2001: A Space Odyssey: Summary, Analysis & Explanation

Part 1

The book begins 3,000,000 years in the past with some really stupid man-ape ancestors of the human race. There’s perpetual starvation and life expectancy is very short. The man-apes suffer hunger and attacks from ferocious beasts. Moon Watcher is their leader and is the only one of the clan who is able to walk upright (For you NBA fans, Moon Watcher is the equivalent of Lebron James. He has evolved his game far beyond the abilities of anyone else on his team; the other members of Moon Watcher’s clan are Lebron James’ teammates in Cleveland. They’re pretty much worthless).

The tribe’s future and the destiny of the human race is changed as a mysterious black rock lands near the tribe’s shelter (This would make for an excellent Survivor immunity idol). The rock hypnotizes the man-apes and probes their minds. While in a trance, the man-apes are able to tie knots and hit bull’s-eyes with stones, bringing them much pleasure.

The monolith continues to probe some of the man-apes, including Moon Watcher, and gives them new instincts, the most important being killing pigs and eating them, solving the starvation problem that has plagued the clan since its existence. The monolith also instills in the clan the ability to create weapons, which they use to kill an attacking leopard, allowing man to control his surroundings for the first time.

Now it is time for the heavy-handed irony alert: the ability to make weapons made man the master of his world; the ability to make weapons may some day destroy man–the heavy-handed irony alert is now over.

Part 2

For those not familiar with the Cold War era in U.S. History, here is a brief explanationn – The Soviet Union and the United States were enemies. The United States and the Soviet Union had large amounts of nuclear weapons. Both feared a nuclear attack.

Part 2 is easily the most boring part of the novel. Feel free to read this and skip it. Here’s what happens:

  1. Dr. Heywood Floyd goes to the moon to examine a top secret artifact.
  2. The top secret artifact is a black monolith, named TMA-1, with the dimensions of 1 x 4, x 9.
  3. As Floyd and others look at the TMA-1, it is struck by sunlight and emits a piercing noise. Satellites pick up a radio pattern that originates on the moon and is beamed out to the Universe.

Parts 3 and 4

A completely new set of characters arrive in Parts 3

Hello Dave

and 4. They are Frank poole, David Bowman, three sleeping astronauts, and Hal, a computer that controls everything on the ship. Here are the highlights of part 3:

  1. The spaceship Discovery is on a mission to Saturn. Hal knows the real purpose of the mission. Frank and Dave do not.
  2. Frank and Dave spend most of their day checking systems and making sure things go as planned.
  3. Discovery passes near Jupiter and sends two probes. The first one flares out; the second one gets into the atmosphere and sends back data.
  4. Hal notifies his crew that the AE-35 unit, the equipment needed to make sure radio transmission is possible with Earth, is about to fail. Frank goes outside to replace it.
  5. Hal then notifies the crew that the new unit is about to fail. The crew doubts him. It fails. Hal gloats, an awfully human thing to do for a computer.
  6. Frank goes out to check on the new AE-35 unit. Hal causes the space pod to ram Frank and kill him.
  7. David suspects Hal of murder and asks for manual control of the dehibernation units. Hal finally relents, but then opens the airlock, sucking the sleeping astronauts into space.
  8. We discover that Hal, feeling guilty for lying to the crew about the true mission of Discovery, destroyed the AE-35 unit and killed the knowing crew members to protect himself.
  9. David manages to survive and disengage the non-essential parts of Hal’s personality.

Part 5

Remember the first time you saw the ocean or the first time you saw the view from atop a mountain or the first time you saw that girl in your Chemistry class in a bikini? That doesn’t begin to describe the awe Dave Bowman must have felt as he entered the star gate.

Here are some highlights from part 5 of 2001: A Space Odyssey:

  1. David restores the ship to working order after the Hal-murdering-four-people episode. He must manually check all the systems on a regular basis. He concludes that the homicidal Hal had cracked due to inner conflicts regarding the true nature of the mission.
  2. Although David’s in a precarious position, he is awed by the true nature of his mission and the possibility of encountering extraterrestrial beings.
  3. Bowman approaches Saturn and prepares for a rendezvous with one of its moons, Japetus. As he orbits Japetus, he notices a large black slab, similar to TMA-1, only larger.
  4. We find out that the slab had been placed there 3 million years ago and that the civilization from whence it came has evolved into energy beings, freed from bodies. As Bowman approaches the slab, he sends signals, but gets no response.
  5. David decides to take one of the extravehicular space pods to get a closer look. He gets close and sees the slab receding. His last communication mentions an endless amount of stars.

Part 6

The meaning of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey may not be entirely clear the first 23 times you read it. I’m here to help. Here are the highlights of part 6 with an attempt to explain the ending:

  1. Bowman notices numberless stars and realizes he has traveled through a space warp and arrived at a “Grand Central Station of the Galaxy.”
  2. His pod descends towards a giant red sun. He arrives at a what looks like a hotel suite. He inspects it and takes a nap.
  3. David’s memory is taken from him and stored elsewhere. He becomes bodiless, an omnipotent being of energy.
  4. His fond memories of Earth remain. He returns there as a nuclear war is about to begin.
  5. David uses his powers to detonate the nuclear missile before it destroys anything. War is avoided.

The ending of the book involves the novel’s two main themes–the dangers of technology, and the evolution of humans. On one hand, humans have the potential to evolve, a necessity if peace and happiness are to ever reign supreme. On the other hand, humans have the capabilities and desire to destroy each other and themselves.

In the novel, David evolves just in time to save the planet. In reality, however, no such David exists.


  • Clarke, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Penguin Books. New York. 1999.
  • Images in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This post is part of the series: 2001: A Space Odyssey Study Guide

Don’t be lost in space, read this study guide.
  1. Themes in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey Characters
  3. 2001: A Space Odyssey Explained