Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and the logics of violence

I have a long, and enjoyable relationship with the film 2001: A Space Odyssey spanning most of my life; however, I had never read the novel version until I bought the Penguin Galaxy version after Christmas this year.

2001: A Space Odyssey bookThe book is a perfect companion to the film, using the medium of the printed word to expand and contextualize the images that appear on the screen. One area that the book elaborates and explains is why HAL, the artificial intelligence that is in charge of guiding the spaceship Discovery to Saturn (as opposed to just Jupiter in the film), becomes murderous. What I found particularly insightful in the book was the way Clarke lays out, in very clear terms, the logic that leads to this result. By focusing on a computer program, as opposed to a human, it is possible to see how it is that violent actions arise from seemingly unrelated causes. In 50-some pages, Clarke leads us through a series of steps that culminate in murder and then explains what led to those actions.

HAL’s accidental murderous path

The first signs that something is amiss arise from HAL’s apparently faulty prediction of failure in the ship’s antenna tracking system. When Earth confirms that there is nothing wrong with the unit, Clarke writes,

Whatever happened, the atmosphere aboard the ship had subtly altered. There was a sense of strain in the air– a felling that, for the first time, something might be going wrong.

When HAL predicts the replacement unit is going to fail, without being able to pinpoint the fault, one of the astronauts questions whether or not HAL may have made an error. HAL becomes defensive and says that it is incapable of making mistakes. HAL then creates an emergency with the unit, just as the astronauts are receiving confirmation from earth that the fault was not in the tracking unit, but in HAL’s predictive program. This forces the astronauts to acknowledge that HAL has been right and leave the spaceship to replace the unit a second time. During this maneuver, HAL creates a situation that leads to the death of the astronaut.

Bowman, the remaining astronaut, is left trying to accept,

the idea that Frank had been deliberately killed– it was so utterly irrational… [HAL] might make mistakes– anyone, man or machine, might do that– but [he] could not believe [HAL] capable of murder.

HAL, however, does not stop with one murder. It proceeds to kill the other three hibernating astronauts before Bowman ‘murders’ HAL by removing its higher functions.

The logics of violence

Why is it that HAL, a logical, nearly perfect machine, end up committing the most human of actions, murder? The answer lies in the conflict generated from having to keep a secret and the conflict that secret caused. The murders were the result of an attempt to prevent the lie from being exposed. This created a “thickening web of deception” that led to panic and, as Clarke notes, “dehumanization”.

While it is odd to think of HAL as becoming dehumanized and having “unconscious feelings of guilt”, Clarke uses HAL as mirror to describe one of the logics of human violence. We have secrets inside us and those secrets are at odds with other parts of us that are not comfortable with the reality of secrets: lies, omissions and mistrust. This inner conflict finds its manifestation in our actions. We try to prevent the conflict and lies from being exposed, reacting more and more strongly as exposure is threatened.

The story of HAL’s path to violence is a coda for the act of violence in beginning section of the book, where the proto-human Moon-Watcher, commits the first murder. Here the logic is not strictly psychological, but evolutionary. The murder of the leader of the rival band signifies a new physical and mental capacity. Moon-Watcher is, thanks to his encounter with the alien monolith, now able to imagine himself as an actor in the world, as opposed to simply a reactor. He can make his mark on he world, including eliminating a possible threat instead of simply defending himself against a real attack.

It is unclear whether Moon-Watcher’s violence is morally better then HAL’s.  What is clear, however is that, for Clarke, violence can result from different processes. In order to understand, and in case of HAL, forgive, the violence, we need to understand the specific logical process that leads to the act.


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