We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. (Stanislaw Lem, Solaris)
2001 is Kubrick’s only post-Killer’s Kiss work that isn’t an adaptation, although there exists a novel of it that isn’t a novelization. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke developed a screenplay together, with Kubrick making a film from it and Clarke writing a novel. Clarke’s The Lost Worlds of 2001, published as a paperback in 1972, includes some details about the process of making the film, but it’s mostly alternate versions and drafts of the story that didn’t make it into either film or novel. It’s the print version of a bonus DVD, or (to use an excellent metaphor from The Narrator), the Zooropa to 2001’s Achtung Baby.
Included here is one of the five stories that Kubrick optioned for the movie, “The Sentinel,” and it’s the closest thing to an origin point for 2001. Written in 1948 for a contest (it didn’t win, and Clarke sez “I’d like to know what did win”), it has that aw-shucks optimism common to mid-century science fiction (what William Gibson called “The Gernsback Continuum”), the sense that the future was going to be a fun place to explore and the behavior of people, charmingly, wouldn’t be any different. (“As I stood by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for my sausages to brown. . .”) In the story, a lunar explorer and his team find a black pyramid on the moon, and conclude it was placed there by an alien civilization four million years ago, with the intent of signaling to them when an Earth species had developed sufficiently to achieve space travel:
Perhaps you understand now why that crystal pyramid was set upon the Moon instead of on the Earth. Its builders were not concerned with races still struggling up from savagery. They would only be interested in our civilization if we proved our fitness to survive–by crossing space and so escaping from the Earth, our cradle.
It’s the origin point of the monolith, as well as the suggestion of mystery and scale, and technological achievement as the determining quality of civilization, that Kubrick and Clarke would develop in the film and the novel.
The details of the production, in the form of diary entries and chapter introductions, occupy no more than 20% of the book, and they’re entertaining as all fuck. They reveal the process Clarke and Kubrick went through to get to the story, proposing ideas, working them out, and throwing them away. He started 2001 with a phone call to Clarke saying he wanted to make “the proverbial good science-fiction movie”; they went through Clarke’s stories and chose “The Sentinel” and five others as possible sources. The overall story changed to the point of unrecognizability; originally, finding the pyramid was to be the end of the film. The working title for this version was How the Solar System Was Won.
As a document, The Lost Worlds of 2001 continues to demolish the conception of Kubrick as a perfectionist and continues to show the importance of collaboration in his work. Like most artists, he had ideas and flashes of inspiration as he did the work, some stupid, some brilliant (this is from a note Kubrick wrote to Clarke on the manuscript for the novel):
I think that one day the cube should disappear and that Moon-Watcher and his boys passing a large elephant’s skeleton which they have seen many times before on the way to forage are suddenly drawn to these bones and begin moving them and swinging them, and that this whole scene is given some magical enchantment both in the writing and then ultimately in the filming, and that from this scene they approach the grazing animals which they usually share fodder with and kill one, etc.
Lost Worlds also reveals that he was a huge, huge nerd (this is a set of Clarke’s diary entries):
July 9 . Spent much of afternoon teaching Stanley how to use a slide rule–he’s fascinated.
July 11. Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor’s Theory of Transfinite Groups. Stanley tries to refute the “part equals the whole” paradox by arguing that a perfect square is not necessarily identical with the integer of the same value. I decide that he is a latent mathematical genius.
July 12. Now we have everything–except the plot.
and that he could be an asshole, too, screwing Clarke out of publishing the book until the film was done.
The overall trend of the revisions was a process of purification. Part of that was the necessary work to make a movie; the alien artifact went from a tetrahedron to a cube to a transparent slab (this was made but it didn’t photograph well) to the black slab in the film. There’s also the sense, though, that Kubrick wanted to remove everything except the most fundamental beats of the story, and maybe even more than that. That’s a process, not something that can be seen at the beginning and then executed; it took many drafts before they realized David Bowman had to travel to meet the monolith alone. If Kubrick’s later films, especially 2001, feel so philosophical, that could be because making them followed the process of a Platonic dialectic, removing everything except the essential Forms. The stories in Lost Worlds have the rough structure of the film–alien beings kickstart humanity, artifact launches signal into space, Discovery goes to investigate, journey to meet the aliens–although they’re far more detailed and expository. Also, interestingly, that first part was originally conceived as a flashback near the end of the story.
Clarke doesn’t exactly build a world (or worlds) here; he elaborates pieces of worlds in great detail. Everything Clarke writes gives the sense that even if he doesn’t explain how things work, he could. There are exacting descriptions of aliens and alien planets, of spacepods and the behavior of computers and robots; there’s a wonderful little subplot that has the feel of both Clarke and Kubrick about bonus pay. (It survives as a single line in the movie.) In a deeply science-fictional touch, one thread of The Lost Worlds of 2001 has the original alien who came to earth be the same one who meets the astronauts at the end, “although not a single atom remained” of the original version. It’s nicely foreshadowed by a moment on Earth where Heywood Floyd (a senator in this version) asks about the possibility of million-year-old consciousnesses.
Clarke, in all his writing, aimed at something a lot more scientific than Kubrick ever did. As a film, 2001 is mythic, allusive; it creates a story that encompasses the journey of humanity, from its beginning to the next step. It doesn’t fill in the details, though, covering the entire growth of the species from using a bone as a weapon to space travel in a single cut. Clarke does it in a chapter in the novel, which Kubrick called “pedantic [and] undramatic.” Clarke was necessary, though, for 2001. By his nature, Kubrick needed to know how things work (one of his questions to Clarke was “do astronauts sleep in their pajamas?”); I think even if he didn’t show a process or a thing, Kubrick needed to know that they were there. Clarke was exactly the writer for this job, technically proficient and a compulsive explainer. That’s why that no matter how far Kubrick stripped down 2001, it always feels at least real.
Science doesn’t do myth anymore; more broadly, science doesn’t do meaning. Since approximately Galileo, science has been about practice. If “technology” can be defined as the creation and development of tools, science is the technology of the natural world, learning its regularities (theories and laws) so that we can make tools from it. Clarke comes from this tradition, which is why he loves explanation so much. (Among contemporary writers, Neal Stephenson is about three parts Clarke to one part Gibson, with a dash of Douglas Adams.) Many of Clarke’s scenes, including many in Lost Worlds, are of characters explaining things to each other, usually with quotes, sometimes from Clarke himself.
That tendency got a lot worse in the later novels in what, sadly, became the 2001 series. As a novel, 2010: Odyssey Two has some good story beats and occasionally a sense of mystery; it also has at least two chapters that are simply reprinted from 2001 and nothing much in the way of character. Clarke heightens that last problem by spending so much time with those characters. (Peter Hyams’ film was a reasonably good adaptation of a reasonably good book.) As for 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey, they’re cash-grabs, nothing more, with about one story beat each. (“Frank Poole could be recovered, thawed out, and brought back to life” would get shot down by late-period Simpsons writers as too improbable and obviously mercenary.)
As a writer, Clarke wasn’t much of a poet; his strongest effects came from simple language. (His single best sentence may be the ending of the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” and it’s a stage direction.) Clarke’s limitation as a writer was the limitation of science, which aims to make things work, but doesn’t leave much room for speculation and uncertainty. (However, the process of science has a lot of great material and potential for stories, and too few storytellers have exploited that.) That’s what science should do, but it’s not what myth should do. The Lost Worlds of 2001 work, but they don’t live and they don’t inspire the way the film 2001 does; it’s a religious rather than a scientific work. Yet without Clarke to work through these ideas, to work through the details, and create a fundamental story, there is no 2001. He was an essential part of making something so different from his own work.