2001: A Space Odyssey Themes
by Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Early in its making, Clarke had said, "If this film can be completely understood, then we have failed," and his third law of science fiction states, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Yet the novel explains a good deal of the climactic transformation. The transcendence of the novel, much more than that of the film or of Childhood's End (1953), remains within an explicable science.

The themes of the novel share this ambivalence. Like the film the novel concerns aggression, but Moon-Watcher does not learn target practice, only to kill. Several times sighting involves either a telescope or a radio antenna; the monolith on the Moon is centered, both in Tycho and in its magnetic field. Thus the novel suggests that aggression and communication function together, each incomplete without the other. Society arises from their fusion.

A major theme, therefore, as in Childhood's End and The City and the Stars (1956), is the transcendence of the material world. The mind aspires to a condition of inorganic crystal, like the aliens who have passed through a machine existence "to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light." Crystalline imagery is pervasive, in the monoliths, in the hibernacula, in the music of Bach that Bowman listens to after his companions have died, and in the Eye of Japetus into which he is drawn to be changed. Although the novel argues for teamwork, the characters experience an isolation from which they can escape only into a frozen group-mind.

A pervasive theme related to these of explaining the inexplicable and of evading the link between aggression and communication is the treatment of guilt. When talking to Hal after its murder of Poole, Bowman feels as though he were being cross-examined "for a crime of which he was unaware." This guilt is surely his human responsibility for the secrecy which led to the murderous schizophrenia of Hal. Clarke's well-meaning humanity is caught in a dilemma: Communication is linked to aggression and so to guilt, but secrecy leads to alienation and defensive outbursts. The necessity of living in the real world entails panic and guilt.