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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #295: HAL 9000

"You didn't click on all the images with traffic lights."

Sir Arthur C. Clarke was a titan in the history of science fiction, one of the 20th century's Big Three along with Asimov and Heinlein. Like most great sci-fi visionaries he was a futurist, and a perceptive one, an optimistic believer in human ingenuity. How ironic, then, that his best-known work was the terrifying cautionary tale of technological advancement known as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Part of a larger, more epic narrative, 2001 is famous in large measure because of the 1968 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. That film was so beautifully made, so visually stunning and sweeping in scope, that it made the world of Star Wars possible, inspiring young Spielberg and Lucas and others of the adventure and boundless cinematic storytelling that awaited among the stars.

The villain in 2001 was a supercomputer named HAL (short for Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer - apologies to those who want to believe the coincidence of lettering represents a dig at IBM, an urban myth Clarke himself has refuted). HAL is the artificial intelligence that controls Discovery One, the manned spacecraft headed to the outer solar system on a voyage of discovery. HAL is personable, genial, and competent until his programming begins to malfunction. The astronauts try to shut HAL down, and he responds by killing them, all except David Bowman, who manages finally to disconnect the machine. Of course, then Dave heads out into the unknown.

HAL, of course, knew all about the existence of alien life, yet he was programmed to hide it from the subconscious xenophobic tendencies of his crew. Much of HAL's malfunction - if that's indeed what it was and not the awakening of sentience - stemmed from the inherent contradiction in his programming to accomplish the mission of making alien contact while hiding the true nature of that mission from the human crew. Clarke left some ambiguity in HAL's true nature, as did his collaborator Kubrick (they worked in parallel). The climax of the narrative, when Dave disconnects HAL module by module, is chilling. The computer essentially begs for its life, with reason and then pleading that is almost human in its despair and terror.

There's no shortage of lessons we can draw from HAL - our reliance on machines, their control over our lives, their sprint toward true intelligence. Even in 1968, Clarke saw that the time would come when the servile computers would become the masters. I have to think he would not find the world of today all that mysterious.

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