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2001: A Space Odyssey | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey | Forewords | Summary



Foreword to the Millennial Edition

In this special introduction written by the author, Arthur C. Clarke reflects on the state of human space exploration at the time he began writing the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which the novel is based. Humans had not yet walked on the moon, although that goal had been set. Human scientists had relatively little data about what the surfaces of other planets in the solar system might be like or how these planets might look to a spacecraft passing nearby. So Clarke and collaborator Stanley Kubrick, who had already directed several movies, faced the challenge of writing realistically about the future of space exploration without much to go on. They ran the risk that any details they included might be quickly proven false as astronauts actually walked on the moon or space probes sent photos of distant planets back to Earth.

Clarke also gives a bit of the history of the project, which began in 1964 with a meeting between Clarke and Kubrick. Kubrick was anxious to make a science fiction movie: a "movie about man's place in the universe." Beginning with elements from some of Clarke's short stories—including "The Sentinel" and "Encounter in the Dawn"—they built a story, wrote a screenplay, and simultaneously wrote a novel and made a movie (which was eventually followed by several sequels). Clarke also points out some parallels between events in the book and real-life events in space exploration to show that their ideas were not so far off the mark, despite being fictional.


The author's Foreword begins with a comparison between the number of humans who have ever lived and the number of stars in the Milky Way. Clarke then speculates on how many of those stars might have planets and how many of those planets might have inhabitants. With such numbers, it seems incredible that humans have not already met living beings from elsewhere in the universe. It is so incredible that people have asked, "Why have such meetings not occurred already, since we ourselves are about to venture into space?" Clarke responds by saying that the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey is one potential answer. However, he cautions that the story is pure fiction, and the truth "will be far stranger."


The Forward to the Millennial Edition provides a fascinating look at the unique environment that gave rise to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike most novelizations of feature films, the novel version of this story was developed alongside, and even ahead of, the screenplay and the movie. This likely has something to do with the way the idea first came about: a successful movie director seeking out a writer to work with. But it is also a result of the science fiction genre and the desire on both Clarke's and Kubrick's parts to create a story that would have longevity. Writing the novel, which is far more detailed in its descriptions of the science behind the story, made the author pay particular attention to the science in science fiction. Since the 1960s were a time of great change in space exploration—with even greater changes being anticipated—it was essential for Clarke to stay on top of scientific developments. This attentiveness to detail has allowed the novel, and the film, to avoid becoming obsolete.

In addition, Kubrick's focus in the film was not on explanation. The film has few lines of dialogue compared with other films of its time and offers little explanation of events, preferring to set a mood and allow the audience to be carried along by the striking visuals. In contrast, the novel's omniscient narrator reveals far more of what is happening. These details and explanations might not be readily apparent to the movie viewer, but they would have been essential to creating the film.

The original Foreword is far less detailed than the Foreword to the Millennial Edition. It gives, instead, the reason for writing the story in the first place—the big question the novel asks and tries to answer: Why have humans not yet met any living beings from other places in the universe? It offers a disclaimer for the story, noting that despite the fact that it attempts to be realistic, it is still a work of the imagination—a work of fiction. It introduces the notion of stars and planets as vitally important to humanity's conceptions of self and time. And it teases the reader's imagination by noting that the true answer, if and when it is finally discovered, will be even stranger. This establishes a tone of wonder, and sets a mysterious mood that will infuse the story.

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