Recently, I came across a collection of Arthur Clarke’s own favorite short stories compiled into a volume titled, The Nine Billion Names of God. These intriguing and entertaining tales reminded me that long ago, back in my British Literature days as a sophomore in college, I had read what is today perhaps Clarke’s most well-known tale, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This review is an edited-down version of young Elliot’s report on that book, a report which explores 2001 as “an expanded theory of evolution.”
While Arthur C. Clarke had initially written this story as a screenplay in cooperation with famed filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, Clarke later rewrote the story as a novel. I can recall most vividly the first time I had ever seen Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was very nearly a silent film with a beautiful soundtrack, yet virtually impossible to understand and all but the most boring “classic” on which I’d ever wasted my time. Shortly thereafter, however, I had to select a novel by a British author for class, and—because I longed to understand the tale that had captivated such a large film audience—I chose Clarke’s rewrite. Never before that experience had my eyes been opened so much to the meaning behind a film or book, and I can attest that the second time I watched 2001, it instantly became one of my all-time favorites, not because I agreed with it, but simply because I understood it. It was truly a learning experience for me.
In the novel, Clarke puts forth a theory of evolution unfamiliar to most people, especially me, a lifelong Creationist. Rather than portraying the familiar timeline of evolution from microbe to Ape-Man, Clarke instead portrayed the less familiar (but equally theoretical) process proposed by Friedrick Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s view, the evolution stages proceed after mankind (people like us) known as Lower-Man to Higher-Man, and then to Over-Man. For the sake of plot, Clarke skipped the earliest stages of evolution, but still rewound a couple million years to the Ape-Man stage in order to give proper context for his eventual jump to Over-Man.”
He develops the Ape-Man stage in Chapters 1 through 6 from the viewpoint of Moon-Watcher, a real-life ape-man. When we first meet him, Moon-Watcher’s people are starving due to an ice-age drought that has lasted anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 years. As a result, the otherwise vegetarian apes have been forced to find alternative food sources, depressing nearly everyone. When all hope seems lost, a mysterious black monolith suddenly enters the apes’ community and changes their race forever.
The monolith first attracts the apes with a powerful light-show of many colors. With their attention thus held, it then tests their mind powers by challenging them to perform small tasks, such as throwing stones and clapping. Some apes fail while others succeed. After several nights of these tests, the monolith suddenly disappears, leaving the apes apparently no different than when it had first come. Unbeknownst to them all, however, the monolith had actually left them with a gift, the essential mental characteristics that would eventually separate man from beast. Not long after the monolith’s departure, the apes use their newfound mental acuity to create weapons, and they soon discover that they can kill other animals and eat their flesh. This step marks the beginning of their slow but eventual evolution into Lower-Man.
The monolith appears to represent a higher being from a distant place that has arrived to help the slow-moving inhabitants of Planet Earth evolve. While I agree with Clarke’s assessment that “a higher Being” at one time came to assist humanity, I’m glad that the rest of his theory is considered science-fiction. An ulterior—and far more appealing—theory of origins suggests that on the sixth day of Creation, God created man in perfection and in His own image (Genesis 1:26), meaning that from the instant he came into being man has also owned a spirit, intellect, emotions, and a will.
Clarke then develops the Lower-Man stage in Chapters 7 through 28. The year is 2001. Millions of years have passed since Moon-Watcher’s transformation thanks to the monolith. While researching in space, astronauts from earth discover yet again a large, black monolith hidden below the moon’s surface. As they uncover it from the dust, a powerful magnetic pulse shoots from the monolith and out towards Saturn. The astronauts decide to launch a ship, The Discovery, into space in order to find the goal of the monolith’s signal. The Discovery holds but six passengers, four of whom are to remain in hibernation for much of the flight. Frank Poole and David Bowman remain awake and pilot the ship. A seventh member of the flight crew, HAL, never tires nor sleeps, for he is the inboard computer, the brain stem of Discovery. HAL has apparently never made a mistake.
