(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Originally titled Journey Beyond the Stars, 2001: A Space Odyssey evolved over several years of close collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and the English science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The screenplay was based on Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” in which astronauts on a roving mission to extract mineral samples from the mountains of the moon discover a pyramidal structure left by space travelers eons before, presumably as a kind of cosmic signpost for those terrestrial creatures who might evolve sufficiently to be able to journey to the moon and find it.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first such signpost is a black monolith, a slender slab of smooth marble, which proto-human apes discover in their desert habitat. Touching the slab creates the spark of realization that leads to the use of tools and—in an unsettling preview of human history—weapons. The man-ape who touches the slab understands that the bone in his hand is useful not only for obtaining food but also for dominating other apes. In a famous scene, a triumphant man-ape tosses his bone-weapon into the air, and the bone’s trajectory dissolves into the orbit of a twenty-first century manmade spacecraft high above the earth, transporting the audience instantaneously and dramatically to the age of human space travel.

The rest of the film follows the astronauts on their quest for the meaning of the mysterious second signpost—an identical black monolith discovered on the moon in the year 2001. The astronauts’ attempt to retrace the monolith’s signal (the sudden and brief emission of a beam of energy aimed at one of the moons of Jupiter) is endangered by the on-board computer HAL, who runs chillingly amok. The one surviving astronaut, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), manages to disconnect HAL and pilots a single pod of the spacecraft toward the presumed destination, a black monolith aligned mysteriously with Jupiter and its moons. What follows is a tour of the universe—a dynamic visual roller coaster that careens past awesome galactic and planetary systems. At the end of the journey, the astronaut faces not the extraterrestrials who left the signposts that guided him there but himself in the imploded present, past, and future. He is simultaneously young, old, dying, and—in the dramatic final scene—cosmically reborn as a star-child.

2001 Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Early ancestors of humankind are struggling to survive, and it appears that they will succumb to extinction. Moon-Watcher, who leads a tribe of these primates by virtue of his massive size, encounters a “new rock.” The new rock is a Monolith, a sentient entity in the form of a rectangular block with perfect proportions—the ratio of its depth to width to height is exactly 1 to 4 to 9. The Monolith conducts experiments on Moon-Watcher and his tribe, ultimately providing Moon-Watcher’s people with the ability to utilize and create rudimentary tools. As a result, Moon-Watcher’s tribe learns to hunt and defeats a competing tribe, ensuring humanity’s eventual existence.

Millions of years later, Dr. Heywood Floyd is sent by the president of the United States to a base on the moon in order to investigate mysterious magnetic fluctuations. The source of the fluctuations is another Monolith found buried in the moon’s Tycho crater. Floyd and other scientists refer to the moon’s Monolith as Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One (TMA-1) and prepare to conduct experiments on it. Uncovered, the Monolith is exposed to a sunrise on the moon and immediately emits a signal that disrupts almost all nearby electronic equipment. Distant communication satellites record the signal, and its destination is pinpointed.

In 2001, the spaceship Discovery travels through space toward Saturn. Discovery was initially scheduled to travel only to Jupiter, but its mission was altered shortly before it began, ostensibly for the purpose of surveying Saturn’s various moons. Two astronauts, David Bowman and Frank Poole, comprise the ship’s crew, while three members of a survey team lie dormant in cryogenic sleep for the journey. Bowman and Poole are accompanied by the ship’s advanced computer, the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer (HAL), which is responsible for maintaining the ship’s course and systems.

Passing through the asteroid belt and reaching Jupiter, Discovery begins a maneuver that slingshots the ship around the gas giant, increasing its speed for the remainder of the journey to Saturn. Following the slingshot maneuver, Bowman and Poole return to their normal duties of caring for the ship. HAL, however, begins to detect various failures in the ship’s...

(The entire section is 946 words.)

2001 Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

2001: A Space Odyssey is Clarke’s best-known work, partly because of the popularity of the 1968 film version. From 1964 to 1968, Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick collaborated on the novel and the screenplay, with Kubrick having control over the film and Clarke being responsible for the novel. Both works were extensively revised, and Clarke later published some material cut from the novel in The Lost Worlds of 2001 (1972).

In the epilogue to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke says the book “was concerned with the next stage of human evolution.” The beginning of the book describes creatures not yet human, the middle shows modern humankind, and the ending speculates on what humanity might become. Black monoliths appear in each section and provide connections between each section.

When the book opens, three million years in the past, man-apes have reached a crucial point in their development. Unable to obtain enough food, they will perish if they do not learn to use tools to hunt. Space-traveling extraterrestrials recognize their potential and teach them how to use bones as weapons. The first monolith is a teaching device, but it also transforms Moon-Watcher, one of the smarter apes; the structure of his brain is altered and the change will be passed on to his descendants. Without this almost divine intervention, the human race would not have evolved. Moon-Watcher also discovers, on his own, that the weapons can kill others of his own species.

In the next section, humans have developed a sophisticated technology that enables them to travel to the Moon—and also to create increasingly lethal weapons. They also are at a crucial point in their history: Will they continue to progress or will they destroy themselves and the planet?...

(The entire section is 732 words.)