Study Guide

2001: A Space Odyssey Analysis

  • Tone


    2001 is impressed with itself. It tells a story of big, honking, cosmic events, and it thinks those big, honking, cosmic events are pretty cool. The narrator is constantly nudging you to tell you how awesome the narrative is. The novel doesn't just say, hibernation is disorienting; it pulls out the rhetorical big guns to tell you:

    Though [Bowman] had come back safely from the furthest borders of sleep, and the nearest borders of death, he had been gone only a week. (15.37)

    Or it rushes to explain to you:

    Space pods were not the most elegant means of transport devised by man, but they were absolutely essential for construction and maintenance work in vacuum. (22.2)

    Hibernation is awesome and we really, really need those space pods. Either way, the point is that we should respect and be impressed by technology, progress, and gadgets—whether human, or alien. The tone of the book can be summed up as "Space stuff is cool."

  • Genre


    This is one of the science-fictionyest of science-fiction novels. Clarke is often seen as one of the most important sci-fi authors, and 2001 has many of the hallmarks of classic mid-20th century sci-fi. There are computer brains, there are aliens, and there are incessant, endless, joyfully bland descriptions of technical details, how weightlessness works, and how Saturn's rings were formed.

    At the same time as it's dead center science fiction, though, this book is also a New Age tract of sorts—a vision of benevolent godlike aliens helping humans achieve their cosmic potential. The future in 2001 isn't just a genre; it's also a religion—kind of like Scientology.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    2001: A Space Odyssey sneaks an allusion into its title. The Odyssey is a long Greek poem by Homer about a dude named Odysseus who goes on a long voyage. So what's up with the title is that Clarke is saying, that old Greek dude went on a long voyage and had adventures way back when, and so here's a story about the future of 2001, when some other dude is going to go on an awesome voyage also.

    Shmoop would like to be able to tell you there's more to it than that, but there doesn't actually seem to be. James Joyce wove incredibly complex parallels and allusions to the Odyssey throughout his novel Ulysses, but Arthur C. Clarke ain't that kind of modernist literary monolith. Space Odyssey here just means "cool space voyage." If you don't like it, argue with the intergalactic star baby.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The end of 2001 has David Bowman as space baby starchild whooshing through hyper-awesome-whatever-space back to earth. The earth people say, this ending sucks, and they shoot nuclear missiles at him—or maybe they're shooting missiles at each other. Remember this was written back in 1968 when there was a Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, and everyone was worried about nuclear war and global incineration. In any case, no matter why the missiles are fired, nuclear weapons don't work on star children. They're too evolved.

    Speaking of evolving, the last sentences of the book are about how star baby Bowman is master of the world, isn't sure what to do, and will think of something. That almost exactly parallels the last words we hear about old Moon-Watcher:

    Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something. (5.11-12)

    So the end of the book loops back around to the beginning. It makes a parallel between Moon-Watcher, the evolved human who holds the future in his paws, to David Bowman, now a little moon himself circling the earth, who holds the future in his paws. The novel connects prehistoric man to future big head evolved man, and suggests that they both hold fate in their brains.

    And more, they both hold fate in their brains because some aliens have pumped those brains up with super alien pumping intelligence juice (Can we get our hands on some?). Humans are getting on and transcending because someone is looking out for them. The future is in Bowman's thoughts, and his thoughts are alien. In 2001, humans are awesome because they aren't human—they're babies of the stars.

  • Setting

    Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, from millions of years ago till tomorrow

    2001 tends to be more about setting than plot. The book covers huge amounts of time, from the dim distant prehistoric past on earth into the future. It also covers huge amounts of space, from earth to the moon to Saturn and then way beyond into impossibly distant galaxies. The big leaps of time and space are meant to be cool and awe-inspiring. Toward the end of the novel, Bowman thinks:

    He did not even attempt to grasp the scale of the inferno toward which he was descending. (43.2)

    …And that's sort of the point. 2001 uses its big setting to make your jaw drop; it's setting as awe-inspiring spectacle. (And yes, this has a lot to do with the fact that the novel was originally a film—in a lot of ways it's a book about seeing cool special effects.)

