2010: The Year We Lower Our Expectations
By Gary Westfahl
18 October 2010
Almost by their nature, sequels tend to attract less attention than original works. Thus, while the arrival of the year 2001 brought many tributes to the celebrated film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and learned considerations of the contrast between Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's predictions, and the realities, of that year, no one to date in the year 2010 has stepped forward to offer a similar celebration of Clarke's 1982 sequel to that story, 2010: Odyssey Two, which was filmed two years later by writer-director Peter Hyams as 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Commentators may be particularly inclined to overlook those works because, more so than most sequels, 2010 may be regarded as a genuine trivialization, even a repudiation, of the expansive vision of the original epic. Furthermore, while both the 1968 film and novel can be admired as milestones of the genre, most would dismiss 2010: Odyssey Two as one of Clarke's lesser works, while Hyams's film was universally derided as vastly inferior to Kubrick's masterpiece. Nevertheless, the manner in which Clarke chose to extend his most famous story (which was generally replicated by Hyams) can, like the original 2001, inspire some ruminations about both its failures, and its successes, as a forecast of humanity's current situation.
The premise of the sequel appears to represent a spectacular failure in prophecy, although there are illuminating undercurrents in its story. In 2010, a still-antagonistic United States and Soviet Union, puzzled by the mysterious loss of communication with the spaceship Discovery just as Dave Bowman was approaching an immense monolith orbiting Jupiter, are separately preparing missions to investigate what happened. This task is rendered more urgent by recent findings that Discovery's orbit is rapidly deteriorating, meaning that the craft may soon crash into Jupiter. The problem is that the Russians can get there in time, but they lack the expertise to reactivate the Discovery, revive the disabled computer HAL 9000, and obtain essential data; the Americans can do all these things, but their preparations are taking longer and their spaceship will not be able to reach Discovery before it is destroyed. The solution, devised by opening a private channel of communication between Dr. Heywood R. Floyd and a Soviet colleague, is for the two hostile nations to launch a joint mission using the Soviet spacecraft and a combined crew of Soviet cosmonauts and American scientists.
Now, in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan's bellicose rhetoric made the Cold War seem more entrenched than ever, it was certainly reasonable to predict that the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union would endure well into the twenty-first century. And while Clarke posited only low-level tensions, Hyams's screenplay envisioned the United States and the Soviet Union about to go to war due to a crisis in Honduras, which drives the American and Soviet crew members apart. No one at the time, it appears, was capable of imagining that the Soviet Union would collapse less than a decade later and that the United States and a now independent Russia would drift toward a wary but peaceful partnership. Also, no one imagined that the main threat to American security by 2010 would not be a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, but rather stateless terrorists committed to spectacular acts of mass destruction.
Still, Clarke and Hyams made some arguably accurate predictions. Although Clarke did have the precedent of the one-time Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in 1975, one could say he correctly realized that the two major space-faring nations would be driven into a more formal partnership. This is certainly the case today, with active Russian participation in the construction and occupation of the international space station and American astronauts regularly traveling to the station in Russian Soyuz spacecraft. This collaboration, though, was not inspired by any pressing concern as in the novel, but more by economic realities. (Even in 1982 Clarke and other science fiction writers had still not grasped that the staggering costs of space travel would dominate all decisions about such initiatives.)
The timing of the second mission to Jupiter is also intriguing. Given that science fiction has typically been optimistic about rapid advances in space travel, a sequel to a story about a mission to Jupiter, taking place about eight years after its launch, would presumably envision that humans had ventured even farther away from Earth by that time. Instead, we learn that by 2010, the Soviet Union is finally ready for its first Jupiter mission while the United States has not yet completed preparations for a second Jupiter mission. In this sense, one could say that 2010 correctly predicted that there would be no significant progress in human space exploration between 2001 and 2010.
However, since only eighteen months elapsed between the lunar monolith's signal to Jupiter and the successful launch of the Discovery, why would it take eight years to simply repeat the job? True, Clarke undoubtedly posited this long gap between the missions solely so that his sequel's title could reverse the final two digits of "2001" and thus resonate with the original title. Nevertheless, even if inadvertently, the story does suggest paradoxically that doing something a second time in space might require more time and effort than doing it the first time—which is precisely what the United States has actually discovered in contemplating a second effort to reach the Moon. As Jerry Pournelle reported in the introduction to his anthology The Endless Frontier, Volume II (1982):
In spring of 1980 I had an astonishing experience: one of the highest officials of NASA solemnly informed me that the United States could not put a man on the Moon within ten years.
"But," spluttered I, "we did it in eight, starting from a lot less in 1961. Surely we can do better now?"
