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2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 Was Originally a Female

Who knows, perhaps if HAL had been a lady, we’d all be scared of disembodied female voices and Siri would be a man’s voice

(Wikimedia Commons)

Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey has very few characters and one of the most famous lines ever: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” With his monotone voice, HAL, the ship’s homicidal computer, may be the most memorable of the film’s explorers: AFI named the too-smart-for-his-own-good computer the 13th greatest film villain of all time. But HAL wasn’t always a HAL. In fact, in earlier drafts of the script HAL was named Athena and had a woman’s voice.

The Computer History Museum has some early sketches of the spaceship where Athena is described. “The computer maintains a “log” of the journey, making its own entries plus those of Bowman, which he records verbally. The computer takes verbal instructions and replies through a “speech synthesizer” (female voice).”

Eventually, Athena turned into HAL—a mashup of the words heuristic and algorithmic, the two main types of computer learning. (HAL is not, according to Kubrick, a simple cypher for IBM, as film lore has it.) In the French version of the movie, HAL is named CARL, Cerveau Analytique de Recherche et de Liaison (Analytic Brain for Research and Communication). In the final movie, HAL was voiced by Douglas Rain—a Canadian actor known mostly for his stage work.

HAL isn’t the first movie character to change genders. Ripley from Alien was supposed to be a man, as was Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica. Luke Skywalker was once a woman (and Han Solo a lizard man). And who knows, perhaps if HAL had been a lady, we’d all be scared of disembodied female voices and Siri would have a man’s voice.

A quick tip for New York-based readers: BAM is showing 2001: A Space Odyssey on a very big screen through July 9.

Hat tip: Inktank

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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