As the flight progresses, however, David and Frank make the startling discovery that HAL has in fact made a mistake, regarding their radio directional unit. While considering the option to shut him down in order to fix him, HAL recognizes their plan and, fearing death, kills Frank and the four hibernating pilots. While HAL seeks to murder David as well, David luckily finds his way into HAL’s nervous system and unplugs his memory. David is then left in charge of almost all the plane’s controls, alone and near the end of the solar system “twenty thousand light years from earth.” (218)
HAL appears to represent an imperfect “God” in this portion of the book. Man, who apparently created “God” in the first place, now has the courage and self-sense to kill “Him.” Of course, this is Nietzsche’s most well-known teaching: “God is dead,” a concept which clearly progresses the story’s evolution of man into what is known as Higher Man. Incidentally, it takes one no longer than a single chapter in the Bible to learn that God suggests otherwise: eternal God created man, and (not surprisingly) God cannot die.
Clarke next develops the Higher-Man stage in Chapters 29 through 44. With David Bowman now flying Discovery past Jupiter and Saturn by himself, he has no idea what awaits him. Believing, albeit falsely, that a cold and lonely death is all he can anticipate, he flies past one of Saturn’s nine moons and sees to his utter amazement yet another black monolith upon that moon’s surface. Hundreds of times larger than that on earth’s moon, this monolith turns out to be a wormhole which sucks The Discovery in as David attempts to land atop it.
Once through the wormhole, David wakes to find himself in an extremely odd place, out of his ship and in an apartment no different than those on earth. As it turns out, the higher beings who control the monolith are only making David comfortable before they burn images into his brain that change him and mankind forever. David watches himself grow older and then die physically, though at death his mind is transported to the body of a baby floating in space: the universe’s first Over-Man.
This entire section feels twisted—and the film expertly carries over that same sensation—a view of what man could do without God. The philosophies supporting the book are even more so: our enemies, both God and conscience, prohibit us from reaching our true potential as humans, and to murder both would open up new vistas in our evolution. While it’s obvious that this world is filled with God-haters (a.k.a. “fools,” Psalm 14:1; 53:1), it’s hard to imagine that many would buy into the philosophy that even conscience must die! How could anarchy—the denial of right and wrong—ever improve a people? How could the loss of purpose help us improve?
Clarke finally develops the Over-Man stage in Chapters 45 through 47. As the baby (the Lower-Man/Higher-Man formerly known as David Bowman) floats in space, he begins to realize his full potential. He recognizes that he alone is eternal and omnipotent (Isaiah 57:15). Three-dimensional space no longer binds him, so he moves with impossible speed back to earth. He sees humanity slowly dying and soon to be wiped out, so he turns his back on them (as we all once did to our own primordial soup, apparently) and decides to investigate the rest of the universe. He is Over-Man, and in a very real sense he is “over man” as well. “Though he [is] master of the world, he [is] not quite sure what to do next. But he [will] think of something” (222).
This final sentence of the book, suggests that the Over-Man (perhaps like the true, omnipotent, eternal God) uses the universe as a playground, not really inclined to care about such small things as the deaths of humans on earth. As the Master of Fate, he treats it all like a game: hit or miss, at least he’s not bored.
Though post-dating it, the book 2001: A Space Odyssey made the movie. I recommend, however, that you not go into either thinking you’ll that learn anything other than one of man’s prime theories that explains away God. In response, thank God! He does care about the little things (Matthew 10:29,30). He does not treat His power as a game. The Most High performs his actions justly and righteously (Psalm 119:137). The Creator loves His creation, and He loves me (Psalm 91:14). His Word is true (Psalm 119:43) and my future is in His hands (Jeremiah 1:5). Praise God, we’ve got more hope in this life and the next than the selfish depression predicted by Friedrick Nietzsche, Stanley Kubrick, or Arthur C. Clarke.