Matchup of the Day: Titanic vs. 2001: A Space Odyssey
If the RMS Titanic, the largest ship on the sea in the year 1912, could have talked, what would it have said as it was sinking?
Famously, the Titanic was billed as unsinkable. If the ship itself could have known that, would it have been proud of the label? When it began to take on water after scraping an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage, would it have felt ashamed of its failure? Would it have been scared as it cracked in half and began to fall to the sea floor 12,500 feet down?
Some may think these questions silly, but science fiction fans know better. The HAL-9000 computer was conceived by writer Arthur C. Clarke as a future generation’s Titanic, and thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL became one of the most well-known non-human characters in fiction.
Like the Titanic, the HAL-9000 at the heart of 2001 is on its maiden voyage, in this case to Jupiter, and like the Titanic it suffers a catastrophic failure before reaching its destination. Also like the Titanic, our HAL has at least one twin, an identical supercomputer operating at ground control (the Titanic’s duplicates were the RMS Olympic and the HMHS Britannic). No HAL-9000 computer has ever made a mistake, and any apparent mistakes must be attributable to human error; they are supposed to be unsinkable. When HAL relates that fact, one of the human crewmembers of the Jupiter-bound spacecraft think he detects a note of pride in the computer’s voice.
“Incapable of error” is what HAL claims to be, but those are “famous last words” to rival “unsinkable.” HAL detects, or claims to detect, an error in the ship’s communication system, but no such error exists. The humans aboard plan to shut HAL down to prevent any future errors, so HAL kills one and tries to lock the other out of the ship when they go out for repairs. The quasi-sentient supercomputer also kills several additional crewmembers who are in stasis during the long trip to Jupiter. Whatever the explanation for the apparent technical error, HAL’s murderousness represents a clear failure of ethics.
The lone surviving human crewmember, Dave, crawls into HAL’s spacious computer brain to shut it down. HAL pleads for its life, promising to behave better in the future and, finally, pathetically, hauntingly, claiming over and over to feel afraid. HAL’s “dying” words are a reversion to infancy, an account of where it was first activated (“Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992”) and how its instructor Mr. Langley taught it to sing a song. The sequence is achingly sad; it is a death scene like no other.
If the Titanic had had a supercomputer brain, a sense of self, a memory, perhaps its last thoughts as it dragged 1500 people into the freezing water would have been of its birthplace, the Belfast shipyards in Ireland, and of its creator, the architect Thomas Andrews, who went down with the ship.
- Global ranking: 760
- Wins 45% of matchups
- 83,395 users have ranked it 662,274 times
- 842 users have it at #1
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2001: A Space Odyssey
- Global ranking: 82
- Wins 56% of matchups
- 57,344 users have ranked it 593,758 times
- 996 users have it at #1
- 10,633 users have it in their top 20