Planet Earth, Pleistocene, savannah equatorial Africa.
A small tribe of Pithecanthropus is on the verge of extinction. Nature did not endow them with powerful fangs, no sharp claws, no fast legs, but in their eyes glimpses of consciousness flicker. Probably, it is these qualities that attracted the attention of some highly developed extraterrestrial civilization, which carefully nurtures the seeds of Reason wherever they can be found. Pithecanthropes become experimental in a grandiose space experiment.
One night a lump of absolutely transparent substance appears in the river valley. At dusk, when the tribe returns to the caves, an unusual stone suddenly emits a strange vibrating sound, which draws Pithecanthropus like a magnet. In the thickening darkness the crystal comes to life, it begins to glow, in its depths there are bizarre drawings. Enchanted Pithecanthropus do not know that in these instants the apparatus explores their brain, evaluates abilities, predicts possible directions of evolution. The crystal calls to itself one and then another, and they, in addition to their will, make new movements: disobedient fingers tie the first knot on the Earth, the leader takes a stone in his hands and tries to hit the target. Lessons continue every night. For a year, the life of the tribe is changing beyond recognition – now Pithecanthropus can use a set of simple tools, to hunt for large animals. Eternal hunger and fear of predators retreat into the past, there
XXI century. American researchers find the first irrefutable evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization on the Moon already inhabited by mankind.
As the chairman of the National Council for Astronautics, who was urgently called to the moon, found magnetic distortion in the region of the Tycho crater, and excavations at the center of the anomaly found a parallelepiped of ideal proportions from an unknown heavy-black substance on the earth at a depth of six meters. The most striking thing about this finding is its age: geological analysis suggests that the monolith was buried here about three million years ago.
When the moonlight dawns and the black monolith catches a sunbeam for the first time after three million years of imprisonment, a piercing electronic scream sounds in the headsets of people standing around. This signal is detected by space monitors and probes, and the central computer, having processed the information, makes the conclusion: a directed energy pulse, obviously of artificial origin, rushed from the surface of the Moon in the direction of Saturn.
All this is known only to a handful of people, for the consequences of the shock that inevitably mankind has to endure are unpredictable.
Interplanetary space. Spacecraft Discovery. The first months of the flight pass in serene tranquility. Two awake crew members – Frank Poole and David Bowman – carry a watch every day, perform daily duties. The three others are immersed in an artificial hypothermic dream, from which they will awaken only when Discovery enters Saturn’s orbit. Only these three are aware of the true purpose of the expedition – possible contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, while Poole and Bowman consider the flight to be an ordinary research raid. Those who prepared the expedition decided that it was necessary for the Security and Interests of the nation.
In essence, the ship is not controlled by people, but the sixth member of the crew, Eal – the brain and the nervous system of Discovery, a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer. Ebal, created through a process similar to the development of the human brain, can rightfully be called a true-thinking machine, and he talks with people in a real, figurative human language. All the possibilities of EAL are aimed at fulfilling the given program of the expedition, but the contradiction between the goal and the need to hide it from fellow human beings gradually destroys the integrity of its “psyche”. The machine begins to make mistakes, and finally the crisis comes: hearing the talks of the astronauts with the Earth about the need to turn off EAL and transfer control to the Center, it takes the only possible decision: to get rid of people and complete the expedition on their own. It mimics the antenna failure, and when Frank Poole goes into outer space to replace the block, EAL kills him: the jet capsule-boat is flying at full speed to the astronaut. And the next moment, the stunned Bowman sees on the screen that the boat is leaving the ship, dragging the body of the deceased friend along on the safety line. Frank Poole is the first person to get on Saturn.
Bowman tries to wake one of the sleeping ones, but he hears a sound, from which his heart becomes cold: it opens the doors of the outer hatch and air from the ship rushes into the abyss of the cosmos. He manages to escape in an emergency cell, put on a spacesuit and turn off the higher centers of the electronic brain. He remains alone in millions of kilometers from Earth. But the engines and navigation systems of the ship are in full service, the connection with the Earth is restored, and the emergency oxygen supply is enough for months. The expedition continues, and Bowman, who is now aware of its ultimate goal, reaches the gigantic dead Saturn. He is ordered to begin a survey of the system from the eighth satellite of Saturn, Yapet, The entire surface of Yapet, devoid of atmosphere, black,
The experiment, begun three million years ago, was completed. The monolith on Yapet, the Star Gate Guard, was installed by the same creatures who were not at all like humans, who sent a mysterious crystal to Earth and buried a black lump on the Moon. Their efforts were not in vain: the Earth really spawned a Reason capable of reaching other planets, and the confirmation of this was the signal of the lunar monolith, which sent news to Iapetus.
David Bowman decides to sit on Iapetus in a capsule, and her approach awakens the forces contained in the Stargate. The upper edge of the black monolith suddenly goes deep, the capsule begins to fall into the bottomless shaft. It opened the Stargate.
Time stops – the clock stops counting seconds, – but perception and consciousness continue to work. Bowman sees the black walls of the “mine”, and in the gleam of the myriad of stars “running away” from the center. He realizes that something is inaccessible to his understanding with time and space, but he does not feel fear, feeling that he is under the protection of an infinitely powerful Reason. In the end, it turns out to be hundreds of light years from the Earth. The capsule tends to a giant red star, to the realm of flames, but when the journey ends, Bowman seems to have gone mad – he’s in an ordinary terrestrial hotel. Only after a while he understands that all this is a decoration made by the hosts for the guest on a television film of two years ago. Bowman goes to bed and falls asleep – the last time in his life.