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    2001 the film is impressionistic and confusing. The book fills in all the gaps in a breezy, accessible style. The book is almost a Shmoop guide to the film—and as you know, Shmoop guides are delightfully easy to read, and bring joy and good cheer to all—just like Santa Claus.

  • Writing Style

    Solemn, Dry

    Clarke often uses repetition, and semi-Biblical cadences to try to create a sense of solemnity, or importance:

    The ancients, had, indeed, done better than they knew when they named this world after the lord of all the gods. (20.14)

    And so forth.

    Next to such impressive references to despair, hope, ancients, and gods, though, there are also lots of passages that read like technical manuals:

    From the central transit chamber he followed Miller down a curving stair. At first his weight was so sleight he had almost to force himself downward by holding on to the handrail. (8.11)

    The point here is not to elevate the experience, but to give you a sense of the ground level ins and outs of what it would be like to be weightless, or experience some other sci-fi experience.

    Solemn and dry both fit into that tone of "space is cool." (See the Tone section.) Solemn is telling you right out that space is cool, and throwing out words like "hope", "despair", and "lord of all the gods" to nail it down. The use of technical details, on the other hand, just assumes that space is cool; learning about gravity is awesome in itself, and surely you, dear Shmoop reader, want to hear all the technical details. The novel assumes you do, anyway—because that's what being a sci-fi fan means to 2001.

  • AE-35 Unit

    The AE-35 unit is the dingus that stops working because Hal has a glitch. It's the technical gizmo that controls Discovery's communication with earth. With it, the astronauts can get info from mission control and chat with their families (on a time delay). Without it they're on their own, in the deep silence of space, with only a homicidal computer for company.

    The AE-35 can be seen as just an example of space-hardware; it's got an official sounding name, it does official sounding things—it's mostly an excuse for the novel to tell you seriously "This is a small but vital component of the communication system," (21.34) and spout other jargony goodness that makes you feel like you're reading about serious space science. It's a genre gimmick—part of the furniture of sci-fi.

    It's important, though, that the AE-35's job is to connect the Discovery to earth. This isn't just any piece of technological detritus—it's technological detritus that ties Bowman and Poole to their home. The most human part of the ship, then, is in some sense this little gadget. Remember, what makes the man-apes human, or starts them towards being human, is their ability to use tools. The AE-35 unit is a tool too—and tools are what makes people into people, just as, onboard ship, the AE-35 is what ties Bowman and Poole to the human race.

    But Hal is also a technology—and it's Hal that's sabotaging the AE-35. So you could argue too that tools, or technology, disconnects people from humanity.

    Or, in this case, it's a back and forth. Is Bowman star baby more human than human as the alien technology evolves him, or is he no longer human and something else instead? Overall, the novel is enthusiastic about the possibilities of technology and progress—but every so often there's a doubt. The glitchy AE-35 symbolizes both the enthusiasm and the uncertainty.

    And of course the fact that sometimes all those awesome tools just doesn't work very well.

  • Diana Halvorsen

    Diana Halvorsen is the four-year old daughter of Ralph Halvorsen, the moon administrator. She's hardly in the novel; she walks on for just a page or two. But she's symbolically important. She was born on the moon, which means that she's the first space baby in the book. In the light gravity, kids grow fast—"But," Halvorsen says, "they don't age so quickly—they'll live longer than we do." (10.27)

    Diana parallels the space baby that Bowman will become—she's a creature of the stars, and she lives longer (though she isn't immortal, like Bowman.) And as with Bowman, humans evolving in space is seen as pretty darn cool; the novel dwells on her graceful carriage" and "unusually delicate bone structure." (10.28) She is, Floyd thinks a "a great hope" of a future when humans will be creatures of space. (10.31)

    Though Bowman and Diana are parallel in certain ways, there is one crucial difference between them—Diana is a girl. There are hardly any women in the novel (see Theme: Women and Femininity), and what women there are tend to be associated with staying at home or entertaining the men, not with exploration and space travel. In the passage about Diana, earth is even figured as a woman who is left behind:

