An iconic book and film, 2001: The Space Odyssey changed the way in which Science Fiction was perceived in popular culture and changed the “face” of cinema forever.

To some extent following familiar footsteps with regards to mankind being uplifted (see future posts on the Uplift War & other books by David Brin) by a far superior earlier race (progenitors, “The Ancients” as popularized in Stargate:SG1), 2001 shows how early Man was able to make the transition from prey to predator and eventual ruler of the world.

This Alien “Super Race” has seeded the galaxy with Monoliths which are designed to encourage the development of intelligent life (you could in some respects equate this to Von Neuman machines which are self replicating robots postulated as the only way to explore the universe … I’ll get into a real discussion of them at a future time). One such monolith is discovered on the plains of Africa, several million years B.C. and it “inspires” (changes?) a group of early man to develop and conceive of tools.

The main Ape Man (“Moon-Watcher”) uses these tools to defend his tribe from a roving leopard and then uses a club to kill the leader of a rival tribe. Moon-Watcher reflects that though he is now master of the world, he is unsure of what to do next—but he will think of something.

What happens next?

Jumping ahead, the book takes us to 1999 and Dr. Heywood Floyd.  Dr. Floyd is traveling to Clavious Base on the Moon and upon his arrival he is informed that they have found an anomoly under the soil in the Tycho basin.  Dubbed Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One (or TMA-1), an excavation of the area reveals a large black slab (identical to the one found by Moon Watcher earlier) and by analysis of the soil they are able to determine that it is over 3 million years old!

As Floyd and a team of scientists journey across the moon-scape to study the structure, they arrive just in time for the first touch of sun to hit its structure in all this time.  As soon as the sun light hits its surface (basically it can be assumed that the creators of this devise determined that only a sufficiently advanced civilization could journey to their moon and dig it out thereby “awakening it”), a radio transmission is broadcast to the far ends of the Solar System.  Determining that the signal was sent to Iapetus – one of the many moons of Saturn – an expedition is planned to investigate.

The Discovery One Mission Starts

Jumping forward again, we are taken to the year 2001 and the Discovery One mission to Saturn.  Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Francis Poole are the only conscious humans onboard the mammoth spaceship with the remainder of the crew in a state of suspended animation.  HAL 9000 – an AI (artificially intelligent) computer runs the ship and maintains life onboard.

After a series of false alerts from HAL, Poole and Bowman become convinced that HAL is defective and suspicious of HAL’s refusal to admit that there is anything wrong.  While communicating with Earth to relay their suspicions (which are verified), the link between Earth and the ship is severed.

Poole takes a pod outside the ship to repair the link and as he is doing so, he is killed by HAL who uses the pod to crash into Poole and tear his spacesuit.  Bowman – in shock – determines that he needs to wake up the rest of the crew to deal with the situation but as he is in the midst of doing so, HAL opens up the airlock doors and vents the ships atmosphere.  Bowman is successfully able to make his way to a sealed emergency shelter which has a spare spacesuit and is able to make his way back to the main computer area.

Bowman then laboriously disconnects the computer, puts the ship back in order and manually re-establishes contact with Earth. Learning that the true intent of the mission is to explore Japetus, he realizes that HAL had begun to feel guilty about having to keep the mission secret and had in essense had a psychotic episode due to the disconnect between his prorgramming and the mission goals.

The Continuing Mission

With the loss of air on the ship making a return to Earth impossible, Bowman elects to continue the mission and spends months alone slowly approaching Japetus.

During his long approach, he gradually notices a small black spot on the surface of Japetus. Realizing that this is again one of the black monoliths – only this time immensely larger, Boman elects to explore it one of the extra-vehicular pods.

However, as Bowman gets closer, the programming of the Monolith takes control and it is revealed as a Star Gate when it opens and pulls in Bowman’s pod.  Just before he enters, Mission control hears him say –  “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it’s full of stars!”

Transported via the monolith to a star system far outside our galaxy, Bowman is brought to a nice hotel suite (anyone remember this from Star Trek : TNG?) designed to make him feel comfortable and at ease.  Falling asleep, Bowwmans mind and memories are drained from his body and he is reshaped into the Star Child.  An immortal entity that can live and travel in space.

As the Star Child, Bowman returns to Earth and destroys the weapons threatening humanities survival and then like Moon Child before him – the new master of the world, Star Child too is uncertain of what to do next … but knows that he will think of something!

Closing Thoughts

Clarke is probably best known for his realistic depictions of space travel and his overall optimism for the future of humanity as a species.  Released as it was just prior to the seminal moon landings themselves can only have helped this books popularity but even taking that out of the picture and reading this book 30 years later it stands up very well.

The “red eye” of HAL portrayed so well in the movie and the tragic dissonance that this “person” feels is extremely well covered in the book also – and to be honest the malevolence of HAL comes across so much more in print.

If you have not read this book yet – read it.  If you have watched the movie and not really understood it – read the book and then watch the movie again … trust me … it just makes more sense.  While they are meant to stand alone – they are definitely stronger together.

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