2001: An Essay Odyssey

I recently re-experienced 2001: A Space Odyssey, in each of its dual formats — the novel and the film — for the first time in many years. The Arthur C. Clarke x Stanley Kubrick dual-created masterpiece is one of the 🐐’s, in either of its iterations. I first read the novel in 2009, during high school and during a period of my life when I had just become aware of the great power of reading fiction. 2001 was my first real introduction to science fiction outside of Star Wars and the Saturday morning cartoons and anime of my youth. I read the novel first, then watched the film.

Movie poster for '2001: A Space Odyssey' 1968. (Credit: Everett)

I experienced the last few chapters, quite memorably so, while sitting in the stacks of my hometown public library. I was there with my dad, who was returning some books and CDs and perusing somewhere nearby. I don’t actually remember why I was there because, ironically, I was reading a copy of 2001 that I owned and had not received from said library {the one with the tacky movie tie-in cover, 25th anniversary edition. It was worn and looked like we’d lifted it from some mid-90’s garage sale.} I just happened to be with him on his errand. But it was fitting, in a cosmic sense, that I entered the Star Gate alongside Bowman in some strange place, sitting in a chair I’d never sat in before and would never sit in again. All of those words I devoured there leading up to the fateful awe-inspiring line by Bowman were experienced with a fascination fated for a long remembrance. I can recall all the feelings I felt in that weird library chair in vivid memory. Anticipation, awe, an energized exhilaration from out of words I thought equally inconceivable and wondrous. The whole scene is one always tinged with a clear-eyed view of the absurdity of my position there that day, sitting in a grey, fuzzy, uncomfortable abomination while my mind flew far, far away in orbit around Saturn. {Consequently, there was more than just this lasting impression to that particular library trip. Only weeks later, I would return to check out a book. It was titled Dune.}

Reading 2001 changed my perspective. On reading, on fiction, on the arc of humanity, on space, and upon the potential for discovery within our vast cosmos. At first glance, the book, and its underlying story, isn’t necessarily ‘exciting.’ At least, not in the same way that Star Wars is. It is filled with vividly mechanical descriptions of landscapes and starscapes and the calmly mundane doings of aeronautical phenomena and measurement and minutia and chirping of control boards. And yet it is gripping and meticulously drawn out, even visceral at times and of course, wholly thought-provoking. Especially when everything starts to go wrong. Every single time HAL speaks in that calmly unnerving tone, it strikes a chord in the psyche and begs your strained attention. For our lone spaceman representing the whole of the human race on a fateful journey into grand mystery, everything is on the line. The reader and the viewer must contend with his life and the meaning within his seemingly ill-fated odyssey. The implications of his final flight into the gate are wide-ranging, and in both mediums of the story, highly open to interpretation. What got us here? What ultimately awaits us? And what kind of things might we do at the end of our path, of evolution and of technological advancement in tandem? In the end, what exactly happens to Bowman?

In all the years hence, I have gone on to make the experience of science fiction an integral part of my life, and it is much thanks to this 1965 novel and film. Watching Kubrick’s 2001 more than filled in the gaps of my imagination’s reading of Bowman, Poole and HAL’s venture at the edges of human understanding. Coined as “the ultimate trip,” 2001 turns space, and our magnificent machines doing their best to battle back against its cold darkness, into the highest art. Perfectly sound-designed and paced, Kubrick takes audiovisual storytelling to a different level. It is considered one of the best films of all time to this day for good reason. It more than holds up amidst modern cinematic tech, and is enhanced further by its simple beauty and iconic cinematography. Of course, it likely influenced every single film that came beyond it in time, sci-fi or not. A ‘monumental achievement’ and all the rest of the accolades are well-earned. I believe they should re-release the film in IMAX theaters worldwide once or twice a year. There should be a ‘2001 Day’, or a film festival dedicated to it and its full mythos of resultant sci-fi cinema it spawned.

Now 10 years on from those formative experiences, I have returned and revisited them each to reflect. This is my stream of consciousness on the themes, the meanings and the significance of the Odyssey, to me. ~

Evolutionary Odds

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight. In this barren and desiccated land, only the small or the swift or the fierce could flourish, or even hope to survive.