    The time was fast approaching when Earth, like all mothers, must say farewell to her children. (10.31)

    Diana is sort of an exception—but only sort of. When Heywood Floyd asks her if she wants to go to Earth ever, she says no way; she thinks earth is too crowded and unpleasant. Even though she's a creature of space, she's still oddly unadventurous. In the narrative, she spends most of her time distracting her dad from the important business at hand, just as other women in the chapter (like the stewardess on Heywood's plane, or the woman reporter) try to distract the guys from the manly task of investigating the aliens. Diana symbolizes progress, but some space babies seem like they get to be more adventurous than others.

  • Hibernating Astronauts

    Hibernation allows the astronauts on the Discovery to travel through time. They freeze, move through space, and end up way out there by Saturn. It's similar to what happens to David Bowman when he falls through the Star Gate and his timepiece slows down:

    The seconds themselves were passing with incredible slowness, as if time itself were coming to a stop. At last, the tenth-of-a-second counter froze between 5 and 6. (41.7)

    The link between hibernation and time distortion is made explicitly when Bowman remembers his own time in hibernation:

    Though he had come back safely from the furthest borders of sleep, and the nearest borders of death, he had been gone only a week. (15.37)

    Hibernation, then, mirrors the way the novel works. Great swathes of time (millions of years) pass in a moment; time and space are thumped together as humans move out into the stars to find the past they left behind. The man-apes die and go on living, just as the hibernating astronauts die and will go on again later, far along and far away—unless a homicidal computer gets them first.

  • The Others

    The Others are the rival tribe; the man-apes who scream at Moon-Watchers man-apes down by the river every day. The Others and the man-apes don't fight most of the time, they just shout at each other:

    Though the man-apes often fought and wrestled one another, their disputes very seldom resulted in serious injuries. (1.15)

    The conflict with the Others is, then, a kind of cold war. There's a wary animosity, but not open, effective violence.

    Arthur C. Clarke was himself writing during the Cold War, the long period after World War II when the United States and Russia were engaged in a global conflict short of actual fighting. So the screaming between the Others and the man-apes is in part a symbol of, or an echo of, the Cold War. Humans, the novel seems to suggest, are always fighting and grappling with each other—and technology (whether a club or nuclear weapons) has the potential to make that conflict a lot bloodier and more dangerous.

    The novel seems excited about how Moon-Watcher's use of tools has allowed him to win the cold war, bash in the skulls of the others, and become "master of the world." (5.11) At the same time, though, the book recognizes that technologies of death can lead bad places—nuclear weapons appear for a brief cameo at the very end of the book.

    So the Others both show how you have to break a few heads if you're going to evolve, and suggest that maybe breaking a few heads is a sign that things aren't evolving so much after all, if you're still fighting one Other or another several millennia in the future.

  • The Slab

    The alien slab, the big sometimes transparent, sometimes black rectangular doohickey that turns man-apes into men and men into space babies—what is it doing there, all rectangular and ominous and omnipotent? What is your purpose, slab? Why do you torment Shmoop so?

    The slab is three things all at once, in its big slabby mysterious way. First, it's connected to the aliens—it symbolizes them. Second, it's a kind of technology; it's a tool, even a computer. The Star Gate (one version of the slab) is obliquely compared to Hal; the novel says "It if had been alive, it would have felt excitement, but such an emotion was wholly beyond its powers" (38.7)—which makes you imagine for a second that the Star Gate is a kind of sentient computer, eager (like Hal) to fulfill its mission.

    And third, the slab is human; it's the slab, after all, that teaches man-apes to be people, using tools and building space ships and learning to speak. Without the slab, Clarke would have you believe, you'd have no computers, no space ships, no Diet 7-Up. People would just be man-apes, not people.

