monolith by Daniel Norris

Monoliths [mon-uh-liths] are fictional advanced machines built by an unseen extraterrestrial species that appear in Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Space Odyssey’ series of novels and films. During the series, three monoliths are discovered by humans and it is revealed that thousands if not more were created throughout the solar system, although none are seen. The subsequent response of the characters to their discovery drives the plot of the series. It also influences the fictional history of the series, particularly by encouraging humankind to progress with technological development and space travel.

The first monolith appears in the beginning of the story, set in prehistoric times. It is discovered by a group of hominids (apes), and somehow triggers a considerable shift in evolution, starting with the ability to use tools and weaponry.

The first monolith discovered in the modern age was uncovered on the Moon at the site of an unnaturally powerful magnetic field near the crater Tycho. It was called the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1 (TMA-1) before the monolith was discovered. After determining it to be an alien artifact, its name becomes the ‘Tycho Monolith Anomaly 1’ (still TMA-1). Soon afterward, a second, larger monolith was discovered orbiting Jupiter; it was dubbed ‘TMA-2.’ A few centuries in the future, a third monolith is discovered that is buried on Earth in rocks that were millions of years old, and it is surrounded by primitive human artifacts. This one is retroactively named ‘TMA-0’ (as opposed to ‘TMA-3’) because it had been the first monolith to be discovered by men-apes during prehistoric times.

The term ‘Tycho Magnetic Anomaly’ is something of a misnomer when referring to the later discovered monoliths, since neither of these is found on the Moon or emits any significant magnetic field, as described in the novel ‘2010: Odyssey Two.’ In the novel, the Russian crewmen of the spaceship Alexei Leonov refer to the TMA-2 as ‘Zagadka’ (from the Russian word for ‘enigma,’ ‘mystery,’ or ‘riddle’).

The extraterrestrial species that built the monoliths is never described in much detail, but some knowledge of its existence is given to astronaut Dave Bowman after he is transported by the stargate to the ‘cosmic zoo,’ as detailed in the novels ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘2010: Odyssey Two.’ The existence of this species is only hypothesized by the rest of humanity, but it is obvious because the monolith was immediately identified as an artifact of non-human origin.

The extraterrestrial species that built the monoliths developed intergalactic travel millions or perhaps billions of years before the present time. In the novels, Clarke refers to them as the ‘Firstborn’ (not to be confused with the identically-named race in his ‘Time Odyssey Series’) since they were quite possibly the first sentient species to possess a significant capability of interstellar travel. Members of this species explored the universe in the search of knowledge, and especially knowledge about other intelligent species. While these early explorers discovered that life was quite common, they observed that intelligent life was often stunted in its development, or else died out prematurely. Hence, they set about fostering it. They looked physically dissimilar to human beings, but from another point-of-view they were fundamentally the same: they were creatures made of ‘flesh and blood,’ and hence like human beings were mortal.

However, the evolutionary development projects they began would by their nature require very long time-spans to complete, far longer than the lifetimes of their creators. Therefore, the aliens created increasingly complex automated machines to oversee and carry out their projects over the eons. When they encountered a living world that had features in favor of the evolution of intelligent life, they left behind the monoliths as remote observers that were also capable of taking a variety of actions according to the wishes of their creators. One such planet, encountered when it was still quite young, was the Earth. They also observed Jupiter and its watery moon, Europa. The decaying ecology of Mars was also visited, but passed over in favor of more fruitful locations like Earth. The aliens left behind three monoliths to observe and enact their plan to foster humans to pursue technology and space travel.

As described in Clarke’s novel, the Firstborn discovered later how to transfer their consciousness onto computers, and thus they became thinking machines. In the end, they surpassed even this achievement, and were able to transfer entirely from physical to non-corporeal forms – the ‘Lords of the Galaxy’ — omniscient, immortal, and capable of travelling at great speeds. The Firstborn had abandoned physical form, but their creations, the monoliths, remained, and these continued to carry out their original assignments.

All the monoliths are black, extremely flat, non-reflective rectangular solids whose dimensions are in the precise ratio of 1 : 4 : 9 (the squares of the first three integers). These dimensions are the main source of debate about the simple external design of the monoliths. It is suggested in the novel ‘2001’ that this number series does not stop at three dimensions. The monoliths are observed in several different sizes – TMA-0 and TMA-1 are both about 11 feet long, but TMA-2 is two kilometers long on its longest axis. They may be able to assume any size, because in ‘2010: Odyssey Two,’ the Star Child, created from the astronaut Dave Bowman, cryptically notes that the monolith is actually one size – ‘as large as necessary.’

