- Perils of technology
2001: A Space Odyssey explores technological advancement: its promise and its danger. The HAL 9000 computer puts forward the troubles that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.
- Perils of nuclear war
The book explores the perils related to the atomic age. In this novel, the Cold War is apparently still on, and at the end of the book one side has nuclear weapons above the earth on an orbital platform. To test its abilities, the Star Child detonates an orbiting warhead at the end of the novel, creating a false dawn below for the people on earth. Roger Ebert notes that Kubrick originally intended for the first spaceship seen in the film to be an orbiting bomb platform, but in the end he decided to leave the ship's meaning more ambiguous. Clarke, however, retained and clearly stated this fact in the novel.
The novel takes a panoramic overview of progress, human and otherwise. The story follows the growth of human civilization from primitive man-ape. Distinctively, Space Odyssey is concerned about not only the evolution that has led to the development of humanity, but also the evolution that humanity might undergo in the future. Hence, we follow Bowman as he is turned into a Star Child. The novel acknowledges that evolutionary theory entails that humanity is not the end, but only a step in the process. One way this process might continue, the book imagines, is that humans will learn to move to robot bodies and eventually rid themselves of a physical form altogether.
- Space exploration
When 2001: A Space Odyssey was written, mankind had not yet set foot on the moon. The space exploration programs in the United States and the Soviet Union were only in the early stages. Much room was left to imagine the future of the space program. Space Odyssey offers one such vision, offering a glimpse at what space exploration might one day become. Lengthy journeys, such as manned flights to Saturn, and advanced technologies, such as suspended animation, are described in the novel.
- Artificial intelligence
The book raises questions about consciousness, sentience, and human interactions with machines. Hal's helpful disposition contrasts with his malevolent behaviour. Through much of the movie he seems to have malfunctioned. At the end of the novel we learn that Hal's odd behaviour stems from an improper conflict in his orders. Having been instructed not to reveal the nature of the mission to his crew, he reasons that their presence is a threat to the mission, which is his prime concern. Hal's reversion to a childlike state as Dave shuts him down mirrors aspects of human death, and his expressed fear of being shut down causes Dave to hesitate.
- Accoutrements of space travel
The novel is deliberately written so as to give the reader an almost kinesthetic familiarity with the experience of space travel and the technologies encountered. Large sections of the novel are devoted to detailed descriptions of these. The novel discusses orbital mechanics and the manoeuvres associated with space travel with great scientific accuracy. The daily lives of Bowman and Poole on board the Discovery One are discussed in detail and give the impression of a busy yet mundane lifestyle with few surprises until the malfunction of Hal. Dr. Floyd's journey to Space Station One is depicted with awareness of fine points such as the experience of a Space Shuttle launch, the adhesive sauces used to keep food firmly in place on one's plate, and even the zero-gravity toilet.