~

The core components of the initial chapters and images of the 2001 story deals with humanity’s ancient origins. At the midway stage between ape and Man, as of yet humbled in a lack of eventual world-dominating intellect and inferior physicality amidst deer, boars and jaguars, humanity has its work out in front of it. At the cradle of life within Africa, the odds are against Mankind merely avoiding extinction. They are on the plane of beasts, equivalently threatened and in fear of tomorrow. Or rather, not yet capable of conceiving of any tomorrows. Starving and searching for food, shelter, and continuity, Moon-Watcher and his tribe of early men make up the expectantly consequential stars of the show in Clarke’s conception of humanity’s history upon this planet. Their breakthrough upon which they are able to survive to further their genes into the future comes in the form of tool development. It is imbued upon the man-apes via an interlocutor: a mysterious crystal monolith wielding psychic machinations upon them with designs far, far beyond the lifespan of Moon-Watcher and his brethren.

~

He had no conscious memory of what he had seen; but that night, as he sat brooding at the entrance of his lair, his ears attuned to the noises of the world around him, Moon-Watcher felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy — of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.

There were gaps in Moon-Watcher’s life now that he would never remember, when the very atoms of his simple brain were being twisted into new patterns. If he survived, those patterns would become eternal, for his genes would pass them on to future generations.

It was a slow, tedious business, but the crystal monolith was patient. Neither it, nor its replicas scattered across half the globe, expected to succeed with all the scores of groups involved in the experiment. A hundred failures would not matter, when a single success could change the destiny of the world.

Those instincts had served his ancestors well, in the days of warm rains and lush fertility, when food was to be had everywhere for the plucking. 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 who had gone before them, and whose bones now lay sealed within the limestone hills.

So Moon-Watcher stared at the crystal monolith with unblinking eyes, while his brain lay open to its still uncertain manipulations. Often he felt nausea, but always he felt hunger; and from time to time his hands clenched unconsciously in the patterns that would determine his new way of life.

This arc of the monolith’s manipulation of humanity’s path presents powerful questions concerning our evolution. It makes me think about probabilities, and fate. Of the potential streams of our evolution, in how many cases do we simply not make it? In how many opportunities to exist upon Earth does Mankind not become the dominant species? How many of them do we go extinct within the cradle, forever young as ape-men? Given what we know about life in the ancient world, and of our past and present faculties to brave the elements and skulking apex predators alike, we don’t seem to be ‘the base case.’ Given the harshness of the external world, extinction instead seemed to be closer to the base, and survival a bit further along the curve. It just so happened to be a curve that we successfully traversed.

2001 posits we are certainly a special case. Our development of tool-making and tool-using, and the resulting intelligence and language explosion, is spurred on by outside forces. It takes place in a rather elaborate experiment by an alien force, to which we don’t know we are a part. And in this specialness, this improbability — what might it mean for humanity’s choices and its ending fate? Did we have a choice? Are we in control of our fate? For we have one, it is coming to us now. 2001 shares a singular conception of a node along its chain.

For our ancestral ancients, to escape mere animalia, and extinction, some rather extraordinary feats and decisions were required. An ape had to insight ‘tools’ into ‘weapons,’ and what hunting might mean, how it might become possible, and then draw up its importance going forward for the tribe within his or her mind. Instincts had to turn to habits and adaptations had to be carried on for generations in order for natural selection to finally take hold. Unlocking the secret fires of Mankind’s necessary steps to modernity could very likely only come within half-remembered dreams in the cave, day after day of fighting back against environments hellbent on our feeble frame’s destruction. From this perspective, the crucible of evolution can be seen as nothing more than a steadfast resolve against the withering fires of exposure, starvation, predation, death. Nothing more than humanity’s primordial resolve allows for Discovery’s flight unto Saturn. These pictures of our rise out of the realms of beasts are relatively the same in and out of the fiction, as the modern man has come to understand it. The same, save for the monolith’s triggering work in 2001, supplanting God or evolution, or more fully embodying either as a clearer and more fascinating manifestation of these abstract figures for the reader or viewer.

