Olaf Stapledon’s Future Histories: Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937)

LastandFirstMen2

“This is a work of fiction.” (p. 1)

It’s unfair of me to combine reviews of Olaf Stapledon’s fraternal twin opuses, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930) and Star Maker (1937), both of which are distinct and singular fictional pieces, yet the vast scope of both novels has dazed me in such a way that all I can really do is think of them as a pair, a pair which I think of fondly, reflect upon regularly, and recommend heartily. Their metaphysical and conceptual grandeur is so significant, I am more than a bit mystified in the review department. Is there anything fresh to say after 80 publication years, two billion future history years, and one star maker mind meld?

As most would concur, both novels are fundamental staples of the SF genre, they are required reading for any sci-fi fans. Like the SF works of Shelley and Wells, Stapledon’s future histories aren’t in the canon, they are canon, fomenting ideas that are still being worked over by writers and filmmakers today. Yet I recommend them with caution: L&FM and SM aren’t novels in the classic sense, and they certainly won’t please all readers. In his preface to Last and First Men, Stapledon explains that his “aim is not merely to create aesthetically admirable fiction,” while his preface to Star Maker warns, “Judged by the standards of the Novel, it is remarkably bad. In fact, it is no novel at all.” He calls it “an extravagant work.” On all counts he is correct, which may be the only accurate calculations he makes in those pages of chronological and spatial leaps.

Which goes to show that general sci-fi readers haven’t changed that much between 1930 and 2016. Even though the optimistic tooth-sparkling heroics of Interwar SF magazines are long gone, readers still expect some measure of People Doing Things: contrived space mishaps and arguing and finding oneself and the like. While Star Maker and Last and First Men are ostensibly about People Doing Things, those Things happen on an Epochal and Cosmical scale—more like Peoples Doing Things, or, in other words, lots of Evolving, Thriving, and then Dying.

Although that’s less likely to hook readers, Stapledon cultivates a sense of awe proportional to his immense scales. Cosmic plots and problems are less intimate and less relatable, where species serve as characters, and evolution and adaptation serve as plot, but just the idea of something so magnificent is captivating. L&FM and SM are not human stories, they are Humanity Stories, and their scope is daunting and exceptional. Not being a novel is what makes it so novel but, to some readers, it may be a bit like reading a textbook. An imaginary textbook. A really heartfelt, thoughtful imaginary textbook. With pretty prose.

There is nothing to synopsize that can’t be intuited from the titles: Last and First Men is, undoubtedly, A Story of the Near and Far Future, a forecast of human development on Earth (and eventually beyond) from 1930 through the next two billion years. Seven years later, in 1937, we get Star Maker, a metaphysical exploration of cosmic civilizations, which culminates in a psychical meet-and-greet of humanity’s celestial demiurge.

From a narrative standpoint, the two really do exist as a pair: in L&FM, an advanced civilization psychically enters the mind of the author to explore and share the future-history of Earth’s humankind; in SM, the mind of the author, through the help of an advanced civilization, travels psychically throughout the cosmos to explore and share the future-history-present-past of the universe. Both novels serve as an examination of human existence: its purpose, its nature, its potential, its self-destructive tendencies. In both Last and First Men and Star Maker, the cyclic view of history drives the non-plot. Wave upon wave of civilizations form, crest, then crash on the beaches of history, littered with the arrogance, techno-optimism, and antagonism of the previous civilizations, with the idea that each civilization will learn from and become slightly better than the last (provided that the new civilization isn’t burdened with the struggle of adapting to a new planet).

L&FM and SM are, essentially, Stapledon’s way of making sense of his world and the tensions that gripped the globe in the early 20th century, what he calls in his preface “the age of crisis.” Star Maker, in particular, draws direct parallels to the nations of Stapledon’s time; the very alienness of these intergalactic civilizations heightens the similarities to and the recklessness of actual then-current nations, with colonialism, industrialism, private ownership, and intellectualism regularly serving as the poisons of civilization.

Unemployment, disorder, and stern repression increased as the economic system disintegrated. A familiar story! (33, SM)

In cycle after cycle civilization would emerge from barbarism, mechanization would bring the peoples into uneasy contact, national wars and class wars would breed the longing for a better world-order, but breed it in vain. Disaster after disaster would undermine the fabric of civilizations. Gradually barbarism would return. (137, SM)

If I had any complaints, Stapledon is, in a sense, dehumanizing the human experience by widening his scope on the whole of humanity, something of which history textbooks are often accused. It makes his argument— basically a reconciliation with the negative aspects of humanity for the sake of the bigger, Epochal and Cosmical picture— easier to accept when viewed from above in this way. And there is a sense of disgust underneath the often awestruck, reverential prose: “This bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts” (14, SM). But that complaint is minor; the essence of both novels is in direct dialogue with that humanist contradiction that confuses us all: to love humanity is to despise what humanity does.

