The Default Setting for Life

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on Sunday in Pittsburgh, at the Carnegie Science Center’s Rangos Giant Cinema, the first time I’d ever visited that theater.  2001 didn’t quite fit the concave screen, causing a dark shadow at the bottom, making the projected image looked as if it had shrunk in the wash.  However, the outstanding digital quality caused me to notice details I hadn’t previously noticed or remembered—e.g., the selections list (apple juice, wine, and so on) for the beverage dispenser aboard the spaceship.

Something I wondered afterwards, as I walked toward the Science Center exit (spoiler alert for a fifty-year-old film): at the end, why didn’t the aliens from the vastly-advanced civilization turn Dave Bowman into a female fetus instead of a male fetus (assuming they’d had some part in his transformation)?  My girlfriend, who had accompanied me to the screening, wondered this too, calling female “the default setting for life”; even aliens advanced enough to design a Louis XIV-style hotel room with a proto-disco-style illuminated floor need females to produce presumably new and improved futuristic humans, though possibly the aliens had some awareness of our planet’s rampant patriarchal mindset and thought us Earthlings would find a male fetus more acceptable in launching our next stage of evolution.

Or maybe the aliens themselves had a patriarchal mindset.

Even creators as intelligent and innovative as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke apparently couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine an escape from mandatory maleness, or how an omniscient, floating female fetus could affect civilization (meaning most artists—actually, most people—cannot escape their eras; the mid-1960s, which had brought us 2001, didn’t have a very prominent feminist movement, plus probably a majority of audience members back then would have found an intersex or transgender plot twist perverse if not disgusting; and as a pre-Stonewall gay man, Clarke would have no doubt known about Western society’s conceptions of “normal” gender-related appearance and behavior).

But would a female fetus make a difference in human development?  The aliens, via the black monolith, had already taught our ancestors how to kill; and according to Kubrick and Clarke, cultures (including extraterrestrial ones) conceal their brutal, violent, hardwired urges beneath a veneer of sophistication, of scientific advancement, and of Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Rooms.  The Twenty-first Century, in case you haven’t noticed, has rooms that epitomize supercharged human development.

Copyright © 2018 by David V. Matthews

Updated September 16. 2018


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