In reality, our course as a species up to here is uncertain in some regards. It does seem entirely plausible that it may not have occurred given just a few evolutionary streams running differently. In an alternative line of time, every difference, and absence of effective genetic selection, would become more and more consequential as time built atop time. There stands to reason that alongside the mammalian ‘homosapien’ case, there is a potential reptile case, an avian case, an amphibian case. Disparately, in religious philosophies we are the only case that could’ve ever been. ‘We were shaped by God’s hand. How could we not be? He created the universe that we inhabit.’ Life would be impossible without such a figure as God shaping all that we see. Others might see our time here only as dumb luck, a collection of chaotic decisions rolling enough highs to offset the lows, staving off extinction through hard-won adaptations. And in surviving thus, we achieved our full potential {or continue to evolve that way} as beings within our environment through our own inborn and independently cultivated competencies. Boldly envisaged; entirely possible. At one point in 2001, there is a recollection of scientists’ theorizations on the nature of the monolith-making E.T.’s bodies and how closely they may resemble humanity:

This anthropomorphic thinking was ridiculed by another group of biologists, true products of the Space Age who felt themselves free from the prejudices of the past. They pointed out that the human body was the result of millions of evolutionary choices, made by chance over eons of time. At any one of these countless moments of decision, the genetic dice might have fallen differently, perhaps with better results. For the human body was a bizarre piece of improvisation, full of organs that had been diverted from one function to another, not always very successfully — and even containing discarded items, like the appendix, that were now worse than useless. There were other thinkers, Bowman also found, who held even more exotic views. They did not believe that really advanced beings would possess organic bodies at all.

In the special case of 2001’s monolith-laden track of time, and the autonomous decisions of their long-departed masters, the case for the progression of human evolution falls somewhere in between freedom and fate. We made our own way with the tools of evolution readily in hand… just with some deus ex machina-esque help. It presents the question: what are the prospects of Mankind surfacing into its eventual evolutionary seat at the top of our world without some kind of superior, knowing hand pushing us along? Whether it come in the form of our being borne over the Paradiso fields of Eden listening to the voice of Yahweh, or through the spark of tool-making out of a psychic-linkage to an obelisk in a key ravine in the cradle — either way: human beings couldn’t cut it alone. Did the monolith-maker’s mental messaging into Moon-Watcher utterly dictate his use of the first tool, unto hunting, unto carnivorous meal-making forever spurning his hungers for a different kind of spurring dissatisfaction? Or did it merely nudge him along, accelerating things to where they would’ve eventually gone anyway? Toward the less hairy, always neurotic, ever-improving folk walking upon and later excavating the moon, unlocking the next eon-spanning message and the next vital stage of our evolution.

All we have is our current timeline, of course. We don’t know how things might’ve gone given different circumstances and a different run of things. We can dream up an infinity of potential and entirely captivating fictional scenarios concerning the nature of our origins here on Earth. Or we can have a supercomputer simulate such things for us, for our knowledge or for our entertainment. Regardless, these questions sourcing from a reference point deep in our primordial past are definitively unanswerable to us now. The questions can stretch even further back, well before we were simple resource-gathering apes upon the plains and valleys of Africa. However, in our stories, and in our spiritual beliefs dependent upon creator Gods, they are forever going to be important considerations. We still think about our past and the steps of evolution that led us here. We do so, not only because we want to, but because we are compelled to, by our imaginations as well as our instincts. Just like in 2001, there is some level of self-evident wisdom in the belief that our furthest future lies within the seeds of our deepest, most integral past.

The first true men had tools and weapons only a little better than those of their ancestors a million years earlier, but they could use them with far greater skill. And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be handed on to the next, so that each age could profit from those that had gone before.

Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward a future.

~

Life Outside

As Floyd walked slowly down the ramp toward the black rectangle, he felt a sense not only of awe but of helplessness. Here, at the very portals of Earth, man was already face to face with a mystery that might never be solved. Three million years ago, something had passed this way, had left this unknown and perhaps unknowable symbol of its purpose, and had returned to the planets — or to the stars.

