Apeman, Superman; or,
2001's Answer to the World Riddle

by Leon E. Stover

Copyright ©1968, reprinted in 'The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 2' edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss, by permission of the author.

Nobody who can identify the opening and closing bars of music in 2001 need puzzle long over the film's meaning.

At the start the eye of the camera looks down from barren hills, under the rising sun at dawn, into a still valley below. As the sun mounts, the eye advances into the valley. Zarathustra is come forth out of his cave; hailing the sun - "Thou great star!" - he descends from the hills once more to invest himself in humanity and go man's progress again. Zarathustra's cosmic mission is given out in the great blast of trumpets which pronounces the World Riddle theme (C-G-C) from Thus Spake Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss.

Richard Strauss write of this music that it was his homage to the philosophical genius of Nietzsche:

I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the human race
from its origins, through the various phases of its development,
religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche'sidea of the Superman.

Down there in that awesome valley human destiny is on the starting line with the apemen, members of the genus Australopithecus, discovered for anthropology in South and East Africa. The savannah-land in the opening scenes is authentic East African landscape, which today is exactly as it was when the apemen roamed there during Lower Pleistocene times. The apemen are shown to be peaceful and vegetarian. They spend all day eating and chewing plant foods.

But one morning a great, black monolith appears in the midst of their usual feeding palce. The sheer perfection and improbability of this artifact arouses in the dim chambers of one apeman's preadamite brain some sense of form, and he reaches out to touch - fearfully at first, then with great yearning - the smooth surfaces and smart edges of this magnificently artificial thing. He is inspired to artifice himself. He discovers the principle of the lever, an extension of his arm, in a long bone picked out of a crumbling tapir skeleton. He bashes this club around experimentally in the pile of old bones from which he lifted it out, in a slow motion sequence of his great hairy arm lifting up and crashing down, causing debris to flower outward in floating arcs, intercut with visions of a falling tapir.

This insightful apeman leads his kind to hunting and meat eating. Meat eating takes less time than plant eating, and with it comes the leisure for tool making which in turn leads, eventually, to science and advanced technology. This first triumph of artifice, the hunting club, is underlined by the C-G-C World Riddle theme, climaxing in full orchestra and organ. The weapon is tossed to the air in a fit of religious exaltation the while the apemen dance around the monolith, and...

...In a wipe that takes care of 3 million years of evolutionary history, the bone in its toss is replaced by a spaceship in flight. The camera comes upon a great wheel-shaped orbital station that turns slowly and majestically to the tune of The Blue Danube, which waltzes for man's easy, technological virtuosity. The audience, accordingly, is treated to a long appreciation of the docking manoeuvres, in 3/4 time, of a shuttle craft come up from earth. It single passenger is an American scientist on a secret mission to the crater Clavius on the moon, where mystery awaits.

The space platform is fitted out with Hilton, Pan Am and Bell Telephone services. The audience always ohs and ahs to see these familiar insignia in the world of the future, which goes to confirm what anthropologists have learned from disaster studies, that people really love their culture. It is part of them. People are thrown into a state of shock when floods, tornadoes or other destructive events remove large chunks of their familiar material environment.

The scientist from Earth continues the last leg of his journey in a low-flying moon bus, the while its occupants eat ham and cheese sandwiches. The juxtaposition of the eternally banal picnic lunch with the fantastic lunar landscape zipping by below serves to re- emphasise the confident virtuosity of space technology. But this confidence is shattered by the mystery at Clavius: the monolith again, this time excavated out of lunar soil. While the suited party examines it, a stinging, ringing beam of shrill sound penetrates their helmets. The camera looks up from the very base of the monolith to the sun in a wide angle shot duplicating the one that brough the apemen sequence to a close with the bone club soaring high.

The wipe from the screaming monolith to a ship headed for deep space covers just a decade or so. The energy emitted from the monolith fled toward Jupiter, the ship's destination. A crew of five (three in hibernation) and a talking, thinking H.A.L. 9000 series computer, occupy an enormous, sperm-shaped craft: man seeding the cosmos.

During the outward voyage the two men acting as caretakers on the ship are shown to display flatter personalities than the spirited computer, HAL, which is plugged into everything and runs everything. Man's technology has advanced so far that it is overwhelming. Technology, basically, is an artificial means of extending human organs. Clothes are an extension of the skin, a computer is an extension of the brain, a wheeled vehicle is an extension of the legs, a atelephone is an extension of the ear and mouth, and so on. The more such extensions are elaborated by man, the more they seem toi take on a life of their own and threaten to take over. A simple example of extensions getting out of hand is the urban congestion and air pollution created by the use of the automobile in great numbers. Another is big organization, made possible by electronic extensions of the speech functions, which makes for suffocating dehumanization in the "organization man!" The two men aboard the ship are exactly that. HAL runs the ship and they act like low grade robots, passively eating coloured paste for food that comes out of a machine, passively watching TV broadcasts from Earth, passively receiving birthday greetings from home.

Hal symbolizes that point of no return in the development of technology when man's extensions final;ly atke over. They possess the more life the more man is devitalised by them. It will be suicide for man to continue in his love for his material culture. Dependence on an advanced state of technology makes it impossible to revert to a primitive state of technology. And it is too late to solve the problem with a "technological fix."

