It's 2001! Where's Our Space Odyssey?
by Edward Willett
Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey
appeared in 1968, 2001 has been one of those years, like 1984,
that somehow represented "the future."
Well, guess what? 1984 came and went, and now 2001 has arrived--and with
it, a spate of news stories comparing the
"predictions" in the film with the reality. I
think that's a pretty wrong- headed approach.
After all, the main focus of the story
created by writer Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick
isn't the evolution of technology but the evolution of
humanity--which, in the movie, is influenced by mysterious black
monoliths left behind by some unknown alien culture.
Nevertheless, because the film was set in an
identifiable year and made an effort to get scientific details right
(one of the last science fiction movies to even make the attempt), it
did seem, at the time, to offer a kind of blueprint of the future.
2001: A Space Odyssey came out the year before
Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Arthur
C. Clarke, whose short story "The Sentinel" inspired the
film, was one of the "big Three" science fiction writers of
the time (Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were the others), and was
already famous for, in the 1940s, having developed the basic theory
behind communication satellites and pretty accurately describing what
would be entailed in the first trip to the moon.
However, 2001's depiction of space travel
was, alas, overly optimistic. We
don't have a colony on the moon. We do have a permanent space station, but it is not the
gracefully spinning, bicycle-wheel-shaped station of 2001--the
International Space Station does not spin to create artificial gravity
and it is neither graceful nor wheel-shaped. Like the station in the
film, it is still under construction--but unlike the film's station,
it does not include an orbital Hilton.
As well, you unfortunately can not get to the
International Space Station by hopping on board a sleek PanAm
commercial space shuttle and being served dinner by pillbox-hatted
stewardesses wearing Velcro shoes. And we certainly don't have spaceships capable of carrying
humans to Jupiter.
Nor do we have a computer like the HAL 9000,
self-aware--albeit also, unfortunately, paranoid. On the other hand, today's real computers are much smaller,
more portable and use better interfaces than the ones we see in the
The Hilton Hotel chain has drawn up preliminary
plans for hotels in space, and there are many organizations working on
plans for space tourism. Artificial
intelligence may not be here yet, but sooner or later, it seems
inevitable. And one day
we will return to the moon, and go to Mars, and eventually even to
Jupiter. The fact that
Stanley Kubrick decided to set his movie in 2001 is no reason to
discount the vision completely. He
could just as easily have picked 2051.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke (he was recently knighted)
is now 83 and lives in Sri Lanka. He notes that errors in prediction are counterbalanced over
time by something more fantastic than the original insight: in other words, at first our expectations outrun what's
actually happening, but eventually reality far exceeds our
expectations. (The unexpected growth of the Internet is a good example.)
And anyway, like any good science fiction writer,
Arthur C. Clarke has dozens of visions of the future.
In his novel The Fountains of Paradise,
for instance, Clarke envisioned humans riding an elevator into space,
along a cable stretched from the ground to a large counterweight
orbiting the Earth. The centre of mass of the whole structure would be
in geosynchronous orbit, which means it always maintains its position
over the same spot on the surface. The only downside? The cable has to be 36,000 kilometres long.
It's not impossible. In fact, it could be only 50 years away or so, according to a
NASA workshop held on the topic last year. The key is new high-strength materials called carbon nanotubes,
100 times stronger than steel. We
only make them in tiny amounts at the moment, but eventually a carbon-nanotube
cable stretching into orbit may make going into space as easy as
pressing a button.
Or maybe not. The future is, literally,
unpredictable. But the
purpose of science fiction, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, is
not to accurately predict the future, but to provoke thought about
what the future might hold--and what we want it to hold.
After all, the only way you get the future you
want is to start working on it now.