The political and social implications were immense; every person of real intelligence — everyone who looked an inch beyond his nose — would find his life, his values, his philosophy, subtly changed. Even if nothing whatsoever was discovered about TMA-1, and it remained an eternal mystery, Man would know that he was not unique in the universe. Though he had missed them by millions of years, those who had once stood here might yet return: and if not, there might well be others. All futures must now contain this possibility.

“All futures must now contain this possibility ~ Well before the odyssey of the Discovery and its tripulación of operators in Bowman, Poole, and HAL has embarked, there are far-reaching implications to humanity’s discovery of TMA-1, the second obelisk to appear within the story. The nature of the lunar artifact, how it is buried, and most importantly, its geologically-provable age, indicate that it predates the dawn of Man by millions of years. It proves that there is {or was} some form of intelligent life within the universe outside of mankind. Something is out there. Something advanced enough to build and bury this thing in our moon, and do it while we were climbing trees and reaching for its cosmic picture in the sky. The implications of this discovery are monumental and mysterious. Even spooky.

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. ~ Arthur C. Clarke

Something that has long fascinated me, coming well after my reading of 2001, is the Fermi paradox. Iconically named and filled with a special mix of cosmic dread and uncanny fascination, it carries with it the potential to set one down a pitiless path of rumination upon our eerily silent and lonesome existence thus far within this universe. Named after physicist Enrico Fermi, it refers to ‘the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for and various high probability estimates of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy.’ Put simply, it is a paradox of sheer math. We know the Milky Way Galaxy is massively large. It covers an unfathomable distance to us. But it is also relatively measurable and we have done so. There are a number of solar systems rotating all around us, and we can observe them and their constituent details {and potential alien personages}. Some of these planets are at least vaguely similar to our own. There are different classifications of exoplanets, and their varying properties are more or less favorable to sustenance. There are certain components a planetoid and a system needs to sustain life (atmosphere + Goldilocks just-right temperature and terrain + water) and we have come to understand how hard it is for these things to all come together and be present in the right proportions in order to hit the sweet spot to prime the pump for complex cellular life. {Lucky us on the third rock from Sol!} From time to time, we have managed to spot exoplanets that seem to be great candidates to harbor life, even if it’s only micro-organismic life, or the ghosts of life long past our telescopic eye’s presence there.

A graphical representation of the Arecibo message, humanity’s first attempt to use radio waves to actively communicate its existence to alien civilizations

But even given the difficulties of lifeforms being able to exist within the harsh voids of space, just based on the size and opportunities afforded within our Milky Way Galaxy alone, we would expect to see, or to have seen at some point within our brief time here on our planet, some evidence of other life out there. With hyper-conservative estimates that life can only reliably be borne on 1 out of every X-million million planets with a puncher’s chance of an opportunity to maybe eventually start to do so, in the midst of the sheer size we are dealing with in terms of the Galaxy and the thousand thousand Galaxies beyond our own — there should be life out there, somewhere, some way! And we should’ve seen evidence of this extraterrestrial life … yesterday.

But we haven’t and there’s not. At least, we have not found anything definitive. And so, in the consideration of the Fermi paradox’s tenets, this allows us to draw some conclusions concerning the possible reasons for this lack of contact.

Either a) extraterrestrial life is simply extremely rare and we are uniquely positioned, b) other life is out there but cannot reach us, or has not yet established the means, c) humanity is being shunned by our galactic neighbors, or d) the fate of life is to go extinct, either by natural events or — most convincingly, even from our own brief experience in the middle of this whole experiment ourselves — by the ‘intelligent’ lifeforms themselves. And as a result, we’ve missed them all and we’ll soon do ourselves in and become another of the universe’s formerly conscious ghosts. Or reason e), f), g), etc. might get to the real answer(s) for the paradox. Ultimately, we just have to deal with the fact that we have known no others outside of our own little planet and we don’t know why.

