Fortean Times, April 2006
Are We Alone? The Stanley
Kubrick Extraterrestrial-Intelligence Interviews
Anthony Frewin (ed)
Elliott & Thompson, 2005
Pb, xiv+256, bibl, illos, ISBN 1 904027 45 8, £12.99
In 1965, during pre-production of his legendary movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick commissioned a series of filmed interviews with leading scientists of the day. The idea was that these would be edited into a prologue for the movie, to persuade the film-going public that this was something a little more serious than the typical lowbrow sci-fi flick.
The prologue was, probably thankfully, dropped from the final version of the movie. Extracts from 11 of the interviews appeared in the 1970 cash-in book The Making of Kubrick's 2001, but the full interviews themselves have never been released. And it seems they never will be a search for the original footage with an eye to inclusion on a DVD proved fruitless.
This book is the next best thing, containing lightly edited transcripts of 21 interviews with key thinkers in 1960s-era physics, astronomy, biology, computing science and other fields. Freeman Dyson, Fred Whipple, Bernard Lovell, BF Skinner, Marvin Minsky and Margaret Mead are just a few of the diverse names here.
It's an intriguing glimpse at how these authoritative figures regarded the frontiers of science. Curiously, the fact that much of their speculation is now 40 years out of date makes it seem rather nostalgic many are confident that advanced machine intelligence and routine space travel and colonisation would be a fact of life by 2001. There's also interesting talks with Jesuit professor Francis Heyden and Rabbi Norman Lamm which seem less dated, theology having undergone rather less empirical refinement than the physical sciences over the past four decades.
Kubrick's factotum and intellectual executor Anthony Frewin (also a novelist of some ability) has done a serviceable job as editor, adding some useful background material, footnotes (quoting Fort's "I think we're property" at one point), and a sprinkling of photos of Kubrick at work.
Unfortunately, the end result is limited by the quality of the raw material the transcripts were prepared for reference during production rather than as an authoritative record, and were never intended for publication. Words or phrases are often omitted from the transcripts, rendering some passages less than coherent. Kubrick's colleague Roger Caras, who carried out the interviews, was not a particularly insightful or informed interviewer, and the extemporised responses of his interviewees are, naturally enough, often muddled and repetitious.
The book isn't much more than a curiosity, but a welcome one for anyone with an interest in recent scientific history. For a Kubrick fan, it's also interesting to see an emphasis on the evolution of machine intelligence not a subject that played much part in the completed 2001, but which was at the heart of his long-gestating AI.