ↩

  5. Sorry. ↩

  6. As a capper, they proceed to have baby mudskippers together. ↩

  7. I’m on the “not” side, myself. ↩

  8. When they are, they’re usually horror stories. Often they focus on a mad scientist who’s devolving people, or evolving animals, e.g. The Island of Dr. Moreau. ↩

Links to Things

I plan to revive this blog for 2012. I’m still writing slowly, but two or three potential posts are now gradually accreting on my hard drive. In the meantime, here’s a links post:

  • Here’s Roger Ebert’s list of the best films of 2011. I’m linking to this mostly in order to quote this observation:

    …I believe the more specific a film is about human experience, the more universal it is. On the other hand, movies “for everybody” seem to be for nobody in particular.

    I think this is just as true of books, and music, and just art in general.

  • At The Rumpus, a conversation about the movie The Most Dangerous Game (imdb) that turns into a discussion of the difference between trivia and knowledge.

  • Gareth Rees on deciding what standards to use when talking about art, with a focus on Greg Egan. Rees’s argument doesn’t convince me–the first half of the post compares completely different art forms with completely different functions, but the second half compares books to other books, which is, I’d argue, completely different:

    The science fiction writer Greg Egan is another pertinent case. Judged by the standards of the literary novel, Egan’s works fall far short: his prose is dry and impersonal; his characters carry out their function in the story but no more; his plots are often episodic and lack dramatic conflict or resolution; he has a tin ear when it comes to satire. But all of that can be forgiven because he brings to his work a unique interest in the character of physical law.

    That may be true, but it’s hard not to wonder why a novel can’t provide interest in the character of physical law and have lifelike characters, beautiful prose, and well-crafted plots. I’ve always wanted to like Egan’s work, but the weird affectlessness of his stories has always proved an insurmountable barrier.

    That said, I think Rees’s post is worth reading. (Via)

  • American Scientist on the problem with Freakonomics and simple-minded statistical-cherry-picking contrarianism.

Unfortunately, having left these URLs lying around for so long, I no longer recall how I found some of them. I’ll have to do better with this so that I can include “via” links.


This weekend Roger Ebert published an interesting review of a not particularly interesting movie. The movie is The Bounty Hunter, and this is the interesting bit from Ebert’s review:

Let’s do a little mental exercise here, the same sort that the screenplay writer, Sarah Thorp, must have done. Remember the ground rules: The movie must contain only cliches. I used to test this exercise on my film class. I’d give them the genre, and begin sentences ending with an ellipsis. They’d compete to be first to shout out the answer.

Then Ebert gives us the first half of a dozen sentences (like “They dislike each other. So by the end of the movie …” and “He drives a …”). And in the next paragraph he walks us through the movie, and the end of every sentence is one of the first ideas that would pop into the head of anyone who’d seen more than a dozen Hollywood films.

Maybe this is one test of a good movie: At least half the questions raised by a good movie will have surprising answers. (I say “half” because, hell, you can’t expect everything to be surprising. Sometimes a cliche is the best way to set up something more interesting.)

I’m thinking, now, of the reason I didn’t get into Battlestar Galactica like apparently everybody else on the internet. I tried to watch the opening miniseries. My problem began with the scene that introduced Starbuck. She was in a bar playing cards with some of her fellow pilots. For no particular reason, I thought “Now she’s going to knock over the table and start a fight.” Ten seconds later, she knocked over the table and started a fight.

Then there were some boring space battles, and some more boring space battles, and a couple of fighter pilots landed on the planet under attack. And I thought “Now they’ll run across some survivors, and to show us how grim the situation is and what tough hard-decision-makers these guys are, we will learn they are unable to take everybody with them, and they will choose a couple people randomly, and leave everybody else to die.” And ten seconds later the survivors came running over the hill, and the pilots only had room for a couple. So I switched off. From what I’ve heard about the finale, I think the decision served me well.

Cloverfield Envy

If you read this peevish little post from last month you might recall a complaint about the local theater monopoly’s refusal to show Sweeney Todd. Now they’ve done it again.

I shouldn’t be annoyed by this. I’d already decided to wait and catch Cloverfield on Netflix; it promises a Mothra-sized onslaught of motion-sickness-inducing unsteadycam and Very Loud Noises that will probably be a lot more comfortable at home in front of my TV, with my finger conveniently resting on the volume button of the remote. But now that it’s not opening Friday, I’ve developed a perverse desire to go out and see it.

On the bright side, it sounds like there’s a chance we’ll still get Sweeney Todd at some point.

Cluelessness is the Yeast in the Bread of Evil

Jim Emerson demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the world in two examples:

I think it all comes down to that common quality of cluelessness — either obliviousness to the consequences words and actions or reckless disregard for them. Woody Allen (who, by the way, made a great movie about cluelessness, “Another Woman”) divided the world into the “horrible and the miserable.” For the sake of this essay, I would like to propose that we divide rampant worldwide insanity into Two Kinds of Cluelessness: 1) Literalism: Those who are certain they know something, but don’t know that they don’t understand it; and 2) Über-Solipsism: Those who are certain they understand something, but but don’t know — and don’t care — that they don’t, because everything is only about them anyway.