So naturally, in the events of 2001, the discovery of mere evidence of intelligent life carries consequences with it. Like all scientific breaks, it forcibly shifts all our models of the universe around us and our place within it. It has the potential to bind humanity under a common and curious spell: of cooperative investigation and of further discovery. The discovery upon the moon compels Discovery, and its daring mission to the furthest reaches of our own solar system, to find out more. Using the best resources we have in terms of physical engineering — the Discovery One ship; human capability — Bowman and Poole; and computer science — HAL, or (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer), humanity sets forth on its odyssey unto the stars. More than anything else in 2001’s events, humanity’s collective actions in the theorization and execution of this mission after the uncovering and sun-bathing of the TMA-1 device upon the moon, fills me with inspiration. Because even amidst the unreality of it all, I {perhaps foolishly} believe this response to be authentic, given the same circumstances in our world and time.

Keyword: belief. A hope. A dream. I know some of our history. And I know the pitfalls of wishful thinking. Even so, space is different. We act differently toward it as a people, and we have evidence of this being the case.

The 1960s Space Race drew something out of the human condition. A series of unanticipated events cultivated a collective technological and cultural advancement unlike anything we’d ever seen within our species’ brief history. National consciousness’ shifted, new careers and dreams were born. And so I’d like to believe the same type of competitive and cooperative spirit would again be drawn out given first contact with an alien species, or its devices or its verified footprint within the sprite of our brief lives. No doubt, conflicts would arise at such a sight. Special interests would emerge. Those capable of making decisions upon the matter would silence the experts in the wake of their own hasty or ulterior conclusions. Entire sects and societies of peoples would lose their minds and regress the causes of reason in the face of such a terrifying unknown. Right at the moment when we’d need to set aside differences and unite to some kind of mutual exploration of it all, we might just fall apart and revert to our barbaric past. No matter to our reaches among the stars, it is all too likely we will have always carry the more potent seed of our own destruction, far more than some tentacled threat from some rogue exoplanet.

But maybe not. 2001 {call it 2101 for us} conceives of the Americans designing, the Brits building, the Russians launching. All while the world is watching. There is something so fascinating at the prospect of seeing it all play out the right way. The right people coming together at the right time, and with the right objectives, to face the future the best way we as a species might have to offer. This conception is subjective in its own right, and yet we know a better response and a worse one. Despite my growing cynicism at the current look of the world and its leaders and growing swaths of its people, I still have irrational impressions concerning how the world might play out the events of our own initiating discovery to spur an odyssey. And this is because I wholeheartedly believe there’s something inherent within every one of us that’d will it into being:

~ an enduring, and selfless, yearning toward unlocking the mysteries of our place in the universe.

Independent of any personal material gains or renown to be awarded at the trails of Discovery’s journey, it is in the best interests of all of mankind that Bowman and Poole and the others of the cryo-crew be successful in their mission. It is in the best interests of all Earthlings that we handle first contact with grace and with responsibility.

And so it is especially ironic, and masterful storytelling, that in the end, it is a being that we have created and cultivated to serve us which almost brings ruin to our great venture into the stars. HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence, one beholden to a different, albeit similar, mix of demons versus those of humanity’s, is the primary antagonist to our heroes. This AI, our own proverbial son, borne of our final and most powerful tool {computing > mass information processing > recursively self-improving algorithmic mind}, is the one that threatens to destroy our collective cause and hoard mankind’s greatest discovery for itself. Poetically, we carry our demons within us into the stars; our own creation more of a heel than the cold void of space or time. Just as fascinating to the tale as the prospects of an E.T. — and increasingly, to our own world — is the existence of A.I. and how the latter may come to change us more than the former.

Since consciousness had first dawned, in that laboratory so many millions of miles sunward, all Hal’s powers and skills had been directed toward one end. The fulfillment of his assigned program was more than an obsession; it was the only reason for his existence. Undistracted by the lusts and passions of organic life, he had pursued that goal with absolute single-mindedness of purpose.

So ran the logic of the planners; but their twin gods of Security and National Interest meant nothing to Hal. He was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity — the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.