"No." (Pournelle, 1)
Reflecting the same realities, when President George W. Bush finally made an official proposal to return to the Moon, his 2005 initiative called for the first flight to occur a full fifteen years later, in the year 2020. With those plans now being abandoned by President Barack Obama, it remains unclear when humans might again walk on the Moon. However, it will manifestly require more than a decade to move from the drawing board to a countdown, even though we once did it more quickly. Thus, 2010: Odyssey Two may represent the first anticipation of the counterintuitive principle that a repeated space mission might involve more preparation time than the original mission.
Other aspects of the storyline of 2010 range from the plausible to the impossible. It was hardly prophetic of Clarke to envision Jupiter's moon Europa as a potential abode of life (with exotic beings described at length in the novel, though mostly ignored in the film), since it was already known in 1982 that the world possessed a vast underground ocean of liquid water, an obviously promising environment for life to develop. But ongoing investigation has made it more and more reasonable to assume that, if there is indeed life to be found elsewhere in our Solar System, Europa represents the best place to look for it. However, the way that the monolith builders make the moon more hospitable for its embryonic species—by transforming Jupiter into a star—would appear to be well beyond the ability of both human and alien engineering, for the process would require increasing the mass of Jupiter to about sixty to eighty times its current mass. And, since Jupiter already represents about 77 percent of the total mass of the Solar System outside the Sun, it is clear that obtaining sufficient mass to cause this transformation would be extraordinarily challenging, to say the least. Clarke assumes that his unseen aliens have the ability to somehow materialize innumerable monoliths that rain on Jupiter to boost its mass to the necessary level, but one cannot begin to calculate just how many of these would be required to equal sixty times the current mass of the planet. If the goal was simply to provide Europa with a steady source of heat in order to facilitate the sustained evolution of its inhabitants, it would have been far easier for the aliens to move the moon closer to the Sun—or for that matter, to construct a million waterproof nuclear-powered furnaces and drop them into its oceans. However, as a testament to Clarke's general credibility as a scientific prophet, it is amusing to note that in 2003, when NASA decided to send its aging, dysfunctional Galileo space probe plunging into Jupiter's atmosphere, there were bizarre internet rumors that NASA had filled the probe with nuclear bombs designed to ignite Jupiter and turn it into a star, an idea that was surely inspired by Clarke's sequel.
What commands the most attention in 2010: Odyssey Two, though, is its striking and disappointing reconstruction of the original story's transformed Dave Bowman, the Star Child. To briefly recapitulate the original narrative, the first stage of the monolith builders' plan was to uplift some terrestrial primates to the status of intelligent beings by granting them the ability to use tools, a skill that inexorably drove humans from adapting bones as clubs to constructing spaceships (as conveyed by the first film's famous jump cut). But toolmaking, by the year 2001, had reached the limits of its usefulness: all the innumerable tools surrounding and employed by the characters in that year have clearly had the effect of making people more and more like machines, as evidenced by the film's wooden acting and banal dialogue. Even worse, the most advanced tool humans have devised, the computer HAL 9000, is revealed to be significantly flawed, inasmuch as it goes insane and murders all but one member of the Discovery's crew. Thus, it is now time for the second phase of the aliens' plan: to uplift humanity to a new, higher level of superhumanity which will no longer require them to employ tools. Thus, after Bowman disables the homicidal HAL, he is taken by the aliens to a faraway apartment with furniture suggesting an era prior to the Industrial Revolution. Here he is stripped of his tools—his spacecraft and spacesuit—and transformed into a naked, fetus-like being that can survive in the vacuum of space. Clarke's novel further informs us that this first representative of the new species also has vast psychic powers, which he employs to instantly disintegrate each and every one of Earth's nuclear weapons—tools which he finds particularly objectionable. And the logical way for this story to continue would involve the Star Child raising other humans to this new stature and working with them to forge a new, superhuman civilization.
2010: Odyssey Two, however, completely changes the story. The mission of the monolith builders is no longer to find promising species and eventually make them superintelligent; rather, they simply wish to forge intelligent species and then to periodically check on their progress to ensure that they have not developed so badly as to require what Clarke terms "weed[ing]," or extermination (Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two, 266). Thus they have transformed Bowman not to become the first representative of homo superior, but to serve as an errand boy who will assist them by conducting an ethereal survey of human civilization in the early twenty-first century and by overseeing activities involving their new interest: uplifting the promising beings of Europa to intelligence. As for why humanity no longer requires a second evolutionary leap forward, it turns out that toolmaking actually remains a valuable and helpful activity even for species that are conquering space; since the characters in the second novel and film are more rounded and eloquent, indicating that tool-using humans are really not becoming like machines. In addition, the apparently errant computer HAL is rehabilitated as a victim of human error (that is, conflicting instructions), and once the problem is resolved, the computer is again a flawless, perfectly functioning companion that ably helps his human mentors escape from the vicinity of Jupiter before it becomes a star.
