The story behind a sci-fi classic, a tech pioneer profiled and an evocation of totalitarian architecture.
The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
By Piers Bizony, £49.99; ISBN 9783836559546
Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was released in 1968 - almost half a century ago now - but still evokes fond memories of just how mind-blowing it was in an era when colour TV had only just arrived in the UK. Many a formative engineer will recall the choc-ice melting into the wrapper as they stared, open-mouthed at the beautiful spaceships (and attractive flight attendants) cavorting in microgravity to the strains of ‘The Blue Danube’. I mean, what was there not to like?
Many great books have celebrated this film over the years, but this one fully does justice to Kubrick’s vision in producing a ‘different’ style of SF film that would be long remembered. What author Piers Bizony refers to as “a three-year labour of love” is a 560-page collection of photographs, diagrams and artwork, including many large-format foldouts, that gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the film.
Younger readers will simply not believe the lengths the production team went to in their quest for realism and believability in those pre-CGI days. A full-size moon bus and other spacecraft were made from timber and plywood, a huge image of the Earth in space (before Apollo 8 provided the real thing) was painted on a rotating disc viewed from the space station’s window and ‘monitors’ were back-projected with 16mm film to make them appear to be working.
But the pièce de résistance must be the 12m-diameter, 27-ton rotating stage, known as the centrifuge, which allowed astronaut Bowman to jog around the inner circumference of the space station. Movies have always been about illusion, but it adds a special nuance when you know that everything you see on film was really there, and that the actors - admittedly with the help of fantastic props - were actually doing it. This book is crammed full of the artistry, ingenuity and engineering skill of filmmakers at a time when computer applications went as far as processing their pay cheques.
What I really like about science fiction is its portrayal of future technologies, and Bizony covers this in his book. The space stations, space planes and moon bases are an obvious constituent, but it’s often the embedded technology that is more interesting. ‘2001’, for instance, has a video phone on the space station which the Floyd character uses to call his daughter, the astronauts read newspapers on what appear to be iPads and of course the computer, HAL, can talk.
It’s also worth mentioning the unusual design of this £50 book, whose tall, slim format resembles ‘the monolith’ from the film. It comes in a slipcase that is so tight that it almost qualifies as an ‘interference fit’: the engineer in me marvelled at the tolerances of this simple piece of folded card! And this is only the trade version; a four-volume collectors’ edition in a metal slipcase, limited to 1500 copies signed by Kubrick’s widow, sold out at $1000 apiece. Who said books are dead?
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
By Ashlee Vance, £20; ISBN 9780753555620
A few years ago, discerning a link between PayPal, electric cars and commercial rocketry would have been difficult. Today, it’s clear to most technophiles that the link is a South Africa-born American entrepreneur called Elon Musk. Business writer Ashlee Vance brings these and other threads together in his engaging biography of a man he calls “the most daring entrepreneur of our time…a modern alloy of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes and Steve Jobs”.
It’s a claim that’s easier to write for a book jacket than to substantiate, but after 50 hours with the man himself and nearly 300 other interviews, Vance is qualified to judge. If nothing else, his story is a fascinating analysis of an immigrant driven by talent and passion to experience, and in many ways regenerate, the ‘American Dream’.
Vance begins with a tour of Musk’s rocket factory in “a bleak part of Los Angeles county” he calls “Musk Land”. He doesn’t quite explain why, but it’s clear that Elon rules in Musk Land and has plenty of followers. Vance puts it down to a “meaningful worldview [that] so many entrepreneurs lack”: “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos”, he explains, Musk aims to “save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation”. His ex-wife, Justine, has a different take: “He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it”.
Following his roots as a geeky schoolboy in the days of apartheid, the story skips ahead to Musk’s first start-up, Zip2 (originally called Global Link Information Network), effectively an Internet-based “searchable directory of businesses” plotted on a map. Then came PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity. Interleaving the technical stuff with Musk’s personal back-story, Vance is far from short of material: Musk has married three times, twice to English actress Talulah Riley (twice divorced); he has five sons by IVF, having lost another to sudden infant death syndrome, and has fended off a life-?threatening case of malaria; his vision is to make mankind a “multi-planet species” and he wants to retire to Mars. If that’s not Hollywood fodder, I don’t know what is.
A colour-photo insert documents Musk from toddler to Talulah, with a number of cars, rockets and space capsules between. The most unusual shot is of Musk in a car in Havana (complete with panama and cigar) with Sean Penn driving; apparently they went there to meet the Castro family and “free an American prisoner”.
You might not appreciate the author’s comparisons with Edison and Ford, but there is no doubt that Musk has a vision of the future that is equally significant. I interviewed Musk myself way back in 2005, when SpaceX was young, and he mentioned the term “multi-?planet species” three times in about five minutes. And despite the impression that much of what he does is about making money, he assured me he’d “never done anything for commercial reasons”. This book helps to explain the complex character of a 44-year-old entrepreneur who may yet live to retire on Mars.
Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings
By Owen Hatherley, £25, ISBN 9781846147685
To me, this fascinating book is, among other things, a bittersweet vicarious journey through my own Soviet past. Having opened it at random, I was confronted with a painfully familiar photographic view of the Derzhprom/Gosprom building in my native city of Kharkiv - one of the first Constructivist ‘skyscrapers’ put together by American builders in the 1920s, when Kharkiv was briefly the capital of Soviet Ukraine.
The university where I studied was next door, and some of the windows faced that low-built ‘skyscraper’, which, in Hatherley’s own words, “doesn’t really pass the test of being visible for miles”, for “it barely surpasses the height of the city’s main Orthodox cathedral”. Bored stiff during some particularly tedious lectures, I would stare for hours at Derzhprom’s peculiar outlines.
Hatherley criss-crosses the former Communist bloc, visiting some of its most obscure corners, to produce a beautifully written, thoroughly researched and genuinely unputdownable lyrical obituary to the bygone epoch and its unique built environment.
With the monuments of totalitarianism now being demolished all over the former Communist bloc, ‘Landscapes of Communism’, with its plethora of black-and-white photos of some of the gems of socialist architecture, can also serve as a compendium of the now-defunct development trend that I would call ‘urbanisation by deceit’, or ‘chicanery architecture’.
We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us, as Winston Churchill once observed. In the former Communist countries, that unspoken principle was taken to the absurd. Suffice it to recall the so-called Stalin Gothic: a handful of high-rise wedding-cake buildings, with starred spires at the top, that used to dominate the skylines of Moscow, Warsaw and many other Socialist cities.
They were all about making an impression, and like totalitarian societies themselves, made you feel small and insignificant under the constant pressure of all those heavy turrets, topped with red stars. Inside, however, they were often crammed and messy human beehives with cabin-like flats and puny public areas. It was only the facade that mattered - hence all those neo-?Classical railway stations with marble columns and frescoes depicting muscular workers and peasants under the high domed ceilings, yet with small and permanently crowded waiting rooms and dark stinking toilets for the real-life proleterians.
Not all Socialist architecture was dysfunctional and ugly, though. Suffice to remember Moscow Metro and those of other big cities. Hatherley admires the engineering and craftsmanship that went into the elaborate lighting arrangements of the Kharkiv Metro. Yet, in an ironic twist, he finds it an operational disaster, with unclean stations, infrequent trains and half of the artistically designed chandeliers not working.