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2001: A Space Odyssey | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey | Part 1, Chapters 1–2 : Primeval Night | Summary



Chapter 1: The Road to Extinction

Part 1 of the novel is titled "Primeval Night" because it takes place in an evolutionary age after the time of dinosaurs but before the emergence of true humans: the Pleistocene epoch. "The Road to Extinction" begins during a long drought in which the "man-apes"—distant human ancestors—are near extinction. Moon-Watcher, one of the man-apes, notices that one of the Old Ones living in his cave has died, and he removes the body, carrying it over his shoulder as he stands upright. His physical features and upright posture show he holds "the promise of humanity" within his genes.

Noticing that a rival tribe—known as the Others—is nowhere to be seen, he leaves the body for the hyenas and begins to forage for food on the way to the muddy river. The Others are also at the river when Moon-Watcher's people arrive. The two tribes briefly shriek and shake their arms threateningly at each other. Then they drink the water. Creatures other than the man-apes live in the environment: an antelope-like animal and the predatory leopard. However, the man-apes are not yet predators.

At the end of the chapter, Moon-Watcher watches the moon; in the night sky a curious thing occurs: "twice there passed slowly across the sky, rising up to the zenith and descending into the east, a dazzling point of light more brilliant than any star."

Chapter 2: The New Rock

In this chapter Moon-Watcher wakes up later that same night, having heard an unfamiliar noise. It starts as a "scrabbling" and then becomes a "continuous crunching noise." The noise grows louder, and then Moon-Watcher hears the unfamiliar sound of metal hitting rock.

In the morning, when the tribe goes to the river for their water, they encounter the New Rock—a completely transparent, rectangular slab. When Moon-Watcher touches it, it feels cold and hard. He soon concludes that it is not food, however, and ignores it. Later that evening, when the tribe again goes to the river to drink, the New Rock begins to make a vibrating, drumming sound that seems to hypnotize those nearby. They are drawn toward the New Rock, which begins to glow with moving patterns of light in the shape of wheels. They do not realize they are being studied and analyzed and begin to move like "puppets on strings." Some try to tie knots. Moon-Watcher is made to throw a rock repeatedly. Others perform different tasks. Eventually, the New Rock releases them and they go back to their shelter.


These first chapters paint a bleak picture of the state of our genetic ancestors. Moon-Watcher, the main character of this part of the story, is a leader of a tribal people that bear only a faint glimmer of resemblance to modern humans. The rather analytical omniscient narrator describes the ways Moon-Watcher and his tribe are unlike modern humans. They have little sense of community or even family. For example, Moon-Watcher knows that the Old One died, but not that this Old One was his father. The narrator notes that Moon-Watcher felt "a dim disquiet that was the ancestor of sadness" at the death, suggesting that even familial ties and emotions are in a primitive state. The tribe has no sense of a shared fate, so the young and healthy take care of their needs first and provide for infants, the sick, and the elderly only as an afterthought. Moon-Watcher is "incapable of worrying about more than one thing at a time."

The tribe consists of gatherers only, not hunters. And the narrator makes a point of foreshadowing the transition from gatherer to hunter-gatherer by describing the antelope-like creature as a possible source of food and by having the New Rock teach Moon-Watcher how to throw a rock accurately.

There are two main ideas in tension in these chapters. On the one hand, the man-apes are described as having the beginnings of humanity inside them. Moon-Watcher is said to hold "in his genes the promise of humanity" and "first intimations of an intelligence that could not possibly fulfill itself for ages yet." Moon-Watcher also has a fascination with watching the moon. This, of course, calls to mind the fascination with the moon that humans in the 1960s would share. He demonstrates the beginnings of analytical thought as he deduces that the New Rock is not food and even forms a theory about how it came to be.

Yet there is unmistakable interference from some alien force. The New Rock, which the reader sees arrive from space at the end of Chapter 1, essentially begins to teach the man-apes those skills and ways of thinking that are more advanced. Tying knots, throwing rocks, and similar skills are related to benchmarks in the development of early humans, and the story suggests here that these "human" traits actually originated somewhere else. This tension raises important questions in the reader. What was the extent of the alien influence? What was the purpose of the alien interference? Would the man-apes have eventually become fully human without this interference? What would have been their fate without it? These are important questions as the story continues to unfold.

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