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In 2001, we see the the Soviets being suspicious about the communications blackout at the US Clavius base on the Moon (all quotes from this transcript)

Smyslov: Oh well, er, Dr. Floyd I hope you don't think I'm being too inquisitive but perhaps you can clear up the great big mystery about what has been going on up there.

Floyd: I'm afraid I don't know what you mean.

Smyslov Well, it's just that for the past, er, two weeks some extremely odd things have been happening at Clavius.

Floyd: Oh, really?

Smyslov: Yes, yes, yes. Well for one thing whenever you phone the base all you can get is a recording which repeats that the phone lines are temporarily out of order.

Floyd: Well they're probably having some trouble with their equipment or something like that.

Smyslov: Yes. Yes that's what we thought was the explanation at first but it's been going on now for the past ten days.

Floyd: You mean you haven't been able to contact anyone for the past ten days?

Smyslov: That's right.

Floyd: Oh. I see.

Elena: And there's another thing, Heywood. Two days ago one of our rocketbuses was denied permission for emergency landing at Clavius.

Floyd: Well that does sound odd.

Smyslov: Yes, yes. I'm afraid there's going to be a bit of a row about it. Denying the men permission to land is a direct violation of the I.A.S. convention.

The blackout and denial of permission to land is to keep the discovery of the Monolith out of Soviet hands. At the end of the movie, we get this message to the crew

Good day, gentlemen. This is a prerecorded briefing made prior to your departure and which for security reasons of the highest importance has been known onboard during the mission only by your H.A.L. nine-thousand computer. Now that you are in Jupiter space and the entire crew is revived it can be told to you. Eighteen months ago the first evidence of intelligent life off the earth was discovered. It was buried forty feet below the lunar surface near the crater Tycho. Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter the four-million-year old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.

This directive to lie about the true nature of the mission is what causes HAL to malfunction and kill the crew, save Dave Bowman.

Why was there such desperation to keep this such a secret that even the crew of the Discovery could not be told of it?

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  • 6
    Because governments love secrets. Information is power. Jan 21 at 3:43
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    We can’t have the Rooskies staring at it in impotent incomprehension! That’s our job! Jan 21 at 9:41
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    I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you tell the Russians about the Monolith right now...
    – djm
    Jan 21 at 16:06
  • How do you infer desperation/hopelessness from heavy secrecy? How do you know the authorities weren't quite confident of their security measures? (It's been 50 yers since I saw the damn movie and I may have dozed off in parts of it so it's quite likely I'm missing something.)
    – user14111
    Jan 21 at 21:19
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    We must not allow a monolith gap!
    – IMSoP
    Jan 22 at 0:09

4 Answers 4

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At a minimum the 2001 universe is in a cold war situation. In a didn't quite get explicitly put on screen way - the satellite in orbit at the bone launch scene transition was supposed to be an orbiting atomic bomb platform. And the starchild at the end in a draft cleared the sky of those bombs. So depending on the version of Clarke's story there was very much a potential for a very advanced World War III even if the movie version didn't dwell on it.

See http://crypticphilosopher.com/2012/10/fun-scifi-trivia-2001-originally-had-nukes-in-space/

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    Clearly, Clarke in 1968 could not have predicted the collapse of the USSR in 1991, which rendered his version of 2001 somewhat outdated. Such is always the danger of near-future science fiction. I'm still waiting on the flying cars and hoverboards promised to us 7 years ago... Jan 21 at 15:51
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    that all is in the novel though - in fact, bombs are launched at the end and Bowman ends the threat
    – NKCampbell
    Jan 21 at 16:45
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    Well, Stand on Zanzibar (1968) predicted Russia reduced to a regional power, and China as the main rival to the US, but I still don't blame Clarke for missing that one : )
    – Adam Burke
    Jan 22 at 0:09
  • @DarrelHoffman I'd like to think some future iteration of star trek would have the spine to mention Leningrad per STIV. I have no hope for that given Enterprise's worst intro of the franchise was focused on real world Mars rovers when in actual fictional history Earth had interstellar cryoships in the 1990s. Jan 22 at 1:11
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    @DarrelHoffman Maybe the point wasn't to predict the future and render it accurately. Maybe Clarke had something to say about the world that he wrote the book in. Jan 22 at 14:15
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It's not just the Soviets, it's humanity in general. I think it's at the briefing at Clavius that Floyd says that if news of extraterrestrial intelligence was released without proper preparation, it might cause panic.

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  • That tends to be a trope of science fiction first contact stories, all the way up to as recently as Arrival and I honestly don't get it. I fear that if extraterrestrial life were discovered and its existence announced, most of humanity would yawn.
    – tbrookside
    Jan 21 at 17:09
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    It certainly would these days, @tbrookside, people are too busy with InstaTwatBookGramTok. Fifty years ago, there probably would have been a bit of an uproar.
    – FreeMan
    Jan 21 at 18:41
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    @tbrookside I think it would depend on the nature of the discovery - radio waves from another solar system? Probably yawn with a bit of interest. Recent alien activity in our solar system? Probably more leaning to the panic side of things. Ancient alien activity in our solar system? Trepidation and worry, with intrigue.
    – Moo
    Jan 21 at 22:30
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    I’m pretty sure that the entire planet would be talking about it if we really did find evidence of extraterrestrial life. Believing it on the other hand? Now that’s a different story.
    – Rohmer
    Jan 22 at 5:34
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    The eternal issue of first contact is the array of disparate individual/tribal responses: 1/3 of the population would run & hide, 1/3 would go to say hello & the other 1/3 turn up with guns.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 23 at 11:08
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It was the times. In an example from real life, the fact that the unshielded nuclear reactors on Soviet RORSAT radar satellites emitted radiation easily detectable by other satellites was classified in the US. It made no sense: surely the Soviets knew.

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    We didn't want them to know we knew. You're not being devious enough! Jan 23 at 0:49
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    @stolenmoment Except that they knew that the US had plenty of capability here. And they almost certainly knew that we at MIT had published sightings of the radiation plumes before we were told that they were classified (but they stayed classified). The RORSATs were conspicuous beasts: hot in the infrared and intense transmitters of radio. The US always knew where they were and what they were up to, they wen't secret.
    – John Doty
    Jan 23 at 1:03
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That’s not desperation, that’s routine secret orders, having been used since before writing was invented in order to keep certain individuals or groups ignorant of the actual plan.

Could have been used before the invention of fire. Bill and Fred are lovers, and Bill freaks out whenever Fred is in danger, Ben, who is in charge, doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to just kill Bill, so he publicly tells the hunting group (which includes Fred but not Bill) to go gather some fruits and nuts and privately tells Fred to go bring back a bear, and if he doesn’t come back Bill gets the axe.

Why would they issue secret orders? Because advanced aliens mean opportunity, opportunity means competition and competition means complexity at best, and loss at worst. No reason to bring it up if there’s no corresponding gain.

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