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Mayan leopard photo
Our fate is in our own hands and we have got either got to attack our own “leopards” or just wait to become their victims. (credit: J. McDade)

Clarke and Kubrick glimpsed the future

Most people are aware when they witness an event that will achieve lasting historical significance well beyond the days on which those events occurred. We all have a tendency to remember where we were when some historical event occurred. Many of us attempt to preserve our eyewitness participation in history by harvesting such souvenirs as newspaper articles, photos, lapel buttons, and various commemorative nick-knacks.

The decade of the 1960s provided more than its share of such events with assassinations, space spectaculars, outbreaks of civil unrest, and the first major music festivals. Forty years ago, in April 1968, the very month that the civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, another major cultural event occurred that mesmerized millions of people.

The release of 2001 created another one of those historical dividing lines that between old ways and new ways of thinking.

It was April 6, 1968 when something totally unanticipated and unabashedly stunning came to almost every town in America. That was the day when a motion picture created by film director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) and writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008) forever changed the outlook and expectations of an entire generation. Their feature film was titled 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the entire world simultaneously gasped as this spectacularly beautiful film transported audiences far beyond the grim reality of 1968.

2001 was not just another science fiction movie. The movie introduced a new class of fiction to audiences, “hard science fiction”. There was absolutely nothing cheesy or nerdy about this spectacular film. Kubrick and Clarke did not use the usual literary devices of magic and fantasy to create their vision of the near future.

The incredible preview of future technology in the film was all based on solid science and technology, much of which had come to reality by the real year 2001. Flat-screen video, handheld news readers, computer games, cockpit video displays, biometric identity authentication, and smart credit cards with stored customer information were all portrayed in the movie.

The novel also prophetically described how the electronically-driven information revolution, the thing that we call the Internet, would become dominated by what Clarke described as, “trivial, tawdry, or depressing”. Clarke accurately predicted that, “Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials… seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether [of the 21st century]”.

2001 was so advanced and cerebral, that it required the printing of a special program to help audience members catch on to what the three-million-year-long story was all about. In spite of the program and the vast media coverage of the film, a lot of people could not grasp the 2001 storyline. The release of 2001 created another one of those historical dividing lines that between old ways and new ways of thinking. A similar new social divide was drawn a few years prior to the release of 2001 when John Lennon made his tactless comparison between the relative popularity of The Beatles and Jesus Christ.

Clarke was equally fascinated by the science and technology of the past. This author just returned from a visit to the Chichen-Itza Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula where I was able to examine the ruins of the ancient Mayan astronomical observatory. The dome-like structure at this observatory visually reminds one of the famous telescope dome at Palomar Mountain in California. The Mayans were the ancient world's most accurate astronomers. They measured the annual motions of the stars, sun, and moon with a precision that was not seen again until the 20th century. It is quite remarkable that they made their astronomical observations with the naked eye!

I brought a single fiction book along on the trip. That book was Arthur. C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had not read my worn paperback copy since 1968 and I wanted to read it while preparing to write this commentary.

I was sitting in my ship’s cabin on the way to the Yucatan when I got to page 28 in the book. At that particular moment, we were approaching that part of the ocean that covers part of the 180-kilometer-wide Chicxulub impact crater that may have played a role in the extinction of the dinosaurs. It was just a few years ago that the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission focused on this crater zone that covers much of the Yucatan plain that we crossed to reach the Mayan ruins. I was reading page 28 when the shipboard satellite feed of CNN broke the news that Arthur C. Clarke had just died!

The hair stood up on the back as I looked over the pages of Clarke’s great book to see his face and the familiar birth-death years text on the TV screen. I was instantly cognizant that it was through Clarke’s original concept of the geosynchronous telecommunications satellite that the awful news of his death was delivered to me in the middle of the ocean. In fact, the geosynchronous orbit used by our TV satellites is often called the Clarke Orbit.

I had just pulled two timeless quotes for the article from pages 26 and 28 of 2001. I will now never forget these quotes:

“Now times had changed, and the inherited wisdom of the past had become folly. The man-apes must adapt, or they must die—like the greater beasts that had gone before them, and whose bones now lay sealed within the limestone hills.” – from page 26 (Chapter 3: The Academy).

“The man-apes had been given their first chance. There would be no second one; the future was, very literally, in their own hands.” – from page 28 (Chapter 4: The Leopard)

I have no doubt that our choice is between either choosing space as an extension of the human domain or choosing certain extinction of mankind by denying ourselves the survival opportunity that awaits us above the atmosphere.

I carried the book to the Mayan ruins with me as sort of a little tribute to Clarke. As I stood on the ruins at Chichen-Itza I thought about those “bones now lay sealed within the limestone” beneath my feet. Then something a little bit spooky occurred. Note that chapter 4 is titled, “The Leopard”. I stumbled upon an ancient Mayan carving of a leopard eating a human heart on one of the walls at the ruins. My hair stood up on the back of my neck again and I felt a little chill moving trough the tropical air as I snapped this image. Clarke was right on both counts. Our fate is in our own hands and we have got either got to attack our own “leopards” or just wait to become their victims.

Clarke was an eternal optimist. The great writer believed that technology was the best, if not the only, hope for solving our problems. His collaborator on the 2001 feature film, Kubrick, was an incurable pessimist. Kubrick never trusted technology and thought that the end of mankind might result from the utilization of powerful technology (Dr. Strangelove being exemplary of his anti-technology leanings).

Clarke and Kubrick, opposites in their views of technology, somehow formed a perfect team for story telling. I fall in line behind Clarke. I have no doubt that our choice is between either choosing space as an extension of the human domain or choosing certain extinction of mankind by denying ourselves the survival opportunity that awaits us above the atmosphere. We are certainly going to make a lot of mistakes and miscalculations with our science and technology, but our failures offer lessons that are sometimes more valuable than our successes. We should not allow our disappointments, failures, and shortcomings to cause us to stop building the future.


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