Starmaker1The narrative distance is intrinsic to the narrative structure, which is what makes both novels so remarkable, and while it maintains a distance from the individual, personal experience of each society—and really, how could it do otherwise at that scale?—it’s far from dehumanizing. When viewed from the historicist angle, L&FM and SM are attempts to reconcile early 20th century current events with the ever-threatening march toward the bleak future. This is Stapledon wrestling with the ugly truth, suffusing it with human hope. Carrying the banner of SF’s long history of humanistic scrutiny of world events, Stapledon lurches into the widespread footprints of his predecessors, Shelley and Wells. Stapledon is a refreshing reminder of the true tradition of SF’s purpose: to be observant, perceptive, critical, and holistic.

And most important, besides being thoroughly entertaining and stimulating, the early chapters of both novels serve as notice that our civilization still hasn’t moved beyond the evolutionary struggles that Stapledon was grappling with during his time. No matter how much we rev our technological and diplomatic engines, we are stuck in the very same Age of Crisis that inspired these tales.

Strange that it seems more, not less, urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness. (223, SM).

More Stapledon: Odd John (1935) for a tidier novel-like experience
More speculative history: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson

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36 thoughts on “Olaf Stapledon’s Future Histories: Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937)

  1. I agree entirely with his statement on Star Maker, “Judged by the standards of the Novel, it is remarkably bad. In fact, it is no novel at all.”. Amazing ideas, beautiful worlds, galaxies and universes, but ultimately frustrating as a book, as he travels from one to many another while never fully developing any of them. The funny thing is, I absolutely love the intro, before his travels start. Reservations having been stated, an understandably groundbreaking and respected work.

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    • Which is why I hesitate to say that these books should be read by everyone. I disagree with Stapledon, however. To me, L&FM and SM are both absolutely novels, perhaps the first modernist example there is in science fiction: the move away from direct plot, the existential crisis, the seeking of answers, the elevated endnote… it reminds me of a lot of literary fiction that people return to again and again. These are permanent bedside reads for me– not to mine it for ideas, but just to enjoy the fabric of Stapledon’s thoughts.

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      • Funny, yes, I can definitely see it that way, as a modernist work, the existential aspect being undeniable. Even more oddly, I also agree with antyphayes comment about it resembling epic poetry. Still, I can’t help but feel as though it’s a collection of many unfinished books, although that could play along with a modernist read, I suppose.
        Also, want to say, that I always look forward to your reviews, and trust your opinion entirely. Great blog!

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        • It’s possible that the unfinishedness is what I’m attracted to. I tend to like it when things feel a bit (or a lot) off in fiction. But I really think the unfinishedness has more to do with the ideas being reflections of society, rather than just whims of imagination. And, geez, I don’t think I’d want to read the tome that attempts to draw out those societies any more than Stapledon does–it would break my wrist… and I read digital! 😉

          Thanks for the compliment! I don’t know if my opinion should be entirely trusted, for it is quite biased, sometimes uninformed, and occasionally obnoxious.

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  2. antyphayes says:

    These two works of Stapledon’s are more akin to epic poetry than novels, though as you point out stripped of the messy problems of individuals. Nonetheless individuals surface out of the muck of the vast narratives only to sink again so quickly (as you would expect from OS’s godlike purview). I find these works staggering in their vision and also unassailable in their influence. Not only is it almost impossible to emulate them but why would you? SF authors scurry around like so many animalcules in their wake, chiseling away at the various unpicked threads. It is more than appropriate that Stapledon destroyed the SF novel when it was barely born, bringing him in line with the avant-garde shenanigans of his literary contemporaries.
    I love these works so much that sometimes I feel there is little point in reading other SF other than to gauge the proliferation of formal acrobatics and decadence (in, say, the sense Malzberg gives to the word “decadence”).

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    • I kept calling them epics in my original draft and decided to junk the term for fear of lit-purists calling me out for misusing the term. But they do feel EPIC, and how are they not a hero’s journey?

