Plot Synopsis

Primeval Nights:

Three million years before the present, a tribe of "man-apes" is eking out an existence in a drought-ravaged climate, beset by a lack of food and tormented by predators. [In the film, this section is subtitled 'The Dawn of Man'.] Although they share their habitat with various herbivorous animals, the man-apes do not appear to have considered them as a potential source of food. We encounter one man-ape, "Moon- Watcher": "In those dark, deep-set eyes was a dawning awareness - the first intimations of an intelligence that could not possible fulfil itself for ages yet, and might soon be extinguished forever." There is a confrontation with another group of man-apes, ("the Others), but no actual fighting occurs - there is merely a vocal and visual show of strength: "Honour had been satisfied; each group had staked its claim to its own territory."

One morning a "new rock" appears near the caves of the tribe: "It was a rectangular slab, three times his height but narrow enough to span with his arms, and it was made of some completely transparent material; indeed, it was not easy to see except when the rising sun glinted on its edges." This monolith proceeds to awaken something in the man-apes. It appears to be performing experiments on their minds, stimulating them to acquire new skills and understanding. Moon-Watcher acquires skill as a tool- user, killing a wart-hog, and later a leopard, with a "heavy-pointed stone". From this point onwards "he need never be hungry again". Moon-Watcher goes on to attack and kill members of the Others with a weapon constructed out of a stick and the head of the dead leopard. [In the film, no such 'technology' is devised: the man-apes uses a thigh-bone from a dead herbivore.]

A new phase in the evolution of man has begun: "The tools they had been programmed to use were simple enough, yet they could change this world and make the man-apes its masters," and Moon-Watcher "rightly sensed that his whole world had changed, and that he was no longer a powerless victim of the forces around him... Now he was master of the world, and he was not quiet sure what to do next. But he would think of something."

Clarke then follows the "Ascent of Man" from man-apes to the space age in the space of a short chapter: "The tool-makers had been remade by their own tools... For in using clubs and flints their hands had developed a dexterity found nowhere else in the animal kingdom, permitting them to make still better tools, which in turn had developed their limbs and brains yet further. It was an accelerating, cumulative process; and at its end was Man... Stone gave way to bronze, and then to iron. Hunting was succeeded by agriculture. The tribe grew into the village, the village into the town. Speech became eternal, thanks to certain marks on stone and clay and papyrus. Presently he invented philosophy, and religion. And he peopled the sky, not altogether inaccurately with gods... The spear, the bow, the gun and finally the guided missile had given him weapons of infinite range and all but infinite power." Kubrick conveys this in perhaps the most famous jump-cut in cinema history: a weapon-bone tumbling through the air from Moon-Watcher's throw suddenly becomes an orbiting space-craft. In the original script, the space-craft is an orbiting nuclear weapon (more of which later).


Amongst the many orbiting vehicles is a space-plane bearing Dr. Heywood Floyd, the Chairman of the National Council of Astronautics, to an international space station. It becomes apparent that he is en route to the moon, and he is quizzed by a Russian colleague about rumours of an epidemic on one of the lunar bases. Arriving at Clavius base on the moon, it becomes apparent that an amazing discovery has occurred: an electro-magnetic signal in a Tycho crater ("Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One" - T.M.A.- 1) has been investigated and an alien artefact excavated: "The object... was a vertical slab of jet-black material, about ten feet high and five feet wide... Perfectly-sharp-edged and symmetrical..." This monolith is estimated to be three million years old [four million in the film] - the first evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth, and evidence placed when men were little more than apes.

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