The silence of space
Sir Arthur C. Clarke with his satellite dish
One aspect of the novel The Sentinel that probably hurt the film 2001
is its silence. Right to the end, that movie stalked him. When British
science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died last Tuesday at the age of
90, it was the finale of a career that saw the publication of scores of
entertaining books and the conception of at least one idea
(communication satellites, which he thought up in 1945) that changed the
course of history.
Despite all that, however, he was still probably best known for his
involvement in the famed 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, Clarke
died less than three weeks before the movie’s 40th anniversary, in
As Clarke’s days as an author concluded, so they began: one of his
first efforts in the field of science fiction (SF) was the 1951 short
story “The Sentinel,” which would become the kernel of 2001.
“The Sentinel” is doubly important, because it hinted at an odd side
of the man - a side that continues to perplex SF commentators. As a
radar specialist in the Second World War and a student of physics and
mathematics at university, Clarke could have been expected to produce
nuts-and-bolts tales about people in space.
By contrast, “The Sentinel” tells of the discovery of a mysterious
artifact on the Moon. Only too late do the discoverers realize that the
artifact is an alarm system, set in place eons before to alert its
extraterrestrial creators when humans ventured forth from Earth.
The story ends with mankind anxiously awaiting whatever event has
been put in motion. The unsettling premise of “The Sentinel” - that we
are being watched, and that something is going to happen to us - was
taken much further in Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End.
One of the all-time, celebrated works of SF, this book is profoundly
disturbing. It proposes that humanity is close to a dangerous, psychic
turning point experienced by many developing civilizations across the
On cue, a titanic, collective entity, called the Overmind, sends
emissaries to Earth to supervise an orderly transition to our new state
- which is itself nightmarish. Every child on the planet begins to
transcend time and space and convert into a component of the Overmind.
The rest of us are left to die off.
In Childhood’s End, Clarke revealed himself as a fatalist and a
mystic. The religious aspect of the book is emphasized by the Overmind’s
emissaries, a race of subordinate aliens who look like demons.
The Overmind’s agents lecture a stunned Earth: “You might have become
a telepathic cancer, a malignant mentality which in its inevitable
dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds.”
Enter film director Stanley Kubrick. By the 1960s, Kubrick already
had a reputation for a black view of the world. In just two years, he
had brought out Lolita (1962), an adaption of Vladimir Nabokov’s
still-notorious novel, and Dr. Strangelove (1964), which turned nuclear
armageddon into comedy.
According to a 1997 biography of Kubrick by John Baxter, a Hollywood
publicist named Roger Caras learned in early 1964 that Kubrick wanted to
tackle an SF picture. Caras suggested to the director that he contact
Clarke and Kubrick met in New York in April, 1964, and they formally
agreed to collaborate a month later. Predictably, Kubrick’s first
impulse was to film Childhood’s End, but that had already been optioned
(although never filmed) at the time.
Instead, “The Sentinel” became the springboard. As later recollected
by Clarke, it was Kubrick who thought up the final title for the project
- 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In an unusual move, Kubrick insisted that a full novel, in addition
to a script, be in place before shooting started. Although Kubrick may
have dominated the script (with Clarke’s input), the book was Clarke’s
baby (with Kubrick’s input). Clarke thus began expanding “The Sentinel.”
The book was ready to be sent to a publisher by the spring of 1966, two
years before the film would be released.
The book did not see print until the summer of 1968, months after the
film’s release, making the book unfairly seem like an afterthought. To
this day, some film critics pay little or no attention to it, even
though it is probably the most-important piece of documentation about
the movie, explaining almost everything that is so arcane in the screen
The wild light-show near the end of the movie? Astronaut David Bowman
is being taken through a trans-dimensional “star gate” to the abode of
the unseen aliens. The strange room in which he finds himself when he
Just a maladroit attempt by those aliens to put him at ease before
they begin the task of turning him into something more than human. And,
once transformed into a “star child” at the conclusion, why is Bowman
floating above the Earth? The book makes clear he now controls the
planet, for better or worse.
Likewise, the iconic, black monoliths used by the aliens in the movie
to guide the evolution of humanity actually come in a variety of sizes,
shapes, and colours in the book. (Baxter says transparent slabs and even
tetrahedrons were considered by Kubrick but abandoned for aesthetic or
technical reasons.) One aspect of the novel that probably hurt the film
is its silence.
Almost half the book has no dialogue and uses only descriptive
passages. Although a book can get away with that, a movie cannot unless
accompanied by something like a narration. Until its general release on
April 6, 1968, the movie did indeed have narrated sequences.
As reconstructed in a chronology by writer Carolyn Deguld back in
1973, previews for studio executives and the media did not go well -
with the long running time being a frequent complaint - and Kubrick
considerably shortened the film.
The narration was among the cut material. Kubrick would later play up
the wordless style of the film and not mention the missing narration -
or the book.
Clarke never showed much bitterness over his treatment, likely
because (as usual) he could see farther down the road. For the rest of
the 1900s - which ended with his receipt of a knighthood - and a bit
into the 2000s, he would be Mr. 2001.