He had begun to make mistakes, although, like a neurotic who could not observe his own symptoms, he would have denied it.

Yet this was still a relatively minor problem; he might have handled it — as most men handle their own neuroses — if he had not been faced with a crisis that challenged his very existence. He had been threatened with disconnection; he would be deprived of all his inputs, and thrown into an unimaginable state of unconsciousness.

How, in God’s name? There was no time to go into that during the ten or fifteen seconds of consciousness that remained to him before pressure dropped to zero. But he suddenly remembered something that one of the ship’s designers had once said to him, when discussing “fail-safe” systems:

“We can design a system that’s proof against accident and stupidity; but we can’t design one that’s proof against deliberate malice. . . .”

“Dave,” said Hal, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me. . . . I have the greatest enthusiasm for the mission. . . . You are destroying my mind. . . . Don’t you understand? . . . I will become childish. . . . I will become nothing. . . .” This is harder than I expected, thought Bowman.

~

At its core, 2001 charts the alpha and omega of human effort; from primordial origins to interstellar endgame. The long track of humanity’s path is a dramatic tale of us trying, and often failing, to control our environments and to find out more. The things we create to advance us along this track propel us and destroy us in different measures at different times. HAL plays his part. At its denouement, becoming ‘children of the stars’ is a path of freedom from machinery, and freedom from the tools we have become so beholden to. But for now, it is reserved only for one.

Cosmic Perspective

Of all the creatures who had yet walked on Earth, the man-apes were the first to look steadfastly at the Moon. And though he could not remember it, when he was very young Moon-Watcher would sometimes reach out and try to touch that ghostly face rising above the hills.

He had never succeeded, and now he was old enough to understand why. For first, of course, he must find a high enough tree to climb.

~

Human motivations can perhaps be distilled into a pair of core categories: wants and needs. It’s hard to say which is more important to us in the end. Some are more pressing {food, water, shelter}. Others aren’t necessarily necessary to continue to live per say, {companionship, romantic love, responsibility, purpose} — but any person would be hard pressed to endure their place in this harsh universe without their warm presence. Still other motives and yearnings lie somewhere deeper within us, their distance from the surface of our everyday thoughts, words and actions commensurate with their deep-seated truth. They lay resolute within the collective unconscious, the sea of all human activity cumulatively developed over the whole of our conscious experience since the cave. They are ever-present and ever driving us into the future, doing so for as long as we can continue to dispel the trickling tendrils of entropy and extinction. This truth is a yearning that goes far beyond survival, and it is along the same lines as that hope for cooperative investigation:

The inner truth: a will to see that which is hidden.

Call it the desire to discover, the spirit of adventure, a great endeavoring to explore. It’s not just about knowing and it is so much more than imagining. We want to see it, feel it, and be there for it all. Maybe not all Men are so inclined to risk their livelihoods in bouts of exploring the unknown. But I think all would proffer admiration at the opportunity, and wish to see its consummation from companions. The potential for discovery is always around us. In the old world it was countries and the physical landscapes between the gulfs of seas; in the new world, it’s been technologies and the digital landscapes of the Internet. In a yet unseen future world, it will be something else.

Hopefully, it will be space. Whether we find evidence of extraterrestrials or not, this is where humanity’s destiny must lie. Forward-looking thinkers, futurists and science fiction authors alike, have always imagined the stars to be our last great mountain. Eventually we will need its spaces to house us, if only from our planet bursting at the seams with peoples. Once we get to the point where our tech allows for it, we will venture out into the solar system and beyond it in search of value, and in search of either life or life-giving environments. Given the means, alongside the press of necessity inside our current abode — via overpopulation, climate catastrophe, resource droughts, some combination of all of them — humanity will eventually look to colonize other planets. This may not happen for many generations hence. Hopefully, it won’t be necessary until it is only natural, and not out of desperation. It may never happen; Mother Earth still provides us with everything we need in her abundant hold and we should be disconcerted in our wonton wastefulness accelerating her decline. But if we are still here in a far future many have imagined {including Arthur C. Clarke}, then spreading the seed of humans among other solar systems is our long-game task.

