While most people know 2001: A Space Odyssey from the classic Stanley Kubrick-directed film, the original story and novel were developed by Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story called The Sentinel. And while Kubrick’s unique vision doesn’t give the viewer a lot of explanation for the events that take place, Clarke’s novel provides a much clearer picture of the relationship between the black monolith that appears to the group of early human ancestors and the eventual first contact that human civilization has with an alien life form.
2001 Summary and Interpretation: The novel opens with a group of hominids living on the African savanna around 3 million B.C. The group is shown foraging for food and engaging in confrontations with rival groups. After the appearance of a strange black monolith causes them to erupt in a frenzy, members of the group begin to exhibit uncharacteristic levels of comprehension and ingenuity, including one who becomes the first to use a bone as a crude tool for killing animals (as well as a rival leader). While the movie is much more subtle, the book makes clear that the monolith has helped awaken intelligence in these primitive beings, giving them the ability to hunt for food and protect themselves from predators. The implication is that this mysterious nudge forward is what helped our ancestors evolve into the species we are today.
The book then jumps forward to the year 1999 (still in the future at the time the book was written) where we meet a scientist on his way to investigate a magnetic disturbance on the moon – what turns out to be the same black monolith from before. When the monolith is finally unearthed and sees sunlight for the first time, it sends out a radio signal that is fixed on one of Saturn’s moons. The next jump takes us 18 months into the future on-board a ship on a mission to Saturn to investigate the source of the radio transmission and hopefully meet the makers of the monolith. During the long journey, the crew is forced to deal with the mutiny of the ship’s artificially intelligent computer HAL 9000. When the ship finally reaches the rendezvous point, the true nature of the monolith is revealed and the remaining crew member undergoes a staggering transformation.
2001 Review: To say that this book deals with some lofty themes would be a huge understatement. From the perils of intelligent technology and the panorama of human evolution to the very origins of our species and our purpose in the universe, 2001 is a novel of grand thoughts and ideas rather than action and adventure. If you’re someone who prefers your science fiction to be fast paced and exciting, you may want to skip this one. Like the movie, the book takes a steady, deliberate approach to its narrative. While the overall story may be grandiose, Clarke takes plenty of time to detail the minutiae of space travel and provide descriptions of the mechanics of space flight. So if you’re able to get through some of the slower parts, 2001 can be a great companion piece to Kubrick’s film for those that want to delve further into the movie’s story, characters and ideas.
2001: A Space Odyssey Quotes: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”
“Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error. “