      “SF authors scurry around like so many animalcules in their wake, chiseling away at the various unpicked threads.” I love your criticism of this behavior, as if Stapledon intended these imaginative civilizations to serve as seedlings for future SF authors to bulldoze with plot. And I do think those “unpicked threads” serve more as reflective analogies than idea germs, and if I had time, I would sit down and try to historically link each of his invented civilizations to real world events. (Surely somebody’s done this already, right?) I completely agree that Stapledon was more in line with the literary experimentation of the day, meanwhile, the rest of the SF community just kept trodding out the same out three-point adventure arcs.

      My first Malzberg is coming up this summer, so maybe then I will grasp Malzberg’s definition.

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      • antyphayes says:

        The idea that the real “characters” of L&FM are the various species of, ahem, “man” is spot on — the real heroes in Stapledon’s prose epic.

        I wonder to what extent Stapledon was engaged with the pulp of his day, and to what extent his works were a balance between a synthetic hijacking for his own purposes and real innovation in the realm of SF ideas.

        I’ve thought that Stapledon displays the influence of Hegel. His vision of the progressive development of the human species bears some comparison to the path of the development of self-consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomelnolgy of Spirit, though Stapledon’s schema is less teleological, drawing its tragic dimensions precisely from the accidents that befall the different species.

        My encounter with Malzberg is mostly thanks to reading Joacim’s reviews. I recently got a hold of a collection of his, ‘The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg’. In the intro Malzberg is quoted to the effect he prefers the term “decandent” to “recursive”. I like the idea of “decadence” (as opposed to “postmodern”) to describe the turning inward of any modern artistic “genre”, the cannibalistic turn to raiding the canon and endless self-referential commentary disguised as literature. Ok I am not so much of a fan of the later, but there are some great examples of this. I definitely need to read more Malzberg.

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        • I want to read a real biography about Stapledon because I also wonder about his level of interest in contemporary SF and whether he was writing in isolation from that community. I’ve also seen references to Hegel in the few things I’ve read about Stapledon, and while my political philosophy is a decade or so rusty, I saw a lot of engagement with the Marxist theory of history, which I think was influenced by (and conflicted with) Hegelian theory, so the idea that the betterment of people with each collapse does seem as though it would come from elsewhere.

          As for Malzberg, Joachim is the reason I’ll be reading him sooner rather than later.

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  3. Awesome review! They are strange, wonderful, difficult works, but always worth reading. And I too was in awe of the experience.

    A question about the cover you have chosen for L&FM:
    Art style is similar to, if not the same as, ‘Free Mars’ by Lusk, a 1997 Psych-Pop album (which I love!). Do you know who the cover is by?

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  4. Glad to see another Stapledon fan! As for the art, L&FM is a first edition cover by Arthur Hawkins (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?109991). Kind of a sparse career in the SF book cover industry, but it’s likely he dallied elsewhere…

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    • I lied. It’s not technically the first edition. It’s the first edition with art 🙂

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    • I wonder if Lusk stole/borrowed the art design. They did a good job if they did, and it’s a nice homage if so (can’t check because my CD copy is in a box in another town). You should check out the album. It’s not to everyone’s taste – very odd (you’ll probably hate it), but in a pulpish SFish kind of way. I was reading Martian Time Slip at the time I discovered the album, and I could swear the musicians were basically shoving a bunch of SF or Mars references in wherever they could. They made a video to the first song on the album ‘Backworlds’ and it references the ‘bomb incident’ in The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks.

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      • I just that cover and yeah, I definitely see the similarity. So Lusk had a Tool member? There was a time when Tool was all I would listen to. It’s funny: music used to be such a huge part of my life (I even played guitar in a grunge “band”) but now I hardly pay it any attention anymore. But I do like that Lusk album cover…

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        • Yeah, when their original Tool bassist Paul D’Amour (Opiate/Undertow) left he made a covers album called Replicants with some friends – it’s weird and cool; then he joined up with Greg Edwards from Failure, Brad Laner from Medicine and Chris Pittman and they made this weird and wonderful album called ‘Free Mars’. The album package was nominated for a Grammy but lost to The Titanic, apparently. Paul’s solo work is as Feersum Ennjin – another obvious SF reference.

          That’s pretty cool you played in a grunge band. As a 90s teenager, I ended up in a Heavy-Progressive-Epic-Rock-Metal band for a short time! Lol.

