2001: A Space Odyssey – That Act Most Of Us Forget About

I just returned from an outdoor screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with live orchestral accompaniment).  While it wildly overpredicted the future, (by now we would have sent at least two human missions to Jupiter), I was struck this time by the second act of the film.  You might not remember it, as it doesn’t involve the HAL 9000 computer or the proto-humanoids encountering the monolith.

In this future, both the Soviet Union (the film was released in 1968) and the United States have moon bases, and while their country’s space scientists are quite collegial, there’s a current of distrust augmented by a lack of communication.  (There’s also a very healthy commercial sector, including hotels.)  The United States has concocted a cover story (an epidemic outbreak on its moon base) to hide the discovery of a monolith in a moon crater, and the secrecy surrounding the discovery extends deep and long. It’s what bridges this part of the film with the mission to Jupiter that most of us remember.

That mission was intended to investigate the receiving end of a transmission sent by the monolith on the moon.  According to a recorded briefing played once the Discovery arrived near Jupiter, the purpose of the mission was held from all the human members of the crew.  To further compartmentalize the discovery, the three crewmembers of Discovery One seen their hibernation chambers were brought on board that way and trained separately from Dave Bowman and Frank Poole.  (Presumably the crew in hibernation either knew the purpose of the mission, or the purpose could have been inferred by the five crew members sharing information during the 18 months it took to arrive at Jupiter.)

HAL seems to have trouble withholding information from the crew.  While this is only confirmed in the book (written concurrently with the film’s production), HAL’s motivation for eliminating the crew was to reconcile his programming instructions to report everything with total accuracy with his orders to conceal the purpose of the mission.

Certain there are challenges of logic, as there often are where science fiction deals with computers (certain Star Trek episodes count on them).  But inferring a point about the consequences of government secrecy doesn’t have to be one of them.

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