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2001: A Space Odyssey is about progress, evolution, and man-apes leaping off the planet and turning into cosmic babies who spread peace and blow up nuclear bombs.
Yeah, that escalated quickly. Let us explain…
If 2001 is a nutshell, it's a nutshell that splits open and grows nut tree so big that its nut branches reach way out to the nut stars, where it finds giant black obelisks made of nuts by a superior nut power. In other words, the universe is nutty—but it's a nuttiness with a plan.
The plan is the thing. Charles Darwin said that human beings evolved by random variation; the man-ape (or, hey, why not the woman-ape) with the slightly bigger brain was successful, and reproduced, and had little baby apes with bigger brains, and so forth. It's all random; no one mapped it out. That's why religious people often dislike Darwin; his nature doesn't have much room for a God.
Arthur C. Clarke doesn't have a God in his book either—instead he has beneficent obelisks. Humans didn't just happen by chance; some awesome super-intelligent space travelers gave them a boost up the evolutionary ladder, because "in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind." (37.5) Humans are getting smarter and better and further out, not by accident, but because someone else, out there, has decided that it will be good if they do. Progress is planned, and it is (according to the view of those creatures out there) good. 2001 replaces Darwin's blind evolution with a New Age faith in purpose. Human beings are transcending on schedule. Onwards and upwards, space-baby.
2001 has itself progressed swiftly, and in many forms. It was originally a short story Clarke published in 1951 called "The Sentinel," which dealt with an alien artifact on the moon. The filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used the story as the inspiration for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey—with a script written by both Kubrick and Clarke himself. At the same time as the script was being written, Clarke wrote the novel (which maybe explains why this is one time that the film is better than the book. Sorry about that, Artie).
The film especially, and the book less so, became classics, and so spawned many a metamorphosed offspring. Clarke published 2010: Odyssey Two in 1982; it was turned into a film in 1984. He published 2061: Odyssey Three in 1987 and 3001: The Final Odyssey in 1997. Neither of those last two have been made into films—but still, you've got a lot of Odysseys there for the man-apes to grunt at and ponder over. Ook.
You should care about 2001 because you are intelligent. And 2001 loves intelligence. Intelligent people read intelligent books about intelligence to feel intelligent together. Join in!
Seriously, intelligence is a big deal. Without the kind of special intelligence humans have, you wouldn't be reading this, and Shmoop probably wouldn't exist. But where does that intelligence come from? Why are you reading a Shmoop guide with big words and killer jokes rather than grunting and muttering (ook!) and picking berries? Right this moment, as you use your brain to Shmoop—how does that happen? What makes you a reading, cogitating Shmooper, rather than a chimpanzee or an eggplant?
Arthur C. Clarke has a brain also, and like you, he uses it to wonder about these questions. He doesn't exactly come up with answers; more like fun variations. So 2001 has lots of different kinds of intelligences. There's the man-apes, who don't remember much and can't put 2 and 2 together to make an edged weapon; there's humans like David Bowman and Frank Poole, who could read a Shmoop guide if they had one out in space; there's Hal, the supercomputer, who calculates quicker than quick, but has homicidal tendencies; there's the never quite seen aliens, who know how to travel intergalactic distances and have no bodies, nor brains, just intelligence itself—preserved "in frozen lattices of light." (37.14)
Intelligence for Clark is a multiple, exciting, awesome thing. It's what makes Moon-Watcher human, ultimately, and what turns David Bowman into something more than human. But at the same time, intelligence is also dangerous. It's Hal's intelligence that allows him to become "neurotic" (27.7), so that he starts behaving like a flawed human, rather than like an impersonally efficient machine. Intelligence allows Moon-Watcher to kill the rival tribe; it puts Bowman in a position to destroy nuclear bombs and control the earth.
"Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next," the novel says of Moon-Watcher. "But he would think of something." (5.11-12) That thinking is a promise and a threat; thought is power. 2001 matters because what you think matters—for better or worse.
Arthur C. Clarke, In Interspace
ArthurCClarke.net, the "Home to all things Clarkean", as the site says. Biography, bibliography, interviews, photographs, and more.
2001: A Space Website
A site devoted to the film and novel; includes audio clips, film stills, essays, and links.
Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this.
The famous 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick, which preceded the novel. The future has cavemen, monliths, and lots of flashing lights.
"Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says what if?"
A lengthy 1995 interview with Arthur C. Clarke.
A critic gushes about Stanley Kubrick's film.
"See the Movie, Read the Book"
The New York Times 1968 review of both the book and the film.
Why Was the Supercomputer Born in Urbana?
Roger Ebert talks to Arthur C. Clarke in 1997, on the occasion of Clarke publishing his last sequel to 2001.
Millions of Years Ago, Before the Human Race Existed
The trailer to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Tum, Tum…Dum Dum!~
Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, used as the theme for 2001: A Space Odyssey
What Do the Aliens Look Like?
An image of the aliens from 2001—shot by Kubrick, but never used in his film.
The First Cover
This is the original cover of the 1968 novel.