2001: A Space Odyssey | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1: Primeval Night

The novel opens in prehistoric times, when humanity's distant ancestors had not yet become Homo sapiens. Moon-Watcher is the leader of an herbivorous tribe of man-apes, who are barely surviving because of drought and lack of food. A rival tribe, led by One-Ear, lives nearby. Extinction for the man-apes seems likely, as their numbers are small and their daily losses to starvation and predation are high. One day, Moon-Watcher and his people encounter something new at the river where they go to drink. It is a "New Rock" that proves to be an alien device that entrances the man-apes, possesses them for a short time each evening, and in these episodes of possession, teaches them new skills. Most importantly, it teaches Moon-Watcher about tool use, especially weapons used for hunting. Hunting allows the tribe of man-apes to transition to an omnivorous diet, which is far more stable, and allows them to begin thinking about something other than basic survival.

Over time the man-apes continue to evolve. They develop language and civilization. They make more effective weapons. They progress until the weapons they create become a threat to their existence.

Part 2: TMA-1

Flash forward to the turn of the 21st century. Dr. Heywood Floyd is on his way to the moon on a mysterious mission, to which he has been hastily summoned. A spaceplane is readied for him, and he is taken to Space Station One where he waits for a transport shuttle to the moon base. On the station he runs into a Russian scientist—Dimitri Moisevitch—who is curious about rumors concerning a mysterious illness possibly associated with something called TMA-1. Dr. Floyd refuses to comment on the rumors and eventually boards the shuttle, arriving on the moon a short time later. There, scientists brief Dr. Floyd on Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), a 3,000,000-year-old object found buried in Tycho crater. When Floyd goes to see the object (which is clearly similar to the one discovered by Moon-Watcher), the rising sun strikes it, and the object sends out a signal that reverberates across the solar system.

Part 3: Between Planets

Onboard the spacecraft Discovery, David Bowman and Frank Poole—along with the intelligent ship's computer system HAL 9000, or Hal—form the active crew and take care of the daily business of the mission to Saturn. Three other crew members remain in hibernation until they are needed when the ship arrives at Saturn. Discovery passes Jupiter, gathering a little data on the planet as it does so and gaining a little energy by bouncing off Jupiter's gravitational field.

Part 4: Abyss

One day, Hal reports that the AE-35 unit, which is an important part of the system that allows communication with Earth, is damaged. Poole goes outside the ship to swap the faulty unit for a new one. But when the old AE-35 unit is tested back inside the ship, Bowman finds it to be perfectly functional. Before too long Hal reports that the second AE-35 unit is also damaged. This is highly unlikely, and Mission Control, back on Earth, suggests that Hal is mistaken and needs to be disconnected. Yet even as this message comes through, the AE-35 unit does fail and the message is cut off. Poole goes outside again to repair the communications system. While he is outside the pod he is tethered to begins moving at full speed, and Poole is quickly killed and his body dragged off into space. Bowman, shocked, decides to wake the other three crew members, but not trusting Hal, he tries to do this manually. However, Hal opens the airlock unexpectedly, killing the hibernating crew members and almost killing Bowman. Bowman is able to disconnect Hal and restore communication with Earth. Mission Control reveals that the mission is not only to gather data on Saturn but to explore Japetus, one of its moons. Japetus, he is told, is where TMA-1's signal led them. Bowman also learns that it was guilt over keeping this secret that led to Hal's instability.

Part 5: The Moons of Saturn

Bowman continues the mission alone. He makes repairs, ejects the bodies of Kaminski, Whitehead, and Hunter from the ship, and generally works to make the best of things. When he considers his circumstances, he realizes he is something like an ambassador of the human race; he makes a point of keeping up his hygiene and grooming in a manner befitting such an important position. He finds "companionship" in listening to works of literature, opera, and classical music. And finally he reaches Saturn. The planet, surrounded by its rings of orbiting ice, rock, and dust, has many moons. One of these is Japetus, his mission's goal. Japetus has a large white oval on one side and as Discovery comes closer to it, Bowman can see that there is a black dot in the exact center of the oval. The black dot turns out to be a monolith similar to TMA-1: TMA-1's "big brother." Bowman decides to take a space pod and get closer to it.

This "big brother" is the Star Gate. As it detects the space pod, it comes out of dormancy and activates. It opens, like a great eye, and Bowman can see inside. What he sees astounds him, and he transmits an unforgettable final message back to Earth: "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God!—it's full of stars!" With that, Bowman's pod is pulled inside the Star Gate, which closes behind him.

Part 6: Through the Star Gate

Bowman feels as if he is dropping down through space, traveling at high speeds through the stars. Eventually he emerges, floating above a surface and with the blackness of space replaced with glowing, milky infinity. He then travels through another Star Gate, and emerges near a large, red sun orbited by a white dwarf star.

Eventually his space pod comes to rest in what appears to be an Earth hotel. He puts on a spacesuit, exits the pod, and begins to explore. Everything seems just like a regular hotel, except that all food packages are filled with some kind of blue substance. He eats a little of it, gets a drink, watches some TV, and goes to sleep in the bed.

As he sleeps, his memories and consciousness are removed from his mortal self and transferred to an immortal self. A crystalline object filled with moving, wheel-like lights facilitates his transformation. With the newfound powers that he has, Bowman is able to travel back to real space, and to his original time. There he becomes aware that a nuclear bomb has been powered up, so he nonchalantly explodes it. He considers what to do next, much as his man-ape ancestor did before him.

2001: A Space Odyssey Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 An alien artifact helps prehistoric man-apes evolve.

Rising Action

2 Another alien artifact, TMA-1, is found on the moon.

3 TMA-1 sends a signal to a moon of Saturn.

4 Discovery is sent to this moon to find out more.

5 On the way, Hal malfunctions and kills most of the crew.

6 David Bowman reaches the moon Japetus.


7 Bowman goes through the Star Gate and becomes immortal.

Falling Action

8 Bowman returns to Earth as a more powerful being.


9 Bowman detonates a nuclear device high above Earth.

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