    So the slab wraps aliens, technology, and humans all into one big rectangular bundle. The slab tells us that the thing that makes humans human is alien technology; the most human bit of us didn't come with the earth—the unnatural tool-using bit of us. The slab is a symbol of the contradiction of being human. That contradiction being: to be human is to be part of one big, prolonged alien research project.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Omniscient

    The narrator in 2001 knows everything. He knows what the slab is, what's wrong with Hal, what the aliens are doing and why, and what David Bowman is thinking when he's a super-baby. The narrator often tells you stuff before you really need to know it—so, for example, you learn that the Star Gate is a Star Gate before Bowman falls through it, somewhat ruining the surprise element.

    So why does the novel tell you everything instantly and all the time, rather than letting you discover what the aliens are like for yourself with Bowman (for example)? The answer is that the novel doesn't really care about suspense or plot. It wants to give you the feeling of awesome distances and nifty new knowledge. It wants to give you the feeling of being an omniscient super-evolved space baby—and how better to do that than making you omniscient? In the novel, you see across time and space and into the brains of human and alien alike. What's a little loss of suspense compared to that?

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Quest

      The Call

      You can see the "hero" in 2001 as the human race itself. From that perspective, the call to the journey here is issued by the slab, which drops down to earth to tell the man-apes that if they want to escape hunger and dread, they need to start evolving. It's a long, lonely road up the evolutionary ladder, but some man-ape has to do it.

      The Journey

      Humans set out to be intelligent…and then set out farther to fly to the moon…and then set out farther to go to Saturn, where a homicidal computer ambushes them. Stupid journey.

      Arrival and Frustration

      The human race (in the person of boring David Bowman) gets to the Star Gate, which is where the aliens pointed the man-apes all those years ago.

      Final Ordeal

      Through the Star Gate, there's lots of mind-blowing stuff. Psychedelic colors, awesome suns, magical fake apartments. Who would have thought a man-ape would get this far?

      The Goal

      Uber-evolved space-babyhood is achieved! That was the goal all along, as it turns out. Triumph of the slab and the space baby, at long last.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Back in the Dim Dawn of Man-Apes

      The first section of the novel is a kind of prequel—to the book and to the human race. Aliens turned man-apes to people via psychic slabs. That's the initial situation; godlike extraterrestrials are out there. Watch out people.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Take It To the Moon, Floyd

      People discover an alien obelisk on the moon. It sends out a signal to other aliens on Saturn. What should the human race do? Answer: more space ships! (More space ships are always a good answer if you're writing science-fiction.)

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Need Excitement? Get a Computer

      The Discovery sets off for Saturn; Hal hijacks the mission and kills everyone but Bowman. Thanks a lot, Hal.

      Falling Action

      Nothing to Do Now But Explore the Galaxy

      Bowman continues on to Saturn alone, and from there through the alien Star Gate and out to the far end of the cosmos. There's not much plot action, but lots of pretty galaxies and suns.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      The World Is Yours, Space Baby

      The aliens turn Bowman into a super-space baby who controls the earth. As resolutions go, it is unexpected, to say the least.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Man-ape, meet slab. Slab, meet man-ape. Evolve together.

      Act II

      Heywood Floyd, meet bigger slab. Bigger slab, meet Heywood Floyd.

      Act III

      David Bowman, meet even bigger, bigger slab. Bigger, bigger slab, meet David Bowman and turn him into a Star Baby.

