It is difficult to escape the shadow of 2001. If they have not read it, they have seen the movie. If they have not seen the movie, they have heard “Also sprach Zarathustra”—in other movies, in video games, in commercials. For many, it is simply what the genre of sci-fi is; humankind setting forth into unknown space, meddling robots, and unknowable extrasolar entities. Frankly, I myself was mildly surprised that I had never read this book previously. Like many young teenagers before me (and of course, after me), I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey at a young age and thought I was God’s gift to literary and film criticism. With nearly a 10-year gap between my initial viewing and this project, it felt natural and just to pour my all into both novel and film. Of course, still, I approached both with the knowledge of my overall project, a focus on gender and sexuality. Kubrick himself had something to say about the sexuality apparent in the film, leaning towards the comical.
“No,” Kubrick said, denying the possibility of Hal being a “gay computer”, “I think it’s become something of a parlor game for some people to read that kind of thing into everything they encounter. HAL was a ‘straight’ computer.”
First, let us take a short moment to consider the activities of a straight computer, and share a quick laugh. Then, let us consider the implications of this answer, truly. Is there any evidence to suggest that HAL is a “straight computer”? Not really. In the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are some mentions of women. Dr. Heywood Floyd, a temporary point of view character after the man-apes, thinks of his dead wife as he travels to the moon. The woman who waits on him, a stewardess, is also present while he takes his trip. She is pleasant. The narrative shifts once more to Dr. David Bowman, and stays with Bowman the rest of the novel. He is awake with his companion, Dr. Poole, but the other three scientists in stasis on board have no defined gender.
The film, either conscious of this abundance of men or otherwise, adds a number of scenes with women where previously there none. Dr. Floyd speaks with a group of women while on the orbiting station rather than solely his male colleague, he speaks on a video call with his daughter, and there are women in the top-secret group he addresses while on the moon. This female presence somewhat lessens as the film moves to Bowman, however. The other scientists on board the Discovery One are gendered as male, and when HAL recalls his awakening, he echoes, “Good afternoon, gentleman.” In the film rendition of this scene, he calls his instructor Mr. Langley, in the novel, a male Dr. Chandra. HAL’s only connection to humanity is through men. The song he sings, “Daisy”, is a love song to a seemingly female named object, but there is no Daisy. The affectionate serenade programmed to this Daisy is still done so by men. There is no real option for him to be straight-- if the computer has a sexuality at all. Unless there is some secret computer girlfriend of his that he met at computer summer camp.
There is a preoccupation in both film and novel with reproduction. More specifically, an emphasis on motherless reproduction. The genderless outside culture’s monolith “mothers” the man-apes, men eventually reproduce human intellect in HAL, and Bowman ushers himself into a new state of life as the Starchild. Women exist in the space of 2001, but they are either silent, dead, or service workers. They are not the emphasis of human reproduction: men are.
Interestingly, to take the responsibility of reproduction away from the societal pressure of “womanhood” is seen in many feminist sci-fi entries, including the imaginations of Tiptree and Russ. However, the de-mothering in 2001 appears to be less for the advancement of women, and more for the transcendence of mankind, with an emphasis on the man. It is not anti-woman to consider that true equality can only exist once we tear down the physical responsibilities of gendered reproduction, but is it anti-woman to present such without women at all? Whether purposeful or not, there is a read of 2001 that claims that humanity can only transcend when it finds a way for men to reproduce through their wills and minds, to rid women of usefulness. That is simply one reading, though certainly not mine. Instead, I think that this glaring lack of women comes from a place of obliviousness, not malice. Perhaps there is no conscious un-mothering, but it is still there, nonetheless.
Kubrick does not give a very compelling argument for HAL as a straight computer. No more than there is a compelling argument for why Bowman is a straight man. The preoccupation that both novel and film have with male-only reproduction allows for queer readings into essentially all of the characters, and no amount of interviews claiming otherwise can stop that.