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  5. See, there was some good SF in the ’30s 😉

    Excellent review. Nailed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Widdershins says:

    When I first read L&FM it blew my mind, because it showed me the awe-boggling-some scope that SF could achieve – having ingested a diet of mostly ‘boy’s own’ SF novels at that point.
    At a re-read decades later I marveled at the sheer artistry of its construction.
    Needless-to-say another Olaf fan here. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “Not being a novel is what makes it so novel but, to some readers, it may be a bit like reading a textbook. An imaginary textbook. A really heartfelt, thoughtful imaginary textbook. With pretty prose.” Loved that bit.

    I have a digital copy of Last and First Men, and I think what has convinced me most of all, reading this review, to read it sooner than later is the idea that it blew up the SF genre back in 1930. Nothing like looking to the history of the genre to expose the vapid state of it in the present.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, he had all kinds of fans: Churchill, Woolf, Borges, and Lovecraft. And CS Lewis called his work “satanic.” So, my kind of guy 🙂 He was definitely blowing up something.

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      • marzaat says:

        I can see shy Lewis would react that way.

        I knew Lovecraft was a fan, but Churchill too is surprising.

        Any chance you will review Stapledon’s Last and First Men in London?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yeah, that Lewis… he annoyed me even when I was twelve and too young to grasp why he annoyed me. I think it’s cool that Stapledon corresponded with Woolf!

          I’m going to read Sirius next, but I love Stapledon too much to stop at his most popular pieces. London will probably come after that.

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  8. JO_Wass says:

    Thanks for the great write-up! I’m sort of a late bloomer when it comes to sci-fi, and didn’t really begin to make my way through the classics until a couple of years ago (of course I had read some of them as a kid). But I happened on to Stapledon sort of the wrong way around and read Sirius and Odd John first – both books that enjoyed immensely, especially Sirius. I can’t even begin to imagine how politically incorrect that book must have seen back when he wrote it, with its insinuations of sexual tensions between woman and dog. A somewhat disturbing, but extremely innovative and enjoyable book. I must get around to Last and First Men and Star Maker at some point, but right now I have a pile three feet high other SF classics I need to get through first.

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  9. I always think it’s remarkable that he wrote these two when the pulp SF magazines were flourishing,because despite the resemblances,they really bore no relation to each other.As I’ve said before,I can only attribute it to parallel development,with both following current trends in technology,sociology and cosmology.

    Stapleton didn’t read the then genre SF,and was amazed to be the object of adoration by the fans of the popular periodicals on a visit to America!His stuff crossed boundaries.

    Both are marvellous works,but I really have to say I preferred “Star Maker”.It’s a more startling,powerful,vivid and lucid novel I think,even though LAFM obviously has it’s virtues.It’s complex and takes stamina,but if you can wade through it,the effects are powerful and mesmerising.His brilliance in stoking the theme of pseudo religious experience through the ultimate discovery of an indifferent God,was daring for it’s time.He was also a maverick.

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  10. […] mentioned above, I blogged about Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), and posted that PKD BINGO experiment on Ubik (1969). I also started my SF of 2015 series by […]

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    • liminalt says:

      It’s a while since I read these, but they are rightly classics. I just love the scope: it’s as if someone tried to make a movie describing the birth and death of the universe. It’ll never be anything other than flawed, but it’s certainly marvellously flawed. As a scientist, I was fascinated by his predictions of genetic alteration in Last and First Men – even without the idea of genetics. Your observation: ” Wave upon wave of civilizations form, crest, then crash on the beaches of history, littered with the arrogance, techno-optimism, and antagonism of the previous civilizations, with the idea that each civilization will learn from and become slightly better than the last…” is a pertinent one. This is a theme that has been explored recently in both fact (Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”) and re-visited several times in fiction; often with a more fatalistic bent. It’s interesting to contrast Asimov’s central idea in the Foundation series: that the future on a large scale can be predicted, and altered to stabilise this cycle of boom and crash without leading to stagnation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I read Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel ages ago (I guess everyone did, lol) and while I haven’t read his later books, I do see how his POV could be compared to Stapledon. As for Asimov’s PsychoHistory concept, I can see how it could be an inventive response after reading L&FM, though Asi could never be as sophisticated a thinker or writer as Stapledon. (Though I do have a weakness for his Robot series.)

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  11. […] somewhere in my readings, I mistakenly picked up on the idea that Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) and 1961’s Solaris by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (whose name is the worst kind of tongue […]

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  12. […] to Arcturus, 1920) (an author new to me and why haven’t I heard of him?) and Olaf Stapledon (Star Maker, 1937), C.S. Lewis set out to write his own version of a metaphysical journey in space, yet […]

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