Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

The evolution for 2001 began in 1948, when Arthur C. Clarke submitted a short story, “The Sentinel,” for a competition held by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Although the story was rejected, Clarke later proposed it as the basis for filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The two...

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The evolution for 2001 began in 1948, when Arthur C. Clarke submitted a short story, “The Sentinel,” for a competition held by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Although the story was rejected, Clarke later proposed it as the basis for filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The two visionaries met following Kubrick’s release of Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and set out to make a realist science-fiction film. Early in the process, it was decided that the story should be written in novel format and then adapted to a screenplay. Clarke and Kubrick initially worked on the novel together, but Kubrick’s need to prepare for film production ultimately left Clarke finishing the novel alone. Still, Kubrick’s influence is felt throughout, both in the deliberate pace of the plot and in clearly cinematic descriptive passages. Because of the story’s symbiosis, it is nearly impossible to analyze Clarke’s novel without acknowledging Kubrick’s film and vice versa.

By the time of the film’s and book’s releases in 1968, Clarke had already established himself as a peer among many of the great scientific minds, including Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. Clarke was also heralded as one of the fathers of communications satellites, having proposed geostationary orbits in 1945 to maximize telecommunications coverage. He would later be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for this achievement, and he would be knighted in 1998 for services to literature.

The novel 2001 became the first book of a four-book cycle that continued with 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), 2061: Odyssey Three (1987), and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997). In each novel, Clarke takes great care to adhere to the laws of physics and often successfully predicts future innovations. In 2001, for instance, Clarke’s portrayal of a space-shuttle launch and space-station dock proved to be largely accurate once such technologies came into use, as did Clarke’s description of Discovery’s slingshot maneuver around Jupiter to gain speed. Politically, Clarke writes of friendly cooperation between U.S. and Russian space agencies, as well as lingering effects of the Cold War.

Presciently realistic and cautionary, 2001, unlike many science-fiction stories of the era, holds up extremely well under both scientific and literary scrutiny—a testament to Clarke’s vision. Written in a simple tone and using straightforward language, the book proceeds at a steady pace. It is neatly divided into six distinct parts, each with its own focus, but tightly woven together into an overarching plot. Nearly the entire novel is narrated from a character’s perspective, and, while subtle, the effect of Clarke’s brief three-page narration from HAL’s point of view is at once alarming and poignant.

The novel deals primarily and unapologetically with general issues of humanity and its interaction with technology. There is little in the novel to suggest that Clarke was concerned with his characters, as he spends very little time providing character histories or exposition. Evolution itself is presented as the result of technological interference at both the beginning and the end of the book. Throughout 2001, the wonders and dangers of technology are presented side by side, culminating in HAL’s murderous rampage in part 4 and Bowman’s return to Earth at the conclusion.

Of the six parts, the last four are inhabited by Bowman, who is the story’s main protagonist by default. Though he makes no appearance and warrants no mention in parts 1 or 2, he is the sole remaining character in parts 5 and 6. Despite this, his characterization remains primarily that of an observer, in much the same way that Moon-Watcher and Dr. Floyd are the primary observers in parts 1 and 2, respectively. Again, much of Bowman’s adventure entails his interaction with technology, first with HAL, then with repairing and operating Discovery, and finally with the stargate. It is through his eyes that the bulk of the story is told, but 2001 is very much about the sentient Monoliths and their creation—that is, humanity.

Much has been made of the character of HAL, largely because of the film version’s proliferation into pop culture, but in the book HAL is essentially a foil utilized to whittle the crew down to one person. It was because of this whittling that Clarke was subtly able to mirror Bowman’s encounter with the Monolith to that of Moon-Watcher’s three million years prior. Not so subtle are the near-identical descriptions that Clarke gives to both Bowman and Moon-Watcher’s states of mind following each of their encounters with the Monolith: “he was master of the world, and was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.”

With these words, Clarke pitches his main theme: that humanity is a great power with a great responsibility. Moon-Watcher’s response is decidedly violent, and although it results in the ascension of humankind, it is akin to committing mass murder. Bowman’s final act is left untold, but his elimination of nuclear arsenals ends the story on an optimistic note. Clarke was famed for asking, “Is there intelligent life on Earth?” The finale of 2001 seems to answer: If there is not yet, there will be.

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