55 pages 1 hour read

Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1968

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Summary and Study Guide


2001: A Space Odyssey is a science fiction novel by British writer Arthur C. Clarke, first published in 1968. Clarke wrote the novel alongside the development of Stanley Kubrick’s movie of the same name; the pair worked collaboratively on the story, which draws on several of Clarke’s previously published short works. The first part of the novel, concerning the evolution of early man and the role of an alien lifeform in this process, echoes the plot of Clarke’s 1953 short story “Encounter in the Dawn.” “The Sentinel” (first published in 1951 but written in 1948) also shares elements with 2001: A Space Odyssey and is often cited as a key source. This story concerns the discovery of an artifact on the Moon, left there long before by alien visitors.

In his essay “Back to 2001,” which is printed alongside the 2010 edition of his novel, Clarke writes that, because of this close collaboration, it is “hardly surprising that, even in my own mind, book and movie tend to be confused with each other—and with reality” (2). He also remembers that one challenge was to create “a story which would not be made obsolete” by unfolding events (2)—i.e., the impending mission to the Moon. Clarke’s approach to this science fiction novel, then, is shaped by both the Space Race and the Cold War, putting the theme of Violence and Technology Fueling Development at the fore. It is also invested in the question of what makes “good” science fiction and with the potential of this genre to reflect meaningfully on the “real” world.

2001: A Space Odyssey was first published in 1968 by New American Library in the US and Hutchinson in the UK. This guide uses the Kindle edition published by Orbit in 2010.

Plot Summary

The sun rises on a group of “ape-men,” humanity’s ancestors, on the African savannah. Drought is making their peaceful ways and vegetarian diet unsustainable; their lives are hard, and they are doomed to extinction. They are always hungry and spend their time scavenging for food. At night, a leopard hunts them in the caves in which they live. There is another tribe of “ape-men” with whom they share the savannah; they have daily confrontations across the river that separates their territories, but these are at first merely loud screaming matches. The group the novel focuses on is led by Moon-Watcher, called so because, as a child, he looked up at the Moon and tried to grab it.

One day while the tribe is scavenging, it comes across a monolith that looks like it is made of crystal. It was left in the night by extraterrestrial lifeforms who hope to nurture intelligence, or “Mind,” on other worlds. This mysterious object “programmes” Moon-Watcher’s tribe over a period of many days and nights. It teaches them to desire more from life than mere survival, to use tools, and to use violence to shape and dominate their environment. This shapes their physiological and cognitive development to the point that when an ice age descends, they survive. Their cousins, who have failed to adapt, die out. From here, human evolution closely parallels its development of technology—specifically, weaponry. This culminates in the invention of rocketry. This pinnacle of technological achievement threatens humanity’s continued existence in the form of the atomic bomb, but it also offers new directions for development in the form of space exploration.

The novel skips forward in time to an age when space travel has become routine and a scientist named Dr. Heywood Floyd is about to embark on a voyage to the Moon. Another monolith dating from the time of the “ape-men” has been discovered buried there, and he has been sent to investigate. When the sun rises on this excavated object for the first time, it emits a signal that points the way to Saturn and prompts the launch of a manned mission.

The actions of the ship’s computer interfere with and nearly derail this mission. Hal is an artificial intelligence in charge of the ship’s life support systems. Unbeknownst to his crewmates, he has been overcome by a feeling analogous to guilt because he must keep details of the mission secret from his colleagues. After Hal has killed every other crewmember, a man named Bowman continues the mission alone. On Saturn, he encounters a larger monolith that contains a “Star Gate.” Bowman travels through the Star Gate to a place that looks like a hotel on Earth. While he sleeps in this place, he is transformed into a “Star Child,” which the novel implies is the next phase of human evolution. He travels through space and returns to Earth, where his first act is to detonate and destroy a nuclear weapon that is held in orbit. The novel ends with the promise of the Star Child’s power, which he has not yet decided how to use.