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2001: A Space Odyssey: Summary, Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will discuss Arthur C. Clarke's novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. We'll explore the events in the book, discuss and analyze its main themes, and finish with a short quiz.

Introduction

Arthur C. Clarke published 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. The novel is based on 'The Sentinel,' a short story Clarke had previously published. Even if you have not read Clarke's novel, you might be familiar with its premise because of Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name. Stanley Kubrick's film was not based on the book; the novel and the film were simultaneously developed as part of a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Using Clarke's short story as a starting point, they wrote a rough draft of the concept for the film/novel. Then Kubrick made the movie and Clarke wrote the novel.

While 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of Arthur C. Clarke's most famous works, due in part to the film version's popularity, he was a prolific and influential science fiction writer. He won many honors during his lifetime, including a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, and his work and ideas remain a significant influence on science fiction today.

2001: A Space Odyssey By Arthur C. Clarke
Cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Plot Summary

Context

Even if you have seen the movie version of this science fiction novel, you might be confused while reading it. That is because the novel does not follow the movie exactly. While the movie and book were both developed from the same idea, Arthur C. Clarke finished writing the book before he ever saw the full movie. The book is written in five sections which leap through time.

Part I: Primeval Night

3 million years B.C., unseen aliens place a monolith (a giant device used by the aliens to investigate other worlds) in Africa. A group of ape-like early human ancestors, led by a character named Moon-Watcher, sees the device. After seeing the device, the group starts creating tools, which in turn gives them an advantage over the wild animals and other tribes. The group's evolutionary leap in thinking (the development of tools), which provides them with food and domination over the other tribes, is due to subliminal psychological influence from the alien monolith.

Part II: TMA-1

In 1999, scientists call Dr. Heywood Floyd to a base on the moon to discuss the presence of a strange magnetic artifact found 40 feet below the surface in one of the moon's craters, which they have named TMA-1, after the crater they found it in (Tycho) and the device's magnetic ability (which alerted them to its presence). The artifact and its origin puzzle the scientists. Its dimensions are too precise to have been formed by nature, but the artifact predates humankind. During a trip to investigate the artifact, which the scientists consider evidence that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, Floyd and the scientists witness a startling event: the sun rises over the crater and, for the first time in three million years, the monolith is hit with sunlight. Activated by the sunlight, the monolith sends a signal toward one of the moons of Saturn. After this burst of activity, the monolith loses its magnetic property.

Part III: Between Planets

Once again, the novel leaps forward in time. 18 months have passed since the discovery of the monolith on the moon. It is now 2001 and a mission to Saturn has been organized. The mission, named Discovery One, consists of five men and an artificially intelligent computer named HAL 9000. Three of the men are in a suspended state during the book. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Francis Poole are awake and in charge of running the spaceship and fixing anything that goes wrong.

PART IV: Abyss

One day, HAL informs the crew that they are in danger of losing communication with Earth because the device that points their antenna at Earth is broken. Poole undergoes a risky procedure in an extravehicular pod to fix it, only for Bowman to discover that the original part was fine. When questioned about the mix-up, HAL denies that the fault is his. When HAL tells the crew that the back-up part is also broken, Poole and Bowman try to contact Earth. Earth, by this point, has realized that HAL is not behaving correctly. Unfortunately, HAL scrambles the message and informs the crew that they have definitely lost contact with Earth. Poole dons his suit and goes out of the spaceship again to remove the supposedly broken part of the antenna. While outside, his external pod runs into him. It tears his suit and the rip results in his death.

Bowman suspects HAL killed Poole. He tries to wake the hibernating crew members. He has to threaten to unplug HAL before HAL will give him manual control of the hibernation pods. HAL retaliates by opening the airlocks. Bowman saves himself by donning an emergency spacesuit. He realizes that HAL is behind everything and shuts down his systems. Once Hal is no longer a threat, Bowman contacts Earth and learns that they did not tell him the truth about his mission. They explain that he is supposed to explore one of Saturn's moons, not Saturn. The scientists on Earth hope he will be able to establish contact with whoever put the monolith on the Moon.

The scientists claim that HAL's murderous behavior was just self-defense. He did not want to be disconnected. The earlier behavior, such as misreporting the status of equipment, was due to a malfunction after the scientists asked him to hide the true nature of the mission from Bowman and the rest of the crew.

Part V: The Moons of Saturn

Months pass before Discovery One reaches Iapetus, the Saturn moon the scientists pinpointed as the recipient of the moon monolith's signal. Bowman tries to fix up the spaceship, but it is obvious that the spaceship does not have enough oxygen to keep Bowman alive until a rescue spaceship arrives. The hibernation system cannot work without HAL plugged in and a lot of oxygen was lost when HAL opened the airlocks.

As he draws closer to Iapetus, Bowman sees the monolith. It is bigger than the one on the moon. Once he arrives, he takes one of the extravehicular pods and decides to explore it. When he gets closer to the monolith it opens, revealing itself to be a star gate.

Part VI: Through the Star Gate

The star gate takes Bowman through what he refers to as The Grand Central Station of the galaxy. He observes other spaceships, planets, and species. Bowman winds up at a hotel suite. The hotel suite has been designed by the aliens based on knowledge they have gleaned from Earth. It is a safe place where they can observe him and help him evolve. Bowman falls asleep. While he sleeps, his mind is wiped and he starts to become an entity known as the 'Star Child', an immortal being who can travel through space.

Bowman-as-Star Child returns to Earth, where he becomes a sort of guardian of humanity. They cannot see him, but he prevents a nuclear warhead from hitting its target. The ending implies that the Star Child, like the monolith, will observe and maybe even subtly interact with humankind during their next stage of evolution.

Themes

Evolution

Evolution is a big theme in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the beginning of the novel, the early ancestors of humans encounter the monolith on Earth. After they interact with the monolith, their intelligence, or at least their way of thinking, takes a leap. They begin to develop tools, which let them move up the food chain. They are no longer prey. The tools allow them to become predators.

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