The Fear of Loss in Science Fiction: Thematic Analysis of “The Third Expedition” and 2001: A Space Odyssey

What if the future of the human race were determined by a black, rectangular block? Though it may sound strange, that is exactly what happens in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When a monolith is placed on Earth, the line between animal and human becomes blurred. Through the exploration of space and artificial intelligence, the monolith’s effects for the next 4 million years went into new realms of technology and even beyond the universe. Meanwhile, in “The Third Expedition” from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, astronauts encounter a seemingly harmless town on Mars. But evil takes many forms, and these unknowing Earthlings may face them in a way they would never have guessed. Science fiction can cover a plethora of topics, including a wide amount of human fears. The fear of losing the world as we know it is distinctly seen in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, through space travel and encounters with artificial intelligence, as well as the Bradbury story “The Third Expedition”, when astronauts are faced with their worst nightmares in the form of their most loved ones.

As a film released in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey offers a look into the future, and “has something important to say about humankind, and where the human race is heading in terms of our increasing reliance on machines and our unquenchable thirst to discover” (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Because of its use of distinct details, such as those of space travel and talking computer assistants, 2001 is a movie well ahead of its time. A monolith is placed on the earth 4 million years ago, and each time it is found signifies the next time in human evolution. Through the presentation of three chapters over time, the race to the monolith is shown; first between man and animal, then man and machine, and finally beyond the infinite. In the first chapter called “The Dawn of Man”, the monolith is discovered and after touching it, man-apes discover what a weapon is and how to use it; they are no longer apes, they are now man. 4 million years later, the movie transitions to a space station where the monolith is seen for a second time. In “Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later” and finally “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, the monolith continues to be explored with new technologies, such as the talking computer HAL. The film often relies on blank screens, sound effects, and music to convey emotions such as fear, awe, and mystery, rather than use dialogue. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a look into a world where technology – man’s creation – is superior to man itself.

Throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey, the topics of artificial intelligence and space travel are explored. Artificial intelligence is shown through the character of HAL, who controls the voyage to Jupiter. The film was released nearly 50 years ago, but artificial intelligence was in the works even before than that – since the 1950s. Artificial intelligence is “a subfield of computer science that is concerned with the representation, study, and automation of knowledge and intelligent reasoning” (“Artificial Intelligence”) and includes subjects such as speech recognition, robots, and computer vision, along with many other things. It was most likely created at a conference at Dartmouth College in 1956. The four “fathers” of artificial intelligence had attended – Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Herbert Simon, and Allen Newell. Three of them went on to form artificial intelligence labs at universities. These four, along with the other researchers who attended, helped start and make the field of artificial intelligence grow (“Artificial Intelligence”). Alan Turing, a British mathematician, was another researcher who contributed to artificial intelligence. In his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, he created a test which measures the behavior of artificial intelligence. His test consisted of the machine and a human being interrogated separately, through written questions and answers. If the interrogator cannot distinguish between them, then the machine is considered to be intelligent. Although a computer has yet to pass this test, his test has provided some useful insight into what the word “intelligence” means exactly (“Artificial Intelligence”). Lastly, Computer Assisted Instruction, which is “the use of computers and software applications to teach concepts or skills” (Puthawala), is another form of artificial intelligence, and was seen in large companies around the time of the film’s release. The International Business Machines Corporation, also known as IBM, began making instructional computer systems from minicomputers in the 1960s. They were designed for military and universities and were contained in large trailers which could be hauled around as needed. Clearly, artificial intelligence was a prominent topic at the time 2001: A Space Odyssey was released.

