Edward Willett

It’s 2001! Where’s our space odyssey?

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, considering the main focus of the story created by writer Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick isn’t on 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–a blueprint which was, alas, overly hopeful.

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, 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 film.

And yet…

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. After all, 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 counterweigh orbiting the Earth. The center 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.

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