HAL reports an imminent malfunction in the directional antenna of the ship. One of the men, Astronaut Frank Poole, leaves the ship in a space pod in order to replace the unit. The old unit is brought back, tested, and found to be without defect. The two men worry about HAL's lapse of judgement. HAL insists the unit will fail on schedule. So Poole replaces the unit by way of testing HAL. But HAL tested is HAL irritated. When Poole steps out of the space pod to reinstall the unit, HAL works one of the pod's mechanical arms - a runaway extension of the human arm - to snip off his oxygen line. Poole's partner, Mission Commander David Bowman, goes after the body in another space pod and returns to the ship. But HAL won't obey the command to open the port. The only way into the ship now is through the emergency airlock, providing the entrant is fully suited. Bowman, in his haste to rescue Poole, forgot to bring his helmet into the pod.

Meanwhile, HAL has turned off the life-support systems for the three men in hibernation. The blinking lights which register their deaths say, LIFE PROCESSES TERMINATED, a fitting obituary for technomorphic man.

But at bottom, Bowman is a real hero. He triumphs over the technomorphism that turns men into dull machines. He manipulates the pod's waldo arm to open the airlock on the ship, then aligns the pod's hatch with it. Bowman calculates that if he blows the hatch bolts, the air exploding outward from the pod will blast him into the evacuated airlock; perhaps he can survive half a minute in hard, cold vacuum. In a realistic sequence of human daring and bravery, Bowman is exploded into the ship with a silent frenzy that does not pick up sound until the lock is closed and air pressure is restored.

Bowman's next move is to lobotomize HAL, who pleads sorry for the four murders in a parody of a guilty human trying to get off the hook: "I admit I've made some pretty bad decisions lately." The humour of this line conceals an affirmation of HAL's autonomy. Removal of his higher control centres is a significant act forecasting things to come. It looks forward to the time when mans hall be able to cut himself loose from his extensions altogether. The solution to a runaway technology is not mastery over it but abandonment of it. The liabilities of human dependence on material means are to be left behind in the conquest of some higher form of existence.

The monolith appears outside the cabin windows at this juncture to indicate the direction of that conquest. Bowman follows it in his space pod, but the monolith vanishes in a purple glow. Straining his eyes on the spot he suddenly is led down a rushing corridor of computer-generated effects that represent his translation through a fourth dimensional experience.

During this sensational ride, Bowman is given a god-like vision of whole galaxies in full form, turning wheels of hot gasses and their embedded star clusters. Through this cosmic whirlpool shoots a symbolic representation of the parent ship: a fiery, sperm-shaped comet thing that drives across the screen and into a pulsing, luminous gas cloud. A delicate point of theology is raised here. In that famous novel of theological science-fiction, Perelandra (1944), C.S. Lewis argues that man is evil; space travel will only spread the blight. He is out to rebut the idea that

"...humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomic distances which are God's quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome."

The viewpoint of 2001, however, is that man's seeding of the cosmos is a positive good. For the men who will go out to quicken the universe with the human presence will be supermen, lifted beyond the evil they did on earth as captives of their technology. Man's extensions always carried a built in margin of wickedness, beginning with the apeman's weapon of the hunt that could also be used as a weapon of war. But the supermen will be fully emancipated from material extensions as from the material body that is extended by technology. The universe will be made full with the essential goodness of a disembodied humanity.

The transition for Bowman takes place in a hotel suite, mocked up beyond Jupiter by the kind of super beings he and the rest of mankind are destined to join. There Bowman ages rapidly and takes to bed, living out the childhood of man to the end. When the end comes, the great monolith stands before his bed, that recurrent symbol of the great yearning that prompted the apemen millions of years ago to reach for tool making and that now prompts Bowman to reach out for something beyond artifice. He struggles upward from his sheets, unrecognizable in his stupendous oldness, yet reaching painfully for that ineluctable goal waiting beyond the mysterious form standing before him. He reaches forward to touch it, reaching for rebirth...

Cut to a view of planet Earth as seen from outer space. The camera moves aside from the great green disc in the sky to include another luminous body nearby. It is an enormous transparent globe that contains an alert, watchful embryo of cosmic proportions, looking down on Earth with the eyes of Bowman, as he prepares to liberate all humanity from the disabilities of material existence and promote it to the status he has attained to. This giant embryonic figure is a symbolic show, for the sake of something to visualise on the screen, of Bowman's leadership in attaining to a state of pure, incorporeal intellect.

Such a destiny is predicted not alone by science fiction writers. It is to be found also in The Phenomenon of Man (1959) by the late Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic father and anthropologist, who explains that the gathering force of mind that has come to envelope the surface of the planet Earth out of prehuman beginnings must eventuate in a projection into space as a purelys spiritual component that will converge ultimately at the Omega point in one single intellectual entity, the evry stuff of God. But once all the consciousness of the universe has accumulated and merged in the Omega point, God will get lonely in his completeness, and the process of creation must begin again by way of arousing conscious creatures to reach out once more for closure in one collective identity.

2001 comes to an end on a great trumpeting blast of the World Riddle theme, C-G-C, the shimmering globe of Bowman's pure mind stuff staring the audience in the face. Soon the whole population of Earth will join him. But the story of man is not complete with the evolution from apeman to superman. When the curtain closes, the superman is still one step away from evolving into God.

But even then the story is not finished. For the universe is cyclical. God will come down from the hills again. Thus spake Zarathustra:

"Lo! I am weary of my wisdom. I need hands reaching out for it. For that end I must descend to the depth, as thou dost at even, when sinking behind the sea thou givest light to the lower regions, thou resplendent star! Zarathustra will once more become a man."

Now that the theologians tell us that God is dead, it appears that the burden of theology is upon Science Fiction.

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