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2001: A Space Odyssey | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey | Themes



Like many science fiction stories, 2001: A Space Odyssey asks the question: What does it mean to be human? It attempts to identify characteristics that make humanity unique in relation to its own prehistoric ancestors by considering what developments or milestones helped make the transition from prehuman to human. Among these milestones are (1) the use of tools, including weapons that allowed them to become predators rather than prey and (2) the development of language, which allowed the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. The use of weapons against other humans, scientific study, and exploration are also shown to be characteristics integral to humanity.

The defining characteristics of humanity are also explored by contrasting humans with both aliens and machines. The alien race encountered in the novel blurs many of the boundaries we think of as being part of what it means to be human, such as organic bodies and mortality. Once David Bowman also transcends some of these boundaries, his humanity must be questioned. Did he lose his humanity when he became immortal? Is Bowman just taking the next step in evolution—which seems to have been engineered by the aliens anyway—when he becomes a Star Child?

The artificial intelligence Hal—the HAL 9000—also provides a contrast by which we can consider the question of humanity's uniqueness. Hal is, in some ways, the most well-rounded character in the novel—the most human. He is extremely intelligent, and enthusiastic about his mission. Yet he also feels guilt and shame, he makes mistakes, he lies, and he commits murder.


Although the nature of humanity is a main theme throughout the novel, specific human characteristics are prominent themes in their own right. In particular human curiosity and the search for knowledge and understanding are shown to be important parts of the human experience.

Moon-Watcher is one of the first man-apes to observe the moon, foreshadowing the intense curiosity later humans would share. Curiosity about the magnetic anomaly on the moon leads to the discovery of TMA-1. Curiosity about the signal sent by TMA-1 leads to the mission of Discovery. Curiosity about the strange object on Japetus leads David Bowman to take a space pod closer. As the driving force of both the novel's plot and real-life scientific investigation, the human drive to ask and answer questions is intrinsic to man's identity.


While curiosity and exploration are defining marks of humanity, violence is a close second. From the first murder—as Moon-Watcher plays Cain—to nuclear warfare, the novel shows that advances in hunting, science, and exploration have a serious downside. They are always accompanied by the development of more deadly and effective weapons.

By the time David Bowman is deployed on his mission of exploration, the powerful nations of Earth are coming ever closer to nuclear war and the annihilation of the human species. In the end it is uncertain whether Bowman will use his newly discovered power to rescue humanity from its violent tendencies or inflict even greater danger upon them.

Vastness of the Universe

Moving as it does from before the dawn of humanity, through time to the present, and soaring over ages of human evolution, the novel's scope is very large. Its narrative arc emphasizes long periods of time. Images underscore this sense of vastness, both in space and in time.

The monolith projects its signal through the solar system in a moment. Clarke frequently draws readers' attention to the grand movements of heavenly bodies—the stars and planets. The many descriptions of the vacuum of space and Discovery's flight away from Earth emphasize the way space expands around our tiny planet in all directions. The focus on both the past and future of humanity encourages readers to think of time, as well, extending infinitely into both the past and future.

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