These monoliths appear to be extremely long lived and reliable machines, essentially an incredibly advanced form of multifunction robot, being able to survive for millions of years buried in the ground or resisting meteorite impacts and radiation in space, with no apparent damage. The two monoliths recovered and examined by humans reveal themselves to be virtually indestructible and impenetrable, resisting all attempts to analyze their composition or internal structure right up to the end of the series. It is suggested by Dr. Heywood Floyd that they possess some sort of force shield, an impression he gets from touching it and much later accepted as most probable because the monoliths resist destructive testing beyond the theoretical limits of material strength. However, they are not completely indestructible – TMA-4 suffered damage when a giant meteorite of solid diamond collided with Europa in ‘2061: Odyssey Three.’ In the last book of the series, ‘3001: The Final Odyssey,’ all three monoliths known to humankind are deactivated by infecting them with a powerful computer virus.

While it is unclear what the composition of the monoliths is, they clearly have mass, which is about the only observation that can be made. In the ‘2010,’ the crewmen of the spaceship ‘Alexi Leonov’ measure the mass of TMA-2 and they find that it has a density slightly higher than that of air (presumably at a standard temperature and pressure). The masses of TMA-0 and TMA-1 are never revealed by Clarke.

In ‘2001,’ TMA-2 opens up a stargate that takes Dave Bowman on a trip across the universe at faster-than-light speeds, and with as much acceleration as the creators of the stargate wish. In ‘2010’ and again in ‘3001,’ TMA-2 is seen to teleport itself. TMA-2 is also seen to replicate itself by a form of symmetrical binary fission and exponential growth to create thousands or millions of identical monoliths in just a matter of days. In ‘2010,’ the many units act to increase the density of Jupiter until stellar ignition is carried out, hence converting the planet into a miniature star. In ‘3001,’ millions of copies of TMA-2 are observed to assemble themselves into two megastructure disks that attempt to block the Sun from the Earth and from its colonies in the Jovian system.

The monoliths are clearly described in the novels as being controlled by an internal computer, like Von Neumann machines (an early computer architecture). In ‘2061,’ the consciousness of Dave Bowman, HAL-9000, and Dr. Floyd become incorporated as computer programs in TMA-2 as their new home. TMA-2 then observes the development of the Europans and guards them from any interplanetary (i.e. human) interference.

The TMA-1 was dug up during the lunar night, but after sunrise and its exposure to direct sunlight, TMA-1 emits a single powerful burst of radio waves – aimed at Iapetus (Saturn) in the novel, and aimed at Jupiter in the motion picture. Its powerful magnetic field disappears immediately. In the novel, some scientists speculate that its magnetic field came from large electric current, circulating in a system of superconductors for millions of years as an energy-storage mechanism. All of that electric power was expended in the one radio signal.

The TMA-2 monolith had judged humanity not worthy of survival due to its chaotic and war-like social state in the year 2001, or at least, that it would be preferable to start over by uplifting the primitive Europans, and humanity might pose a threat to them. TMA-2 thus converted Jupiter into a new star (dubbed ‘Lucifer,’ meaning ‘light-bringer’) to warm Europa into more habitable conditions – at the cost of exterminating the Jovians, ocean-like creatures who swam through the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. The Jovians were judged too primitive, as due to their environment they never had hope of developing tools or advanced intelligence. Apparently the TMA-2 monolith was allowed to destroy primitive species at its own discretion, but needed the authorization of a ‘superior’ to destroy an advanced spaceflight-capable civilization such as humanity. This ‘superior’ was apparently a hub-monolith located in a distant star system, but even the monoliths were limited by the speed of light in their interstellar communications. Thus it took five hundred years for the message sent by TMA-2 to reach its ‘superior,’ which then sent a message giving permission to destroy humanity, which took another five hundred years to return to the Sol system in the year 3001. Due to the efforts of Frank Poole, the ascended Dave Bowman and AI HAL (now fused as one being ‘Halman’ in the monolith’s computational matrix) were able to introduce a computer virus into TMA-2 which destroyed it before it could render the human race extinct.

The Firstborn did not apparently abandon all interest in the evolutionary experiments overseen by the ancient monoliths. Given that the monoliths’s communications are said to be limited by the speed of light, but Dave Bowman is sent on an interstellar journey at the end of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ Bowman was apparently transformed into the Star-Child not by the monoliths but by the Firstborn (both Kubrick and Clarke have similarly stated that Bowman was transformed by non-corporeal aliens, not the monoliths). They also subsequently transform HAL in 2010, to give Bowman a companion. The epilogue to ‘3001: The Final Odyssey’ reveals that the Firstborn had been monitoring humanity’s final confrontation with the monoliths in the Sol system, but chose not to intervene. Unlike the TMA-2 monolith, whose judgement of humanity was based on its social progress by the year 2001, the Firstborn considered the more peaceful and responsible humanity of the year 3001 worthy of survival, or at least not a threat to the Europans. Their assessment seems to prove true, as subsequently Frank Poole and the other humans land on Europa and attempt to start peaceful relations with the primitive natives.

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