    • Allusions

      Astronomical References

      • Alpha Centauri (32.2, first reference)—The closest star to the earth's solar system.
      • Callisto (19.1)—A moon of Jupiter.
      • Canopus (32.2)—Second brightest star in the night sky, as viewed from earth.
      • Clavius (7.54, first reference)—One of the moon's largest craters.
      • Coal Sack, or Coalsack Dark Nebula (32.2)—An interstellar cloud that obscures the light from a portion of the heavens. It is visible from earth.
      • Dion (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Enceladus (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Europa (18.12, first reference)—One of Jupiter's largest moons.
      • Ganymed (19.1)—A moon of Jupiter
      • Hyperion (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Io (19.1)—A moon of Jupiter.
      • Japetus (30.19)—Also Iapetus; the third largest moon of Saturn.
      • Jupiter (15.3, first reference)—The largest planet in the solar system.
      • Mare Imbrium (12.1)—A large plain on the moon, formed by volcanic eruptions.
      • Mars (7.1)—A planet in the solar system.
      • Mercury (15.19)—A planet in the solar system.
      • Milky Way (32.2, first reference)—The galaxy that contains our solar system.
      • Mimas (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Phoebe (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Rhea (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Sagittarius (32.2)—A constellation.
      • Sirius (32.2)—Brightest star in the night sky as seen from earth.
      • Tethys (34.1)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Titan (32.4, first reference)—A moon of Saturn.
      • Tycho (11.11, first reference)—A moon crater.
      • Van Allen Belts (18.7)—Layers of charged particles held in place by the Earth's magnetic field.

      Literary, Artistic, and Philosophical References

      • Johann Sebastian Bach (33.7)
      • Ludwig Van Beethoven (33.7)
      • Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Martian Chronicles (31.14)—Project BARSOOMin 2001 is a reference to the name for Mars in the Burroughs novel (Barsoom.)
      • Eden (27.2)
      • Vincent Van Gogh, Bridge at Arles (44.6)
      • Homer, The Odyssey (17.23, first reference)—The Greek poem is also referenced in the title. See "What's Up With the Title."
      • Henrik Ibsen (33.5)
      • Herman Melville, Moby Dick (25.33)
      • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (33.8)
      • Pandora's box (12.38)—In Greek myth, a box which contained all the ills of the world.
      • Blaise Pascal (14.1)—A French mathematician and Christian philosopher.
      • William Shakespeare (33.5)
      • George Bernard Shaw (33.5)
      • Jean Sibelius (33.7)
      • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (33.7)
      • Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem Mass, (33. 6)
      • Leonardo da Vinci (7.39, 7.41)
      • H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds (31.15)
      • Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World (44.6)

      Historical References

      • George Anson (17.23)—A British Admiral in the 1700s.
      • Bali (9.43)—An Indonesian island.
      • Bell Systems (44.16)—The group of companies which provided telephone service to the United States from 1877 to 1984, before it was broken up by the government.
      • Niels Bohr (32.11)—A Danish physicist in the early 1900s.
      • Giovanni Deomenico Cassini (30.20)—An Italian astronomer in the 1600s.
      • William Caxton (9.40)—Early printer.
      • James Cook (17.23)—British explorer in the 1700s.
      • Cold War (10.10)
      • Albert Einstein (32.10)—Twentieth century American mathematician and physicist.
      • ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) (16.9)—The first electronic general purpose computer.
      • Johannes Gutenberg (9.40)—Early printer.
      • Kennedy Airport (7.41)
      • Ferdinand Magellan (17.23)—Portuguese explorer in the 1500s.
      • Manila Galleon (17.23)— Spanish trading ships in the early modern period.
      • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (7.41)
      • Pillars of Hercules (17.23)—Ancient Greek name for the rocks at the entrance to the Strait of Gibralter.
      • Pleistocene Era (1.6)
      • Pytheas (17.23)—Ancient Greek geographer and explorer.
      • Sargasso Sea (42.22)—A sea in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. A lack of wind currents meant that in the past ships had great difficulty navigating out of it, resulting in legends of aimlessly drifting and abandoned ships.
      • Special Theory of Relativity (32.10, first reference)—The theory that nothing can travel faster than light; discovered by Albert Einstein.
      • Alan Turing ( 16.14)—Early twentieth century British mathematician and computer science pioneer.
      • Turing Test (16.14)—A test developed by Alan Turing to determine whether an artificial intelligence is sentient.
      • Troy (30.23)—Site of an Ancient Greek war.
      • John Wheeler (32.11)—An American physicist of the 1900s who invented the terms "black hole" and "wormhole."
      • Grand Central Station (41.24)—A train station in New York City.

      Pop Culture References

      • "Happy Birthday" (21.1)