active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

A bone in the sky

It may be the most famous jump in cinema history, but the transition from a bone thrown into the sky by our ape ancestor to a nuclear weapon in Earth orbit in 2001: A Space Odyssey grates, every time I see it. The match cut simply doesn’t match.


Why? The bone was rotating. It would have been simplicity itself to snip the celluloid a second or so earlier, and get a perfect and seamless edit.

You have to wonder if Stanley Kubrick was really the technical control freak we all assume him to have been. If Roger Waters made movies, he would have got it perfect.

The Kubrick who seemed content to leave the letterboxing of The Shining to the projectionist (leading to generations of misguided fanboys convinced Kubrick filmed it in widescreen) may well have shrugged his shoulders at such petty fixations as this. Besides, that match cut would have been the logical place for the first reel change, putting control outside of the director altogether.

But it could have been so much better. In that instant progression from weapon-wielding proto-human to nukes in space, 2001 would have given audiences a frisson, a mere frisson, of cognitive dissonance.

Is that really a bone in space? A vast animal thigh bone, flung out from our planetary abattoir as a galactic ambassador of our essential human nature? It screams: “Look what we killed to get here!”

Science, as we know, stands on the shoulders of a hell of a lot of human and animal suffering. The cosmic gift to our placid, scavenger proto-humans – the spark that makes all that unseen progress between the two frames of film possible – is rabid, ferocious aggression toward the other things that populate our world, and toward each other. At the end of which our seething cesspool of DNA gets spat across space in a giant sperm to impregnate the galaxy.

It’s a repellant view of mankind. It takes fury to make it to the gods, according to 2001. Divinity is possible, if you bash in enough skulls.

My novel Residuum proposes an alternative view: a mankind without gods to guide him or any possibility of salvation to redeem him, left to claw his own way through the mire. Mankind, it claims, can get used to anything. No matter how awful. No matter how debilitating or degrading.

The divergent event, the moment when the two universes head off on their separate paths, is the loss of Saturn’s rings. Which didn’t happen in 2001, except as a production necessity (Douglas Trumbull couldn’t animate them).

To me, Saturn’s rings are not only the most breathtakingly beautiful thing in the universe. They’re a direct refutation of our human-centric religious beliefs. That god himself didn’t make them for us is self-evident. It took a telescope to reveal those rings: they weren’t meant for human eyes.

Indeed, if there’s a point at which science overtook religion to be the wellspring of human wonder, it’s the moment in 1655 when Christiaan Huygens recognized the blurry ear-shaped blobs for what they were.

Today, we take them for granted. But if they didn’t exist, the concept of planetary rings – even the mere concept of them – would lie far beyond the imaginations of any of our human thinkers, even our most visionary. I would defy any speculative writer, artist or film maker to have suggested such a thing. This is the cosmos on a scale far beyond our own abilities. And it begs the question: what else can’t we conceive of? What other marvels?

It is with this in mind that the destruction of the rings becomes such a decisive moment in human history, according to the universe of Residuum.

In my heart, I know full well we’ll eventually wreck those rings. We’ll start driving probes through them, leaving streaks and gaps. We’ll graffiti them with corporate slogans, carving Coca-Cola and Nike logos in blackness many times the size of the Earth. We may even upset their equilibrium, and watch them unravel into ugly shreds of dust and debris. Robust they may be – survivor, undoubtedly, of countless comet and meteor passes – but we’ll find a way to destroy them.

And when they’re gone? Imagine Saturn denuded of its rings. What you’re left with is the least interesting object in the solar system. A near featureless ball of bland beige gas. Satellites aside, even Uranus and Neptune are more inspiring.

What you’d have is a thing the color of bone, left hanging in the sky.

In Residuum, it is suggested that aliens destroy the rings as a means of claiming the solar system as their territory. But you can bet your life that a species born of the need to throw bones in the sky will figure out a way to immortalize itself with one, right there in space. It’s in our nature.

And you can also be sure that, on millions of yards and back lawns, the amateur telescopes will all stop pointing at Saturn, and a little more joy will be snuffed out of the human spirit.


Residuum is available to buy at Amazon.


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