Study Guide

2001: A Space Odyssey Themes

  • Awe and Amazement

    Some books want you to laugh, some books want you to cry. 2001 wants you to gasp. To that end, it gives you bigness—big, vast sweeps of time, big vast sweeps of space, big vast fiery suns coming at you. Time and space, 2001 says, are really huge and impressive. Why aren't you impressed yet? Look, it's a big slab—and a bigger slab—and the biggest slab ever, with stars in it. Be impressed. Be very impressed.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Would the vistas of 2001 be more awe-inspiring in a film than on the page? Why or why not?
    2. Can Moon-Watcher feel awe? Can Hal? Is awe a particularly human emotion in 2001?
    3. Are there any expressions of love, or demonstrations of love, in 2001? Does awe replace love in the book?

    Chew on This

    Aliens are the most awe-inspiring thing in 2001.

    Humans are the most awe-inspiring thing in 2001.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    2001 doesn't do much in the way of characterization, so it doesn't provide its characters with much in the way of dreams, hopes, or plans. What does David Bowman want out of life? Who knows. But while there aren't a lot of personal dreams in the book, there is a kind of diffuse species dream. The aliens want humans to progress and reach the stars, and that's sort of what Moon-Watcher and his descendants want too. The book is itself a hopeful dream—a New Age vision of humans transcending. 2001 dreams that one day, we'll all be space babies.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Do Moon-Watcher's slab-inspired dreams come true?
    2. Are the aliens better planners than humans? Why or why not?
    3. Does Hal have plans or dreams? What are they?

    Chew on This

    In 2001, humans are the dreams of aliens.

    In 2001, aliens are the dreams of humans.

  • Isolation

    David Bowman ends up all by himself on a spaceship out by Saturn—which is kind of lonely. But his isolation is also a metaphor for the general bigness of space and humanity's lonely place inside it. At the same time, the novel also imagines that humanity is being watched or taken care of by aliens. The isolation in some ways is meant to make you realize how cool it is that the alien gods are out there watching over you.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. In what sense is Moon-Watcher isolated?
    2. In what sense is Heywood Floyd isolated?
    3. In what sense is David Bowman isolated?

    Chew on This

    2001 shows that humans are alone in the universe.

    2001 shows that humans are not alone in the universe.

  • Mortality

    Any book that's about evolution is also going to be about death. Evolution works through death; some individuals die, but those that live get to pass on their genes. So, over millennia, evolution means lots and lots of death. But—2001 changes the way evolution works. Instead of evolution through dying, you get evolution through genetic manipulation by slab. The aliens are more powerful than death; mortality ends up as just a prelude to immortality. We wonder what Darwin would have to say about this.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Does Moon-Watcher triumph over morality? In what way, or why not?
    2. Does David Bowman triumph over mortality? In what way, or why not?
    3. Does Hal fear death? Does David Bowman? What evidence do you have for your answers?

    Chew on This

    2001 is about the mortality of the human race.

    2001 is about the immortality of the human race.

  • Strength and Skill

    2001 loves strength and skill. Moon-Watcher is awesome because he is smart, and being smart lets him figure out better ways to kill things. Then humans move on up with their gadgets and space ships and take to the stars, and the novel loves describing just how all those nifty ships work—and how smart the people who run them are. Techy details, bureaucratic efficiency, super-smart immortal awesomeness—they all go together. Weaklings need not apply (and even neurotic computers get the ax).

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Does the novel celebrate Moon-Watcher's strength when he murders his rival? Or does it have moral qualms about that?
    2. Is Bowman bad at anything? Is he ever less than skillful?
    3. Are the aliens good? Are they just strong? Does the novel make a distinction?

    Chew on This

    In 2001, to evolve means to become stronger and more skillful.

    The space baby is just a stronger Moon-Watcher.

  • Technology and Modernization

    For the most part, 2001 is really into technology, whether it's bone-saws, spaceships, or alien lattice brains. Technology is cool, technology is hip, technology helps you on up the evolutionary ladder, man-ape. But—there's also a nervousness about technology that peeks through here and there…most notably around Hal, that Frankenstein's monster of a computer. Love the bone-saw—but watch out if it comes after you.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Besides Hal, is there any other example of dangerous or bad technology in 2001?
    2. Can humans be seen as a technology of the aliens? Why or why not? (Is Hal a technology of humans?)
    3. In the novel, does being more technologically advanced make people (or aliens) more moral?

    Chew on This

    In 2001, humans evolve by getting new and better technologies.

    In 2001, humans get new and better technologies by evolving.

  • Time

    Science-fiction has two big themes. The first is space—and 2001 gives you lots and lots of space stuff. The second is time—and 2001 has a bunch of that as well. In fact, space and time are basically smooshed together. When humans get off the planet, they find all this ancient stuff left behind by the aliens, who kick-started human evolution way back when. Traveling out is also traveling back; in 2001 you need to go way into the future to find the past.

    Questions About Time

    1. Is 2001 irrelevant because the 2001 it imagined didn't happen? Why or why not?
    2. If the first section of the novel with the man-apes were removed, would time still be an important theme in the novel?
    3. Does 2001 spread time out? Or does it compress time?

    Chew on This

    2001 is about the future.

    2001 is about the past.

  • Women and Femininity

    You wouldn't think there'd be much to say about women in 2001, because there are almost no women in the entire story. The future is populated just about entirely by men, and the occasional male robot. Which seems curious. Unusual. Perhaps significant. Why only guys? What's with that? Sometimes what's left out of a book can be as important as what's left in. Is it part of progress that women disappear? Is space a place for men to be competent and women to step aside? What kind of future is it where space babies get made without women? A better one? And better for whom? We don't know about you, but we think the glaring lack of female characters reflects a troubling, dated mindset on Clarke's part.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What role is given to the man-apes who are women? Do any of the woman-apes get made smarter by the slab? Why do you think this is?
    2. How would the novel be different if David Bowman's girlfriend had a part in the story?
    3. Are the aliens male or female or neither? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    2001 doesn't care about women.

    2001 cares about women: it wants to make them disappear.