Kubrick and the Mariners

14 Dec

Simon Ings writes:

Fifty years ago, on December 14 1962, Mariner 2, NASA’s first successful unmanned planetary probe, flew by Venus. 

The thick, featureless clouds of of our solar system’s only other blue planet had, for generations of observers, carried the veiled promise of extraterrestrial life. I remember inheriting from my elder brother a children’s guide to space, written just before the Mariner launch. I remember the artist’s impression of Venusian seas, and Venusian fish.

Mariner 2 did not catch any fish. The Venus it discovered was, in truth, a kind of Hell, with an atmosphere so thick and heavy it would spread a hapless human visitor like jam over rocks five times as hot as boiling water.  

Some years later, between July 14 and July 15 1965, Mariner 4 flew by Mars. No one expected to see gondoliers plying the planet’s canals. At the same time, few expected to see a terrain so cratered, so moonlike, so obviously inimical to life. We still claim – with a sort of inverted optimism – that Mars is a ‘dead’ planet. In all honesty, it has almost certainly never been alive.

I am old enough to remember my mum waking me up and carrying me through to the living room to see Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Even then, thanks to Mariners 2 and 4, the dream was already dying. For three hundred years, from the Scientific Revolution on, philosophers had been musing comfortably on the likely profusion and form of extraterrestrial life. The inter-war generation dreamt of one day exploring a living cosmos. It was left to the Apollo generation to measure the weight in disappointment of our patently empty sky.

If They are out there, why aren’t They here yet?


Stanley Kubrick, while making 2001: A Space Odyssey, took the business of an apparently lifeless cosmos seriously. He sent his assistant Tony Frewin off with a movie camera to interview 21 scientists and philosophers about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. At one stage, extracts from these interviews were supposed to preface the film. In the end, Kubrick let the film distil its own answer. We have too limited an idea of what life is. We have virtually no idea of what life might become. Technology is so powerfully transformative, we may simply not be able to detect all the traffic whirling above our heads – unless, that is, it comes crashing in upon us in the form of an oversize John Player Special cigarette packet. 

Kubrick’s 2001 has been hailed as a masterpiece of mysticism. It is the exact opposite: a loud, long, monomaniacal celebration of praxis: the brute human business of learning through doing. By doing, we learn about ourselves, and we learn about the world, and we do both imperfectly. Everything we do goes ever so slightly wrong – because the world is very big, and we are very small. Then again, we will never run out of things to do. 2001 is brutally teleological. Murder and warfare are revealed as key elements of human evolution. Evolution falls away eventually, superseded by other, faster, more flexible forms of human progress – like technology. But technology doesn’t necessarily make us happier, or better, or kinder. It just is. 

2001 is not about mysticism. It is about yearning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: