Out of a powerful drive to understand the Stanley Kubrick film (and also to firm-up my appreciation for classic science fiction), I am currently reading Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m about midway through, and so far it has been a surprisingly easy read (I say “surprisingly” because the subject matter is so heavy that I was honestly expecting a much denser tome; I suppose that that’s what makes Sir Arthur a good writer); the Discovery is en route to Saturn*, and HAL-9000 has not yet betrayed his Human caretakers.
Like all works of speculative fiction over a certain age, 2001 is curiously dated by its wildly-erroneous predictions for the future; interplanetary travel is a way of life in this vision of 2001, with permanent Human colonies on the Moon and Mars; computers are both more and less powerful than they are in real life–more powerful in that they can produce an indistinguishable facsimile of Human intelligence, less powerful in that Sir Arthur concieves only of computers that are the size of a desk, rather than capable of sitting on a desk (or on one’s lap, or in the palm of one’s hand…). For me, this (and other, similar although perhaps more fanciful science fiction of the same era) provokes a strange sort of nostalgia. So plausible is Mr. Clarke’s vision of his future, so complete and well-extrapolated, that it is hard not to think that this is how the year 2001 should have been, and that the impoverished version that we all lived through ten years ago (what with its terrorist attacks and celebrity scandals) was the product of a reality that has, somehow, at some point during the intervening thirty years after release of the film, gone fundamentally wrong. You might think this churlish of me, but I want my colonies on the moon**; I want casual travel between planets on well-shielded space-liners with artificial gravity created by centrifugal force; having to pay one hundred thousand dollars for a five-minute jaunt to low-Earth orbit is a very poor substitute indeed.
So why don’t we have this future? A large part of it is that Sir Arthur C. Clarke has fallen into the trap of most SF writers; he can predict technological developments astonishingly well, but he pays insufficient consideration to the effects that these technologies will have on society (what with its byzantine web of dialectical response mechanisms). The society that Clarke depicts in 2001 is the society of 1968, translated into the future; all of the major scientist and astronaut characters are men; while he never says so explicitly, they are, presumably, white men, and of course, while the international political scene has changed (it is mentioned that there are no fewer than thirty-six nuclear powers in this world, a pants-shittingly frightening number from which we may be glad reality has diverged**), it is still largely just an extrapolation of the Cold War. He does not predict the second wave of feminism, wrought about, in large part, by the new technology of contraceptive pills (although I know that there is active debate as to just how large of a part this played); nor does he predict the way that ever greater mass media has affected the political process in western democracies, reducing discourse to the exchange of three-second soundbites, not exactly conducive to any sort of grand vision of the future. He could not predict that the impact of technology would lead to people giving greater consideration to ecology, shifting (however slowly) the age-old narrative that Human civilization should exist in a state of antagonistic dominance of the natural world. Neither could he predict the ebb and flow of the world economy (Clarke’s 2001 showcases post-war prosperity, continuing on forever into the future), or the shear force of the blowback against technology-driven change to society (the religious implications of finding a perfectly-formed, three million year old black monolith on the surface of the moon are never considered by those making the discovery at all; it may be cynical of me to say, but in this day and age, I doubt that most representatives of the US government would be thinking of much else).
Of course, one can hardly blame him; even today, scholarship is divided on these questions. The truth is, honestly, that I think that the internal mechanics of society are vastly more complicated than the laws of physics; this, in fact, is precisely why descriptions of society are necessarily qualitative.
*Not Jupiter, as in the movie. Stanley Kubrick changed it because he could never get the rings of Saturn to look convincing. After seeing actual close-up photographs of the planet Saturn taken by the Voyager missions, Sir Arthur conceded that he was right.
**I still think that Newt Gingrich is an idiot though, and sooner or later I’ll get around to explaining why.
**As a physicist, I will tell you one thing: no matter how afraid you are of nuclear war, you are not afraid enough.