As additional evidence that intelligent beings will always make use of tools, 2010: Odyssey Two and Clarke's two sequels—2061: Odyssey Three (1987) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)—indicate that the advanced aliens who manipulated humanity, although said to have first adapted to mechanical bodies and later to have evolved into beings of pure energy, will still construct and employ tools. The most conspicuous of these are the monoliths themselves, eventually characterized in 3001 as very advanced but deteriorating computers.
The sequel's new, diminished vision of future human progress, I would argue, represented Clarke's accurate anticipation of evolving attitudes both within and outside of science fiction. Many science fiction stories in the pulp magazines of the 1930s expressed boundless optimism about humanity's glorious future. As one example, I recall John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Arcot, Wade, and Morey series, which begins ("Piracy Preferred" ) with scientists on Earth combating an aerial pirate and concludes (Invaders from the Infinite ) with its heroes freely traveling through the cosmos, slightly stressed because their discovery of "the power of all the universe—Cosmic Power,"(Campbell, Jr. 114) which enables them to do anything they want to do with a single thought, has rendered them the effective masters of the universe. A youthful Clarke read such grandiose adventures and absorbed their attitudes. Thus, in Against the Fall of Night (1953) and its revision The City and the Stars (1956), there are intimations that humans in the far future have moved on to bigger and better things, leaving behind a few remnants of their former selves on a mostly deserted Earth. Childhood's End (1953) more vividly describes humanity's future transformation, supervised by alien conquerors, into an immensely powerful group intelligence which effortlessly demolishes its home planet before traveling out into space to fulfill its superhuman destiny. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is in this same tradition. Just as the ancient Moon-Watcher learned how to use tools and would then "think of something" (Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey,34) that allowed his species to conquer the Earth, Bowman's Star Child, having mastered his new mental powers, is clearly poised to similarly "think of something" (221) that will allow his new species to conquer the universe. Around the time Clarke was writing 2010, such bold dreams of almost unlimited human progress had not yet gone out of fashion, as evidenced, for example, by George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979), wherein human space colonies evolve into a group intelligence that expands throughout the entire cosmos.
However, 2010: Odyssey Two suggests that Clarke was sensing a coming shift in attitudes and felt the need to recalibrate the original story's grand ambitions to better accord with the actual human aspirations he was expecting in the year 2010. Thus, in his sequel to 2001, humans now see themselves as destined merely to muddle on, more or less as we are, with our major challenge being to simply stay alive in a universe of potentially inimical forces which include both the unseen aliens—who may resolve to "weed" us out of existence—or their machines, the monoliths—which might drift toward a similar decision as they degenerate into senility. Even when leaping forward a thousand years for his final sequel to the original story, Clarke only imagined a humanity that has managed to conquer its own solar system and to develop a few new technological tricks, such as a device that connects everyone's minds to a sort of super-internet.
Such modest hopes for the future have gradually come to dominate science fiction, which now features few, if any, stories envisioning an entire universe dominated by human beings and instead has largely settled into a Star Trek-like future of humans joining forces with some aliens and battling against other aliens while slowly expanding only throughout our own galaxy. Meanwhile, outside of science fiction, even these predictions seem overly bold, as public opinion has moved away from a more subdued optimism about human space conquests to obsessive worries about a dangerous universe that can effect our extinction by means of an asteroid impact, alien invaders, absorption into a visiting black hole, or any of the other cosmic catastrophes featured in alarmist documentaries. When Obama announced that he was cancelling projected efforts to first revisit the Moon and later reach Mars in favor of vague hopes of prodding private enterprise to reignite the space race—a decision made in the year 2010—it was simply one more sign that humans no longer expect, or desire, to fulfill the old dreams of science fiction and someday conquer the universe.
Thus, Clarke's 2010 might finally be viewed as a prophecy of humanity's steadily diminishing hopes for the future, as it endeavors to invalidate one of science fiction's boldest visions of human transcendence and substitutes a prediction of perpetual human stagnation, distinguished only by the most timid sorts of advances. No other work of science fiction, then, has more provocatively or correctly suggested that the year 2010 would find humanity firmly entrenched in an era of lowered expectations.
Campbell, John W., Jr. Invaders from the Infinite. 1932. New York: Ace Books, 1961.
"Piracy Preferred." 1930. The Black Star Passes. By John W. Campbell, Jr. New York: Dorchester Press, 2010, 7-63.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood's End. 1953. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967.
———.The City and the Stars. 1956. New York: Signet Books, 1957.
———.3001: The Final Odyssey. 1997. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1999.
———.2001: A Space Odyssey. Based on a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Signet Books, 1968.
———.2010: Odyssey Two. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1982.
———.2061: Odyssey Three. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1982.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968.
2010: The Year We Make Contact. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1984.
Pournelle, Jerry. "Introduction: The Insurmountable Opportunity." The Endless Frontier, Volume II. Edited by Jerry Pournelle with John F. Carr. New York: Ace Books, 1982, 1-17.
Zebrowski, George. Macrolife. 1979. New York: Avon Books, 1981.