I remember the first time I realized that the future was not going to be even remotely like it appeared in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I was 18, living on my own, and taking classes at The University of Iowa. I watched my VHS tape (letterbox) on the couch one evening, and realized that the fictional year of the future Kubrick portrayed was only a few years away, but even then, there would be no Pan-Am Orion space transport (Pan-Am was defunct). There would be no brightly uplit, Howard Johnson’s festooned Space Station One (NASA and the Russians could barely assemble a few tiny modules in orbit). There would be no Clavius bases or moonbuses or banal administrative talk while eating perfectly square seaweed-based “ham” sandwiches en route to a lunar archaeological site. And, the reason that none of this would happen was not because it couldn’t – not that we weren’t technologically capable as a global civilization of doing these things. It’s that we wouldn’t. The future had forked at some point in the early 70s, and everything had changed out from underneath the possibility of that future.
I had discovered Kubrick’s masterpiece on a laserdisc at the Iowa City Public Library when I was 12. I watched the entire thing on a Sunday, with cruddy industrial plastic and metal headphones attached to a 19″ Sony CRT television, flipping sides on the stack of discs one after the other. The thought that this was the future (then, it still was) held me in thrall. That future seemed so clearly realized, so detailed, I felt that I was looking through a window at a reality that could exist, that would exist. My observational skills failed to note the presence of details in my own reality that were much to the contrary of the details in Kubrick’s diorama future.
The Internet should have been my first clue that things were not the same. Although DARPA and the beginnings of the global network were being created at the time Arthur C. Clarke wrote his book and he and Kubrick were working on the screenplay, neither of them, for all of their prescient inventiveness (there are iPads in the movie!), foresaw that hyper-connectedness would be the dominant paradigm of the future, not sterile disconnectedness, space-based bureaucracies and the cold war.
The leisure suits should have been my second clue. In hindsight, watching a show like “Mad Men,” the style, the attitudes, the smoking and drinking, the dominance of old boys’ clubs, the pink cashmere stewardess hats and all the other cultural accoutrements of the 60s completely saturate the visual style of “2001.” It is the past, set in the future. Looking at the awkward conversation between Dr. Andrei Smyslov, Dr. Floyd, and “Elena” (the future is so sexist, even though she probably has a Ph.D., she’s still only credited as “Elena”) in the lobby of the Space Hilton, you are struck by the character of the setting, the clothes, the drinks, and the non-character of the characters. These people are sitting casually on incredibly stylish and expensive red “Djinn” chairs, set against the striking white uplit floors, huge curved windows looking out at the blackness of space and the blue gem of the Earth, and ignoring it all. They are having a stilted and perfunctory conversation that would be just as appropriate were it to take place between Roger Sterling, Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Just replace “calibrating the new telescope at Tchalinko” with “convincing Conrad Hilton to buy a new spread in Life” and you’ve got it.
What’s fascinating about seeing a fictionalized account of a past I never experienced in “Mad Men,” but is so accurate that my dad can’t watch it because it’s so eerily familiar to his Manhattan upbringing, is that the characters can be, and strive to be, just as cardboard cut-out-y as the human characters in “2001.” But Matthew Weiner and the other writers won’t let that veneer hold. They puncture it, rip it apart, and show the seething humanity that struggles with its emotions and fights off the trauma of rapid cultural change, wars, technology and the artifice of civilization. They won’t let the self-defense mechanism of formality survive more than 5 minutes into any script. Kubrick, on the other hand, took the opportunity to criticize the fakery and superficiality of 60s culture by developing in the computer, HAL, the only fully realized human character, and contrasting that with the astronauts, who have the kind of personality that Don Draper wishes he could have.
When I was 18, I was so detached from the world around me – my social life consisted of sending text messages to my roommate via the ytalk daemon on our duct-tape and coathanger computer network in our condo, going to James Bond movies with my grand total of two friends after smoking up in the parking lot, and never, ever getting anywhere near a party or alcohol. The prospect of a clean, stylish, sterile and inhuman future (complete with a computer that I could relate to) appealed to a kid who had been on prozac for 10 years. Now, years, many friendships, and many social awkwardnesses overcome in my past, and not only do I realize that Kubrick and Clarke’s future will never happen, I’m glad for it.