The film also discusses space travel, as characters go to places such as the Moon and Jupiter. Beginning in 1959, the Mercury Program began the period of sending people to space through a series of test flights. It was formed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. The program signified the United States’ entry into the battle against the former Soviet Union – the space race. In 1961, the first piloted space flight was made by a Soviet astronaut. President John F. Kennedy then “vowed that not only would the United States match the Soviet accomplishment, but that by the end of the decade the United States would put a man on the Moon” (“Mercury Program”). The Mercury Program quickly began to assemble a space capsule, which could only fit one astronaut at a time. The program began with test flights; then, a chimpanzee was sent and returned unharmed. After this, humans were ready to go into space. The first piloted flight was in May 1961 and flights continued through the program until 1963 (“Mercury Program”). Finally, in 1969, the Apollo 8 reached the Moon and images of Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were sent back to Earth. With the Moon landing, “The dream of the slain President Kennedy is achieved” (Baughman et al.), as the United States had gotten a man onto the Moon before the end of the decade; however Kennedy was not alive to witness it. Overall, space travel was another active topic during the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie which “consists of 3 main parts: pre history, the future and technology, and back to earth” (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). It explores evolution, first with the relationship between man and animal, then later between man and technology. It addresses the fear of losing the world as we know it, with the usage of characterization and shifting points of view. The movie begins with a dark screen and eerie music, filled with highs and lows, setting the tone for the movie. It eventually fades into the sun shining over the Earth, with the Moon in front of it. It then goes into the first section “The Dawn of Man”, which is set 4 million years ago. Again, there is a distinct lack of audio; only the wind is audible. A species which are not quite apes, nor humans, need to survive in the harsh environment. They stumble across a monolith the next day – a sharp rectangular block. At first it is forgotten, but then one ape discovers that it can break bones which can be used hurt others; he has found a new weapon. The ape then goes on to kill another ape, realizing the magnitude of power the bone-club brings. This scene encompasses the fear of losing the world as we know it, as the man-apes discover new ways of life that were not previously there.

As the camera pans up, a man-made satellite in space is shown, showing the evolution of the bone-club. Next, a space station is shown. Dr. Floyd is there for a layover on his way to Clavius (on the Moon). It is interesting to note that, at the time of the movie release, traveling to the Moon was a far-off dream, yet in the movie it is seen as ordinary; even boring and in general, “technology is treated as irrelevant to the quest–literally serving as mere vehicles for the human crew” (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Aboard the station, he is greeted by a computer voice print identification system and later video chats with his daughter, who is on Earth. The use of these technologies show the clear advancements in technology since the last chapter of the movie. He is questioned by a Russian astronaut about the purpose of his trip, but will not reveal any information. This could be conveying the fears seen in the Cold War. Later, aboard the Aries spacecraft on the way to the Moon, it is revealed that the true reason of the mission was to investigate something found by the American scientists. As haunting music plays in the background, the astronauts travel to the Moon. They discover that the item is a monolith which is exactly like the one shown at the beginning of the movie. After an astronaut touches it, a high-pitched noise begins to sound which hurts the astronauts’ ears. The monolith had previously aided the apes into becoming human. This time, it is unsure what the purpose of it was; but no matter what, it is again conveying the fear of losing the world as we know it. This section does not have a separate title, suggesting that everything up until now has been “the dawn of man” and humans are now ready for the next step.

Next is “Jupiter Mission 18 Months Later”. Two men, Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman, are aboard the Discovery One, along with three men in hibernation, and a computer called H.A.L. 9000 who controls everything on the ship. The music gives a feeling of isolation, likely because of the lack of humans onboard – showing how everything has changed since the rediscovery of the monolith. The astronauts barely notice that HAL is a computer; Bowman says “he is just like a sixth member of the crew. You very quickly get adjusted to the idea that he talks and you think of him really just as another person” (2001: A Space Odyssey). A bit later, Poole is playing chess against HAL, but not very well. This scene is the first part where HAL’s point of view is used. HAL points out that a checkmate would be the next move, and Poole resigns. The way HAL predicts what is going to happen shows how technology has advanced even more – he may be even more advanced than man. After all, man would not be able to estimate future actions. This scene also may be an indicator of HAL’s early plans to kill Poole later on. In an interview with HAL, Poole, and Bowman, an interviewer calls HAL “the brain and central nervous system of the ship” (2001: A Space Odyssey), indicating his intelligence and importance to the mission; the crew is extremely dependent on him, especially because no one knows the true purpose of the mission but him. During a discussion with HAL, Bowman finds out that there is a faulty AE-35 unit on the spacecraft, which he replaces immediately. Later on, Bowman becomes a bit suspicious of HAL and privately discusses it with Poole. Although they are sitting in a pod where HAL cannot hear them, he reads their lips and realizes the astronauts may get rid of him. As another scene which uses HAL’s point of view, the audience sees how HAL is most likely plotting to get rid of anyone who stands in his way of achieving the true mission, which no one has any idea about. Poole is then sent to replace the second AE-35 unit but while he is out, HAL controls his pod and he is thrown into space, his air supply gone. Bowman rushes to retrieve his body and while he is out, HAL kills the other three in hibernation. It is clear at this point that HAL has just been gaining the astronauts’ trust but has not been honest the whole time. When Bowman returns, HAL refuses to let him in, and seeing as he forgot his helmet, it is likely he will die. He goes from the outside of the ship and goes to disconnect HAL. As HAL is “dying” he displays anger, fear, and sadness and goes back to his earliest memory – singing a song – until Bowman finally disconnects him. This scene indicates the remarkable parallels between the humans and HAL because of his emotions and memory; it also demonstrates technological advances. The final chapter, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” brings the third appearance of the monolith. The first sparked the use of tools; the second led a mission to Jupiter; and as Bowman touches this one, the human race is led on a new course, across the universe. This one proved that humans could overcome their own creations. Throughout the film, the monolith symbolizes the next step for the human race, and shows the fear of losing the world as we know it with distinct characterization details, such as those of HAL, and shifting points of view.

