The newspapers of Utopia would be terribly dull

I’m reading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke for the first time ever, after an interview with Christopher Nolan about his 70mm restoration of the movie adaptation piqued my interest in the book. I had always put off reading 2001 because I felt I already knew the story. Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece had left such a strong impression on me that I felt I already knew what would await me in the book.

I’d only seen the movie on television, and, despite having viewed it multiple times, I never really had any idea what was happening. There’s a mysterious monolith that emits aural messages to humanoid creatures; there’s a paranoid and murderous computer; there’s a trippy sequence in the third act, with visions of old age and rebirth. Despite the seeming randomness of it all, I remembered the atmosphere, especially the haunting sequence in the white room near the end. And it wasn’t just the visual atmosphere. The sound design of that movie has permanently changed me. I’ll never forget the aural assault of the monolith sequences or the clever use of The Blue Danube in the deep space sequences. It was also so slow to my young, impatient mind, which had been nurtured on pulp fiction, which had clear stakes and black & white characters. Yet, I never forgot it.

The reason I’m bringing the movie up is because while I’m reading the book, I’m realizing how simple the underlying concept really is. Arthur C. Clarke is a wonderful, clear-minded writer, and he poses the question: what if, at critical moments in our evolution, we were nudged by an intelligence greater than our own to make technological and philosophical breakthroughs? That’s all you really need to know to understand the movie. The book itself has surprising details that still feel relevant all these years later – like the Newspad device one of the main characters uses. Without context, one could easily imagine its description being mistaken for an iPad.

When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers […] Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him […] when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort.

I also loved this bit here, when our main character reflects on some news he’s reading from back home on Earth.

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials – these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.

Things haven’t changed much in fifty years. And I suspect they won’t change much in the next fifty years. It’s probably in our nature to crave the peaks and valleys in our emotional lives. I remember reading Nietzsche, who said – over a hundred years ago – something to the effect of, “Displeasure is the price for attaining joy in life.”

Anyway – I’m enjoying 2001 much more than I expected. It feels as fresh as ever to me, half a century since its first printing.

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