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.
The 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