Written when landing on the moon was still a dream, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science-fiction classic that has changed the way we look at the stars—and ourselves. On the moon, an enigma is uncovered. So great are the implications that, for the first time, men are sent deep into our solar system. But before they can reach their destination, things begin to go very wrong. From the savannas of Africa at the dawn of mankind to the rings of Saturn at the turn of the 21st century, Arthur C. Clarke takes us on a journey unlike any other. Brilliant, compulsive, and prophetic, and the basis for the immensely influential Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey tackles the enduring theme of man’s—and technology’s—place in the universe and lives on as a landmark achievement in storytelling.
I personally had no idea that Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film was based on a novel—or, more accurately, had a screenplay written concurrently with the novel on which it was based. However, reading Arthur C. Clarke’s introduction to my copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which he describes the process of working with Kubrick was, honestly, the most interesting part of the book. I don’t say that to imply that the novel is boring. (It isn’t—or at least, it isn’t until the last quarter, when I think it quite literally loses the plot.) In fact, I think Clarke’s novel is far more interesting than Kubrick’s film version, a meandering behemoth that New York Times reviewer Renata Adler hailed as “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Of the two, I would certainly pick Clarke’s rendition.
Like Robert A. Heinlein, Clarke was a hard sci-fi author who cared a great deal about the details—what was possible and what wasn’t. Considering that this novel was published just prior to the first moon landing, Clarke’s descriptions of spaceship bathroom mechanics and equipment replacement procedures are a feat of research, imagination, and exacting logical thought. The worlds Clarke creates—prehistoric and futuristic both—are what make 2001: A Space Odyssey a memorable and worthwhile read.
Discussion questions below the cut!
Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document
Reading Quiz: PDF of Quiz | PDF of Quiz Answers | Word Document
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Both the film and the novel versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, while the first moon landing didn’t even occur until 1969. Given that most people in 1968 knew very little about space travel and how it worked, how does Arthur C. Clarke still make his imagined world feel real? What kind of information or description does he give you to make you feel like this future is an actual possibility?
This novel features a third person omniscient narrator, which means the narrator is all-knowing and easily hops from one character’s mind to another’s as necessary. Some other possible narrative styles include first person (I), second person (you), and third person limited (he/she/it, but limited to just one or a few characters’ perspectives).
- Do you think third person omniscient was an effective choice for this novel? Why or why not?
- Imagine the novel instead in first person, second person, or third person limited. How might changing the narration’s voice change the novel in each case?
Clarke provides almost no description of how the main human characters look.
- What do you think might have caused Clarke to make this choice? Do you think this choice was effective?
- How can detailed description or a lack of description change the way you connect to characters as a reader?
Clarke wrote and revised this novel at the same time that he was also writing its screenplay version with film director Stanley Kubrick.
- If you have seen the film version, are there parts of the book that you felt were more successful in Kubrick’s audio/visual medium? Explain your answer.
- If you haven’t seen the film, are there certain parts of the book that you feel would be more successful on film than they were on paper?
- What challenges can you imagine in adapting this book to a film format? What advantages might there be?
Except for the stewardess and the rarely mentioned wife or girlfriend, there are essentially no female characters in this book. Although Clarke was among the most imaginative sci-fi authors of his time, he still seems to have been unable to imagine a world in which women were scientists, astronauts, or government employees.
- Do you think having some female main characters instead of only male ones would have significantly changed the themes of the text in any way?
- What do you think makes a text “masculine” or makes a text “feminine”? Explain your answer.
- On the other hand, what do you think makes a text “universal”? Is it the content of the text itself or is it who we think the text is written for? Is there such a thing as a “universal” text in the first place?
- Do you think 2001: A Space Odyssey is a “universal” text? Do you think the novel is a “masculine” text? A “feminine” text?
Sci-fi as a genre often pushes us to question our definition of what it means to be “a human,” “a person,” or even just “alive.”
- Would you consider Hal to be any of these three things?
- How about the intelligent alien beings who first transform their bodies into spacecraft, then abandon these bodies entirely?
- How would you define each of these three terms (“human,” “person,” “alive”)?
When Hal kills Frank Poole, David Bowman is shocked that the computer could overcome his programming and harm a human being. This event challenges our common human belief that we have complete control over the things we create.
- Where else in the text do you see themes of creation, as well as themes of transformation?
- What argument do you see the text making about the greatness or the foolishness of creation? Support your answer with examples from the text.
2001: A Space Odyssey was published in 1968 during the Cold War, a tension-filled time when both the United States and the Soviet Union had stored up enough nuclear weapons to destroy all human life. During this time, Clarke wrote: “The spear, the bow, the gun, and finally the guided missile had given [Man] weapons of infinite range and all but infinite power. Without those weapons, often though he had used them against himself, Man would never have conquered his world. Into them he had put his heart and soul, and for ages they had served him well. But, now, as long as they existed, he was on borrowed time.”
- In the present-day world, there are still large numbers of nuclear weapons around the world, as well as plenty of international tension. Do you think that Clarke’s words still apply to our present-day world?
- How do you interpret this quote as relevant—or not relevant—to your own life?
When Moon-Watcher receives the vision of the four plump man-apes, the narration states that “discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.” Do you agree with the text that discontent is a unique and important aspect of humanity? Why or why not?
In discussing the danger an intelligent alien race might present to human beings, Heywood Floyd states, “… as the past history of our own world has shown so many times, primitive races have often failed to survive the encounter with higher civilizations.”
- What do you think Floyd means here by the terms “primitive races” and “higher civilizations”? In other words, what do you think he believes makes a civilization “primitive”? Do you agree with Floyd?
- Although Clarke’s novel might seem to argue that humans need to move beyond violence and war in order to further evolve, it also clearly suggests that violence was a necessary part of developing human intelligence. Do you agree with this belief?
Consider the primitive man-apes at the beginning of the novel who only begin to show “the first rudiments of thought” once they are no longer constantly worried by starvation.
- Based on the information the book gives you, do you think the man-apes could ever have evolved into intelligent life without the monolith’s interference? Why or why not?
- Do you think the aliens’ interference in the development of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe was justified and morally right? Why or why not? Feel free to bring in real-world examples of human interference to justify your answer.
In discussing the Clavius moon base and its scientific research, the novel states, “After ten thousand years, Man had at last found something as exciting as war. Unfortunately, not all nations had yet realized that fact.” This quote seems to suggest that scientific discovery is “as exciting” as violence and that it is a tragedy that not more people agree.
- Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
- Consider how many scientific discoveries and advancements have been fueled by wars or militaristic goals. For instance, the space race itself was a major part of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Does this fact change your answer in any way? Why or why not?
- What do you yourself view as the purpose or value of space exploration?
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are two forms of non-human intelligence: the alien beings and Hal.
- How does Clarke characterize these two different intelligences? How do they care for, intimidate, or outright threaten human life? Use specific examples from the text.
- Consider the overwhelming size of the universe, as well as the countless possible planets that might have intelligent life. How do you feel about the chance that we might discover extraterrestrial life forms within your lifetime? Does imagining this possibility frighten you or excite you? Explain your answer.
- Consider the possibility of advanced AIs becoming responsible for our well-being. Does this possibility frighten you or excite you? Explain your answer.
Consider the ending of the novel. Typically, a novel’s ending should return to the text’s major themes and resolve them in some way.
- What do you see as the major themes of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Do you see those themes represented in the novel’s ending? Do you see those themes being resolved? Explain your answers.
- Overall, did you find the ending of this novel satisfying? Why or why not?
For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!
If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.