Friday, October 25, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Lost Worlds of 2001

The back cover of my copy of Arthur C. Clarke's 1972 memoir The Lost Worlds of 2001 contains the following blurb:


Yes sir, this was the late sixties / early seventies, all right.

This book is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the famed 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  A book like that, in itself, wouldn't be so unique, but I don't know if a book like this could be written about any other movie.  It contains some of Clarke's short stories that inspired the plot, entries from his writing journal, a bunch of unused chapters from his 1968 novel of the movie (with very different versions of events), and some interesting personal reminiscences about director Stanley Kubrick.

I hadn't appreciated the true nature of the multi-year back-and-forth creative process that went on between Clarke and Kubrick to make this combined... thing.  (Wikipedia calls it a "science fiction narrative" to convey the intertwined nature of the movie and novel.)  I had it in my mind that Clarke's novel was kind of written "on spec" and Kubrick was calling all the phantasmagorical shots.  In reality, it was a fascinating, tumultuous two-way collaboration.  Early on, they planned essentially for the movie to say "directed by Kubrick and Clarke" and the novel to say "written by Clarke and Kubrick."  (The lawyers didn't let them.)  The initial impetus, though, was Kubrick's.  According to Clarke,
"He [Kubrick] wanted to make a movie about Man's relation to the universe -- something which had never been attempted, still less achieved, in the history of motion pictures. Of course, there had been innumerable 'space' movies, most of them trash. Even the few that had been made with some skill and accuracy had been rather simpleminded, concerned more with the schoolboy excitement of space flight than its profound implications to society, philosophy, and religion."
My own history with 2001 is kind of strange... I read the novel, and did a middle school book report on it in 1978, prior to ever seeing the whole movie.  It was never about the phantasmagoria for me -- the novel explained many things that the movie left ambiguous and trippy.  Even the final "beyond the infinite" part was set in my mind as strange sci-fi, but still solidly in the realm of "this could someday happen."

That brings me to the unused chapters from Clarke's novel, which take up much of the real estate in Lost Worlds.  Like I said, the final version of the 1968 novel explained a lot more than the movie.  These "lost" chapters go even further to reveal much more about the plans and motivations of the aliens that make contact with early hominids, then wait patiently for us to catch up.  We often see events through their eyes.

I've got to say, though, that I was kind of surprised that the unused chapters felt so, well, 1950s-ish.  Is that a word?  Sci-fi readers will get my drift.  The aliens who sent the monolith were humanoid.  The astronauts were all standard issue scientist-heroes, smoking pipes and twirling ladies on the dance floor, prior to setting off in the Discovery.  HAL-9000 was a robot.  It was kind of amazing that Clarke, a leader in the sci-fi community, started out this project with such a hokey take on the material -- especially when so much New Wave experimentation was being done at the time by his colleagues.  It was even more amazing that such a counter-cultural masterpiece of a film eventually came out of it.  (Clarke kind of blamed a lot of the trippiness on the art department!)

Anyway, even though I'm glad that all the extra explanation and tired tropes were eventually pared away, it was fascinating to get such a complete and intimate peek at the origins of this classic story.

Oh, and that 1978 book report?  It was accompanied by a presentation at a school book fair.  Don't believe me, do you...?

Note, both in the poster behind me and on the table in front of me, that we "updated" the Pan Am space clipper from the movie to the real Space Shuttle that was just a couple of years away from its first launch.  No 60s nostalgia there!  :-)

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Pleae go even further beyond the infinite to visit the other blogs participating in this month's Cephalopod Coffeehouse!


  1. I knew Clarke had at least one story he'd done previously that helped inspire 2001. Sounds like there was more than I thought.

    1. I was surprised, too. I had heard for years that "The Sentinel" was the basis for the TMA-1 discovery on the moon. But then there was "Encounter at Dawn," where a humanoid alien (not a monolith) interacts with the ape-men at the dawn of history, and gives them a nudge towards civilization. Clarke also optioned a few other of his stories for the movie, but they didn't use them.

  2. Okay, sorry, but I had a quasi-substantive comment to make on reader expectations on sci-fi tropes but that has *all* gone out the window after viewing 6TH GRADE CYGNUS!!

    What an awesome way to kick off a Friday morning. :)

    1. I wish I had the time to do a proper scan of that old photo, but we don't have a scanner at home, and at work they seem to be replacing the flatbeds with the kind where it runs through a stack of papers like a photocopier. Cellphone pic of a pic had to do.

      I'm still curious to hear about reader expectations once the ROFLing subsides... :-)

    2. I wasn't laughing. That was a very nice picture. :)

      The inchoate thoughts on reader expectations were along the lines of this pressure I sometimes feel to read everything that's come before to avoid employing a shopworn trope out of sheer ignorance. Then, I remember where stories come from in the first place and the worrying over such things more or less ceases. The source of the anxiety is arguably all ego, anyway.

    3. I hear ya. This is even more nerve-wracking in my day job, where the stuff I write is, by definition, meant to be read from the perspective of standing on the shoulders of giants. Or, to mix metaphors, building up a giant Jenga Tower of Ego ever higher... :-)

      One of the reasons I've been enjoying teaching is that it's not at all about that, but instead is more like doing necessary patch work on the lower layers.

  3. Sounds like a great book! I think I've only ever seen 2001 all the way through once: TV rerun on a black and white Zenith in the kitchen of my childhood home. (Someone must have been watching something else on the color set.) True to Kubrick, there are many unforgettable images from that film but I barely understood half of it - too young, perhaps. I should give it another try sometime. Kubrick, though, is a fascinating character in his own right and I'm sure I'd enjoy a behind-the-scenes glimpse such as this.

    1. Black and white certainly doesn't do it justice. This has me thinking about whether 2001 would be one of those movies that looks awesome in high-def, or if the seams would start to show with the effects. (We don't have HDTV, but I've heard that Darth Vader's helmet looks like cardboard...)

    2. The silent half-hour at the end, or however long it is, was definitely a test of my juvenile patience.

      I must have caught it in color at some point because some of the images I have of the film are in color. Perhaps it's just clips I've seen in color, though.

      The music is wonderful, mostly thanks to Messrs. Strauss.

  4. Dear Cygnus,
    being a woman with little affinity to Sci-Fi (that is husband's domaine), I at least saw - and liked - '2001', so I know what you are talking about. Didn't know about the co-worker Clarke.
    Your photo: cute - your note about the law-suing: also cute (I just am back from a class reunion in Bremen - and your fears about that might not belong into the Sci-Fi-department, hahaha :-)

    1. Ha! Yes, you never know. I caught up with that old friend on Facebook a few years ago, but he (wisely!) didn't stay there for very long. I only stay because I limit my time to no more than 5 minutes a day... get in, see what everyone is up to, pop in a comment or two, and get out quickly! :-)

  5. Book sounds really good... I had to catch myself before I went into thinking, wonder if they found out what HAL thought about this or that??...

    This book which is about the making of a book and movie reminds me of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, a movie which is about the making of a movie which is about a book. :)

    1. HAL (robot version) was originally called Socrates... and Clarke claimed that it was a complete coincidence that the next letters in the alphabet after H-A-L are I-B-M.

      I've wanted to see that making-of movie about Apocalypse Now. Did they once show it on PBS? I recall once seeing some very good documentary about it there. I still have yet to see the "Redux" version of the movie with an extra hour of footage.