The Themes Portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey, by acclaimed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, is a tale of human evolution as guided by a higher intelligence, making it a landmark in literary achievement. Rather than focusing on an isolated moment in history, 2001 spans the entire course of mankind’s development, from the most primitive cavemen to the final stages of evolution, with each period of evolution being represented by a different character or set of characters. These tiers of human achievement are interconnected by the presence of a mysterious stone structure known as “the monolith,” which heralds in each new level of existence for the human race. The themes that Clarke addresses in this book include the evolution of mankind, the conflict of human evolution as opposed to the evolution of technology, and the role of a higher intelligence in human development.
The first theme, which forms the foundation of the 2001 story, is the gradual evolution of the human race. In the first part of the novel, mankind is represented by the savage “man-apes,” who fit the traditional caveman archetype. These creatures are barely above the intellectual level of animals, until the appearance of an extraterrestrial monolith inspires one of them to hunt using stones, thus beginning the use of tools for the human race and possibly saving the race from starvation. When next we see the human race, science and technology have made amazing strides, and the time period is sometime in a fictional twentieth century. Just as the caveman known as Moon-Watcher represented the man-apes, Dr. Floyd becomes the center of attention during this tier in human evolution. Floyd is called on a mysterious mission to the Clavius moon base, where it is revealed that a monolith much like the one discovered by the ape men has been unearthed. The discovery of this monolith marks an important step in human development in both a literal and figurative sense. While the first monolith was seen on Earth, this second monolith delineates mankind’s ability to extend its reach beyond the earth and into outer space, thus marking a significant new level of human achievement. Finally, astronaut David Bowman represents the last evolutionary stage, as he embarks on a mission to one of Saturn’s moons which was indicated by a signal from the moon-based monolith. After a series of events involving the malfunctioning of Hal, the ship’s computer, Bowman arrives on the Saturn moon and unlocks the secret of the monoliths, at which time he leaves the physical body and becomes a spiritual creature who exists beyond the time-space continuum.
Bowman’s story proves more than what man is meant to become, however – he proves that true intellectual and spiritual evolution can only be granted to a living being, and can not be achieved by a machine. Hal, the computerized entity in charge of running the ship that conveys Bowman and his crew to Saturn, stands in antithesis to the idea of evolution by being an artificial being, incapable of becoming the spiritual being that Bowman ultimately is transformed into. Seemingly angered by its lack of humanity, Hal malfunctions and murders Bowman’s crewmate, Frank Poole, forcing Bowman to confront the more-advanced – but more limited – supercomputer. The theme that Clarke seems to be exploring in these scenes is the fact that although a technological creation can be highly advanced, it must remain acquiescent to the higher intelligence of humanity, or else it will become a danger. In a way, this puts the human evolution so thoroughly praised in the book back into perspective, reminding the reader that for every “great” organism there is an even greater one, to which the lesser must remain subservient.
Mirroring the relationship of man to technology, but on a much larger scale, the theme of higher intelligence whispers between the lines of every page of 2001. Although the story that unfolds in 2001 is more scientific than religious, it is clear from the threefold intervention of the monolith that some form of a supreme being or supreme beings is present. From the text of the story, it seems that the monolith appears at the most opportune times, ruling out the possibility of mere coincidence and implying that some form of intelligent life planted the monoliths for a very specific purpose. That purpose evidently is the furthering of human evolution, the transcending from one level of consciousness to the next. At the conclusion of David Bowman’s journey, these implications are confirmed when it is revealed that monoliths were strategically placed throughout the universe for the beings of various planets to discover. This theme is a successful literary bridging of secular evolutionary theory with religious ideology, making the book appealing to both sides of the evolutionary debate.
2001: A Space Odyssey is more than just an epic adventure across the solar system; it is a compelling look at the story of life itself, a fictional Origin of the Species. By presenting the relationships of evolution, technology, and a higher power in the guise of a science-fiction voyage, Arthur C. Clarke is able to successfully bridge the gap between Darwinism and creationism through literary means. Furthermore, the gripping final moments of the book are a poignant reminder of how much farther mankind can evolve, and of the limitless possibilities for human achievement.
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