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2001: A Space Odyssey

Arthur C. Clarke

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Discuss the ways in which 2001 explores the possibility of non-human intelligence.

Two elements of non-human intelligence form the central focus of this book. First, the intelligent beings who trained the man apes and left behind the big black slab on the moon capture the imagination of the humans who discover TMA-1 and, ultimately, develop a space project aimed at further exploring them. Second, Hal is an intelligent being created by Man. Not only can he can essentially control a space shuttle flight, but also he can converse with a human, almost as if he were one himself.

Both of these elements force humans to put their own intelligence into perspective. On the one hand, they are not uniquely intelligent, as they can no longer conceive of themselves as supremely special. Secondly, Hal shows the limitations and potential harms of intelligence. If Hal been a little less intelligent, he would have never rebelled and the death that resulted from his rebellion would not have occurred.

Further, both of these types of intelligence demonstrate the limitations of human knowledge about intelligence. First, those who left the black slab behind are far more advanced than humans could imagine. They display a different and more advanced intelligence than we can fathom. Second, Hal's malfunctioning represents a limitation on the understanding of those who created him. They did not realize that the intelligent machine they were creating might eventually become self-conscious. The destruction that follows because of this could have been averted if Hal's developers had a greater understanding of artificial intelligence and they had been able to create a machine that could perform all of Hal's functions without becoming self-aware and developing "free will."

How does 2001 express a concern about nuclear weapons?

Though nuclear weapons are explicitly mentioned only briefly, they are one of the main issues in 2001. First, the introductory part of the book (Part One) concludes by pointing out the tenuous and unstable situation that is created along with nuclear weapons—"as long as they (nuclear weapons) existed, he (man) was living on borrowed time." Second, the book ends with a nuclear weapon being launched. In the fictional world of 2001, the bomb's destructive potential is never realized as Star-Child saves Earth, but, inasmuch as we cannot count on such a miracle, this presents a significant worry about the future implication of nuclear weapons on our world.

Implicitly, the story of 2001 offers a critique of nuclear weapons. The lesson of Hal can be generalized. Hal represents human technology. His failure represents first, our inability to fully understand and predict the results of our technologies. Second, it expresses the possibility that the technology we create to produce great benefits can be turned against us. The parallels to nuclear weapons are clear. Though the U.S. had created nuclear weapons to win a war and to serve as a deterrent in the cold war, these same nuclear weapons were leading to problems, such as the Cuban missile crisis, and presented a real potential for mass destruction.

Suggested Essay Topics

How does the ending of 2001 fit with the rest of the book?

What function is served by the story about the man-ape?

2001 presents a complex view of technology. On one hand, as a science fiction work, it enthusiastically explores the possibility of new technologies. On the other hand, it seems to criticize unchecked technological innovation. Discuss.

Discuss the role of those who planned the mission and their culpability in the failure of Hal.

What would be the implications for humans of the discovery of an extra- terrestrial intelligence?

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Minor correction

by abitofaLunaTic, July 22, 2013

HAL is HAL 9000, not HAL 2001 as mentioned in the Themes, Motifs and Symbols section

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