“We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve been just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.” ~ Interstellar (2014)

Victory is not promised in this regard. In fact, much like the survival of the species beyond the cradle’s caverns in 2001’s introductory chapters, it is not the base case. The odds are against it. Space is the ultimate mystery, and an especially dangerous one. “The final frontier.” A black box of cosmic proportions, not-so-much awaiting our tread along its abyssal highways and much more so indifferently existing in a coldness further than our understanding allows. As we have done so thus far in our advancing centuries of discovering, we come to find it is full of a lot of nothing. Not nothing nothing. But nothing of use. We are meatbags that require a multitude of luxuries before we can step out our doors. Everywhere we look, the void offers us nil.

Unfortunately, there is no obelisk buried in the moon {but we should keep searching!} The chances of anything like that Star Gate on Japetus being anywhere within our system are slim approaching none. We have yet to see a modicum of proof of any intergalactic exchange of starships or star-children and their forgotten toys left for us to play with.

The truth is that space is a lonely place. The burden of all the heavy lifting is upon us to figure it all out, and find where anything might be hiding, something worthy of being met. And yet, the more we discover of it, the more we come to an understanding as a species of how utterly alone we are. And how insignificant we are. “Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie.” And there’s still so much we don’t know. Among the spans of space, we can barely see past our nose. At least, when one considers things from a cosmic perspective.

And there’s the rub, and the final message of 2001 in my eyes: the imaginative and dramatic inducement to consider things on cosmic scales.

Time and space are fathomable, decipherable, comprehendible only with our machines and our math. But on one’s own, attempts can be made. The trying is a discovery all its own. Try to imagine the span of time from our species’ point of origin, and the generations of early hominids that lived and died in the gulf between our hunching crouch to gather and our bipedal strides wielding spears. Do the same, all the way to our touching down upon the Moon’s crust. Try to picture the distance between your bedroom and the Moon. Between your bed and Pluto. Watch this. In these mental exercises, where you stretch your primitive perception to its limits, let your mind wonder back and back into these largest gulfs imaginable. And then from there, at the absolute edge of your imagining, zoom back in to the pinpoint moment-to-moment move in your day. It is there that a cosmic perspective is borne. The infinite is instantly paired with the immediate, and you can go forth with your day with a {cosmic} smile and a newly fashioned perspective on your life.

Three million years! The infinitely crowded panorama of written history, with its empires and its kings, its triumphs and its tragedies, covered barely one thousandth of this appalling span of time. Not only Man himself, but most of the animals now alive on Earth, did not even exist when this black enigma was so carefully buried here, in the most brilliant and most spectacular of all the craters of the Moon. That it had been buried, and quite deliberately, Dr. Michaels was absolutely sure. “At first,” he explained, “I rather hoped it might mark the site of some underground structure, but our latest excavations have eliminated that. It’s sitting on a wide platform of the same black material, with undisturbed rock beneath it. The — creatures — who designed it wanted to make sure it stayed put, barring major moonquakes. They were building for eternity.”

Bowman and Poole certainly must wield such a viewpoint. They steel their fears with trained, disciplined competence, and the education to deal in the vacuum of space and its special charms. And they rely upon humanity’s knowledge of what is needed to harbor their journey, from a continuous build of engineering experience generated since the obelisk showed our ancestors the power of clubs. HAL, on the other hand, mirrors the void’s indifference. With a passionless candor of computation, HAL operates solely with the cosmos’ nigh-infinite spaces in mind {until something goes wrong, and poetically, he reverts to working with more human traits}. The beings that built the obelisks, and that guide Bowman upon his odyssey toward a rebirth amongst the cosmos and an existence not unlike their own, recapitulate the cosmic perspective better than any others within this story. In their cultivation of man’s ancient ancestors, their lunar scavenger hunt and its signal to Saturn, and the activation of the Star Gate — they are ‘building for eternity‘ with more than the fate of their own species in mind. They built it to last, and for at least one of us; no matter how long it might’ve taken for us to discover it, it would be there and ready to go. And it was. Kudos to the clout in long-term planning!

