Issue #324 – The Lost Worlds of 2001

This is something new for me: recommending a book you’ll probably never find. At least, not in print.

2001: A Space Odyssey was a unique collaboration between two greats: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Both the movie and the novel are considered masterpieces of their respective genres. But for fans of either, it’s hard to imagine a more interesting way to appreciate their work than looking at what might have been.

The Lost Worlds of 2001 was put together by Clarke to give people insight not just into his collaboration with Kubrick, but exactly how the novel changed over time. It’s a fascinating look at the creative process, and might even give new perspective into the movie’s mysteries, because even if ideas were thrown away wholesale, there is a certain underlying theme that remains constant, and can be used to aid in your interpretation of the film.

The book starts off with an alternate unpublished opening, one that is naturally just as optimistic about our odds about being permanently on the moon by the turn of the century and even finding basic life on Mars. Heh. He then goes on about how he was contacted by Kubrick in 1964, who wanted to make the proverbial “good science-fiction movie.”

About Kubrick he says, “When I met Stanley Kubrick for the first time…he had already absorbed an immense amount of science fact and science fiction, and was in some danger of believing in flying saucers; I felt I had arrived just in time to save him from this gruesome fate.”

I think this passage perfectly captures the tone you can expect to find in the book, which is both an account of his work on the project and segments of various alternate versions the story would take.  What made this project different was the fact that the novel and screenplay were worked on simultaneously (usually a movie is based on a novel or a novelization is written from the movie).

While ostensibly Kubrick was in charge of the screenplay and Clarke the novel, they both influenced one another greatly, so much so he says about the book “…[the credits] should be ‘by Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick; based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke’—whereas the movie should have the credits reversed.”

The one constant in the developed story was the idea of alien intervention in our evolution, which lead to us where we are today, followed by encountering a sentinel on the moon left behind to act as a signal when we were developed enough to reach the stars, and finally our journey to make contact with those who had guided our progress.

But you’ll be surprised to see just how much variation there was in terms of who those aliens were. There were some false starts (one early idea was that the aliens were robotic and considered organic live to be a hideous disease) but once they settled on the basic “teacher” concept, there was still a lot of work to do.

The seed for the movie/novel would be a short story Clarke wrote called The Sentinel—included in the book—which is essentially the scene where the Monolith is found on the moon.  This pretty much remains the same in all versions of the story.  Where the real differences can be found is in the aliens.

See, in the movie we never see the aliens. The monolith is their emissary and stargate, but it is simply a machine. We cannot know the minds of the aliens, other than the fact that long ago in the past they nudged our ancestors towards intelligence and problem solving. Mind, it would seem, is what they value above all else.

However, it did not start off that way.  In early concepts the aliens were very human-ish and relatable, being part of vast empires who came and taught us in person. Moon-Watcher (first intelligent primate from the movie) is still there, and gets his name because of the aliens watching and studying them.

In successive versions the aliens become more distant and unknowable, until they’re removed entirely and only what they left behind is ever seen.

None of these alternate versions are bad, but they are extremely different from what we expect.  Having the aliens on hand during the opening third, for example, removes a certain sense of wonder and mystery. Their objectives are laid bare. In some ways it’s like we’re looking at what we expect ourselves to become in the distant future, rather than an alien intelligence.

We not only get insight into the concepts behind the aliens, but also that other great mystery of the novel, HAL 9000 (originally a robot named Socrates), where we get to see scenes that never made it to the book or movie exploring the nature of computer intelligence.

The Lost Worlds of 2001 is a must-read for any fan of Clarke or Kubrick. The only downside being that it’s, well, lost.  No longer in print, this is one book you’re going to have to track down in a used bookstore if you want a physical copy.  A digital copy, though?  I might be able to help you with that…

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