The fear of losing the world as we know it can come in many forms. In “The Third Expedition”, astronauts are falsely manipulated into a sense of comfort when Martians take the form of their loved ones who have passed on. They use their telepathy to make the Earthlings believe they are back in their childhood homes. When the astronauts land on Mars, they are in disbelief. Then a few warm up to the idea; one even said it filled him “with such feelings that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” (45). It looked like their hometowns – for Hinkston, he saw Iowa, while Black saw Illinois. Bradbury uses setting details to convey the fear of losing the world as we know it; he shows how the Earthlings are slowly being lulled into a false sense of a security, by seeing the scenery and hearing the music they have grown up with.

Even though Black was the most skeptical of the group, even he “felt a great peace come over him … the buzzing of spring bees on the air lulled and quieted him, and the fresh look of things was a balm to the soul” (48). The astronauts eventually run into their loved ones, after Lustig meets his grandparents. While everyone is busy reminiscing, “the rocket lay empty and abandoned” (54). The astronauts have now forgotten their original purpose for coming to Mars and have put all of their trust into these seemingly innocent people. They do not question the logic behind it – even though everyone there is supposed to be dead. Even Black can not help himself when he sees his brother and parents. However, later on as he is lying in bed, he considers that these loved ones are perhaps not who they claim to be. Their weapons of choice weren’t visible, but “telepathy, hypnosis, memory, and imagination” (60). These methods were subtle but clearly effective, as the Earthlings put all of their trust into them unknowingly and were eventually killed. Through the use of characterization, Bradbury shows how Black realizes that he was trapped. He and his fellow astronauts had lost the world as they knew it, in “The Third Expedition”.

As works that resonate with each other, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bradbury’s “The Third Expedition” cover the fear of losing the world as we know it. 2001: A Space Odyssey uses the monolith to symbolize this fear, as it symbolizes the next step for the human race each time it is touched. The film also explores the topics of space travel (through various trips to the Moon and Jupiter) and artificial intelligence (as seen with HAL). “The Third Expedition” shows the fear of losing the world as we know it in an unlikely way – through the ones we trust and love the most. Overall, science fiction in both film and literature have distinct topics and fears which are explored and are influenced by the outside world.

Works Cited

“Artificial Intelligence.” World of Computer Science. N.p.: Gale, 2007. N. pag. Science in Context. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Bradbury, Ray. “The Third Expedition.” The Martian Chronicles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. 41-63. Print.

“Mercury Program.” Astronomy & Space: From the Big Bang to the Big Crunch. N.p.: Gale, 2011. N. pag. Science in Context. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Puthawala, Mary McIver. “Computer Assisted Instruction.” Computer Sciences. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2013. N. pag. Science in Context. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

“Science and Technology: Important Events of the 1960s.” American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, Victor Bondi, Richard Layman, Tandy McConnell, and Vincent Tompkins. Vol. 7: 1960-1969. Detroit: Gale, 2001. N. pag. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. Netflix. Netflix, Inc. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

“2001: A Space Odyssey.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016.

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