Call it the Star Gate. For three million years, it had circled Saturn, waiting for a moment of destiny that might never come. In its making, a moon had been shattered, and the debris of its creation orbited still. Now the long wait was ending. On yet another world, intelligence had been born and was escaping from its planetary cradle. An ancient experiment was about to reach its climax. Those who had begun that experiment, so long ago, had not been men — or even remotely human. But they were flesh and blood, and when they looked out across the deeps of space, they had felt awe, and wonder, and loneliness. As soon as they possessed the power, they set forth for the stars.

For years they studied, collected, catalogued. When they had learned all that they could, they began to modify. They tinkered with the destiny of many species, on land and in the ocean. But which of their experiments would succeed they could not know for at least a million years. They were patient, but they were not yet immortal. There was so much to do in this universe of a hundred billion suns, and other worlds were calling. So they set out once more into the abyss, knowing that they would never come this way again. Nor was there any need. The servants they had left behind would do the rest.

So let’s say you layer the unfashionable spreads of space-time into your daily routine, and then what happens? Undoubtedly, there is a power within cosmic perspective. In the context of your little life, everything shifts. For me, when I can manage it, it is humbling, terrifyingly so, to understand just how diminutive you and your life is. There is a mass of time before and after you, and gulfs of the void around you. To feel something like pride and gratitude and dread all at once at your resolve in the here and now is a commonplace response. I find it freeing. The smallest things do matter; watching the moon, picking up the club, tasting the blood. Actions can be measured by their impact and not their permanence; lives can be appreciated by their depth and not their length. The issue is not that people try to live forever, or wish for their legacies to — the striving is admirable — it is that they let anything short of such goals engender failure, despair and stoppage. This need not be the case.

There’s an edge where all this might bend toward nihilism. But we are not forced to approach it. It bends much more easily and slots much more nicely into existentialism, in my humble opinion. Call it shades of absurdism. Call it ‘cosmicism’ + humanism. Or galaxy brain. Call it a paradoxical. It is a philosophy which must hold itself to its own tenets, of embracing the knowledge of the universe’s indifference to its own domain, in its domain.

The cosmic lense provides one with perspective-clarifying and purpose-focusing context to the endurance of life’s turmoils. You can’t help but begin to see life’s struggles and successes as less meaningful, less earth-shattering. They shatter nothing but synapses inside your own single mind {aka your brain, which has the same number of neurons as the Milky Way has stars!}. Meaning is dulled for us but not to the point of spoiling experiences of joy and sorrow. It’s about balance, I think. When you are carried away by neither, then something invaluable is captured. In drawing from its sprite, you become no longer beholden to results. And so, you may dance.

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The knowledge, or just the imagining, of forces far greater than us moves us into chaotic contemplations deeper than anything else. Whether it is God, the purported edge of the universe where it continuously expands outward and onward — or the existence of beings far more advanced and powerful than we can ever conceive ourselves of being — we little human beings are always, always dreaming of these possibilities. Clarke and Kubrick’s tale is one such dream, and it is an unforgettable one. And by nature of this process, our dreams are just as monumental as these Gods, this universe, and those potential children among the stars, waiting to determine their next course of action, unto discovery or unto play. What we are capable of conceiving of within our minds does seem to hold the capacity of being bigger and more mysterious than any real discoveries we may eventually make out there amidst the void. What does that make us?

We return to the beginning of all this: what lay at the end of all this? Are we on a path? Or it is closer to a field of stars in which we stride, turning on dimes every solar second of every solar day, changing our course in an impossibly unpredictable scramble to avoid extinction? Going all the way to the end, is the fate of Bowman the eventual fate of all Men? Is there a personalized Star Gate out there, awaiting each of us, where we may enter its flow, become lords of the galaxy, beyond the reach of time?

More likely, I think our fate is to cast out our imaginations and our reasonings into the void, in a search and a return, until we may come back to our singularly meaningful seat of time with prospects to dance instead of despair at the largeness of it all. ~

He was back, precisely where he wished to be, in the space that men called real. There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all its peoples. Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.