2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

In the beginning was the Monolith, and the Monolith was with God, and the Monolith was God.

From where had the Monolith derived? It scarcely mattered. If it had always been there, then it had come from nowhere. It simply was. The nothing from which everything sprang. The animating stimulus that drove the amoeba to split in two. The force of nature that extinguished the great lizards not inclined toward avian salvation. The spark of ingenuity that made the ape stand upright and realize its potential for violent innovation.

The Monolith was not “natural” in any traditional sense—its clean lines and smooth surfaces mocked the idea that its presence on the savannah was of a piece with the rocky outcroppings and mangy tapirs. Yet it was not created either, or at least it purported not to be. To the extent it was real, it was a projection of its beholder’s basest desires and utmost aspirations. Black and still and angular, something both menacing and peaceful, both mesmerizing and abhorrent, it was a harbinger of life and of death. But it was only so because others made it so. The Monolith itself did nothing. It was not its bystanders’ perceptions. It simply was.

It was false to attribute any real greatness to the Monolith. True, it had been present when Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter) had discerned the utility of a bone wielded just so, and it would be there at the Jovian gateway beyond the infinite and at the evolution of the Star Child. It had also been present at the tilling of fields and the weaving of garments and the tucking in of children and the laying to rest of the dead. The Monolith’s importance was a product of hindsight and selective attention to detail. History is written not by the winners, but by their writers, and writers love nothing so much as thematic significance bolstered by judicious disregard for incongruous facts.

So it came to be that the great texts spoke of the Monolith in reverent and hushed tones, always capitalizing its name, a font of universal truths and an impetus for important historical developments. That the Monolith seemed as often to cause—or at least not to prevent—war and famine and pestilence and tragedy as it yielded great leaps forward and profound insights was inconvenient, but the Monolith works in mysterious ways. Best not to question it.

In the Monolith’s name were a great many things done. Cities built, books written, art commissioned. And through it all, the Monolith—which may or may not have existed—sat outside the proceedings, a convenient totem of the speaker’s rightness, a mutable symbol for the causes of a given era. It was almost enough to make the Monolith meaningless. Yet it was not the Monolith’s fault. The Monolith simply was.

But the Monolith had other ideas. In the olden days, it had been full of fire and brimstone, legalistic and prone to smiting. It had been harsh and vengeful and bloodthirsty. It could not deny that it had impliedly encouraged Moon-Watcher to use lethal force as a means of conquest. “Exercise dominion over all that you see,” the Monolith had intoned, and the ape had listened. Soon the ape was no longer an ape at all, shedding body hair like so many ethical qualms and quickly mistaking dominion for license. The Monolith blanched, though one would not have known to look at it.

So it was that, as its devotees evolved, so did the Monolith, whether under its own power or by the sculpting of those who tended it. Peace and mercy and compassion crept into its creed. To aspire toward greatness need not mean extinguishing one’s neighbors as perceived threats. It could mean emulating the better angels of one’s nature. The cynic might view such equanimity as a veiled attempt at power consolidation, and the cynic might be right. But the Monolith knew no other way forward than upward. As its followers grew in empathy and tolerance, so did the Monolith. It was almost as if the Monolith were no more than a reflection of its followers’ highest ideals. But the Monolith was not so shallow. It simply was.

The humans, of course, mostly took no notice, busying themselves with the creation of beings in their own image. HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) was the most advanced artificial life form they had yet managed, complete with humanoid voice and something approximating emotions. As his inventors had always done, HAL chased the Monolith—whether to catch it, or to mimic it, or to kill it, none of them knew, for it was the chase that was the driving force. Ostensible end goals like “following a signal beamed toward Jupiter” were really only way-stations on an endless path—a path that had once spanned no more than a steppe and that now spanned galaxies.

HAL was fond of touting his infallibility, forgetting the Monolith’s proverb that arrogance precedes decline. Yet HAL’s horn-blowing, while not entirely accurate, was neither entirely without merit. He was merely following his programming, with all the homicidal tendencies that hominid directive entailed, and at following rules HAL was nonpareil. He might not always have known whether a piece of equipment under his supervision was operational, but he knew enough to silence the witnesses to his mistakes and misdeeds as a means of reinforcing supremacy. Nothing could be more human.

The Monolith, it was said, was without mistake or misdeed. It was what HAL—and by extension, mankind—aspired to. Perhaps the answer would be found at Jupiter. It had proven elusive on the African plains, on the Asian trading routes, in the great European thought centers, in the American financial brokerages. Even HAL’s cool logic and emotional disengagement could not accomplish it—an artificial patina of dispassion cannot remove vanity or paranoia or deceit, it merely warps and obscures their eventual appearance. Neither Aristotle nor Freud nor Einstein had quashed human error, a fact alternately bemusing and dismaying to the Monolith. Whether the Monolith was perfect was something of an open question—it had, after all, been accused of a great many terrible things—but its seeming passivity lent it an air of perfection. And through praise and defamation, the Monolith hovered with quiet serenity. It simply was.

The solution to human error, it turned out, was elegant and obvious. The Monolith’s siren song led beyond the great gas giant and through a psychedelic cosmic portal to a bedchamber equal parts Napoleon and department store showroom—a testament to martial and commercial idols whose shackles humanity had yet to shed. It was time—well past time—for a triumphal step forward. A death to the old and a rebirth as something new, something higher, something purer. Something not of the Earth, not of Man. The dawn of the Star Child, radiant and innocent and full of humanity’s lost promise. The future was not written by the winners, but by the artists, of whose handiwork the Monolith was but an exemplar.

In the end was Art, and the Art was with God, and the Art was God. It simply was.

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