2001: A Space Odyssey | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey | Symbols

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Moon

From humankind's first observations to its importance in space exploration, the moon symbolizes human curiosity and the pursuit for knowledge. It is closely tied with the themes of curiosity and humanity. Historically, the moon and its phases have influenced calendars. The moon was one of the first objects humans observed through telescopes. In the 1960s President Kennedy ignited the imagination of the people of the United States with a vision of sending a man to the moon.

And so Clarke uses the symbol of the moon to represent the human tendency to look at the sky, wonder about it, and ultimately travel into it. As his name implies, Moon-Watcher watches the moon. His descendants would also observe the moon. And some of them would visit it—even building a base there and making it a place humans call home. The moon, then, is first a goal. Then it becomes a jumping-off point for even more ambitious goals. This shows humanity's insatiable thirst for exploration.

The moon is also closely tied to the sea, through its gravitational pull and the ocean's ebbing and flowing tides. The moon is therefore a fitting object of humanity's fascination and travels in a novel entitled Space Odyssey, functioning as a corollary to the sea in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Both the sea and space are vast, mysterious expanses containing unexplored depths and hidden dangers that humanity has learned to navigate but has not yet mastered.

HAL 9000

Both Hal's intellectual capacity and emotional frailty are strikingly human characteristics, making the artificial intelligence symbolic of humanity's greatest strengths and weaknesses. He is so complex that his "brain" development is likened to the development of the human brain. He can pass the Turing test, which supposedly tests for "intelligence."

But with this complexity, Hal also gains conflicting emotions and the ability to make mistakes, to deceive, to experience shame, and even to kill. His murder of most of the crew of Discovery reflects a similar milestone in the evolution of humans—the murder of One-Ear by Moon-Watcher. Because the only two characters in the novel to evolve commit murder, it follows that the third would do so as well. So Hal helps develop the themes of humanity and violence.

Monoliths

These alien objects represent the unfathomable mysteries of the universe, and humanity's smallness in comparison. The crystalline object that Moon-Watcher calls the "New Rock" is a messenger of an advanced alien race, and it reveals to the man-apes secrets that allow them to evolve to become fully human.

The monoliths on the moon and on Japetus are unbelievably old—3,000,000 years—and take David Bowman on a journey outside real space and time. The contrast of these huge spaces and long periods of time with the relative smallness of human lives and space exploration supports the theme of vastness of time and space.

Baby

David Bowman's transformation from mortal to immortal is represented by a human baby, the Star Child. This Star Child—which has, for a time at least, the appearance of a human baby, but is immortal—symbolizes rebirth. In Bowman's case, the rebirth is of the individual. But the Star Child also symbolizes the rebirth of humanity into a new, more evolved, form. This form is free from the limits of time and space, but not from the effects of being human.

Questions for Symbols

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