Sunday, 4 May 2008

Last and First Men (1930) & Star Maker (1937), by Olaf Stapledon

Two books written in the 1930s by the Liverpool-born author and philosopher Olaf Stabledon together comprise the greatest work of science fiction ever written. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction claims that Stapledon's influence on the development of science fiction ideas is "probably second only to that of H.G. Wells" and I would dispute that even Wells can be ranked higher. Last and First Men and Star Maker surpass even Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Clarke's Childhood's End and The City and the Stars. The efforts of others pale into insignificance by comparison.

The two are self-contained works (they cannot be described as "novels" in the traditional sense of the word), but Star Maker is clearly intended as a sequel to Last and First Men and twice refers, albeit briefly, to the earlier work.

Last and First Men begins at a time shortly after World War I. The first four chapters describe a series of wars, fought with chemical and biological weapons, which eventually result in a world dominated by America. The resulting society endures for four millennia, then collapses as supplies of fossil fuel run out.

The next part of the book describes the fall of the First Men - modern Homo sapiens (this is of course incorrect, on even the most economical of schemes we are the fourth human species after Homo habilis, H. erectus and the Neanderthals). After a brief renaissance, the human race is all but annihilated when a nuclear power plant gets out of control and sets off a chain reaction that devastates the Earth. A handful of survivors, on an expedition to the North Pole, survive the initial catastrophe, but mankind remains in eclipse for ten million years until Earth is again fully habitable, when a new, more highly-evolved species, the Second Men appear.

This noble race produces several civilisations, which rise and fall over the course of a quarter of a million years before achieving a stable world community, which is unfortunately destined to be short-lived. Disaster overtakes it in the form of invaders from Mars. These Martians are very different to the clich├ęd bug-eyed monsters normally associated with the Red Planet; described in great detail they are life, but certainly not as we know it.

As he demonstrates here, and will do so again in Star Maker, Stapledon's ability to envisage and describe intelligent life-forms utterly unlike humans has never come close to being equalled, let alone surpassed.

The wars between Earth and Mars rage for tens of thousands of years. Stapledon describes not only the effect of the wars on the material culture of the Second Men, but also on their collective state of mind. The wars finally end in a Pyrric victory for the Second Men when a bacteriological weapon is devised which annihilates the invaders, but is barely less lethal to mankind, of which only a tattered remnant remains to start again.

A hiatus of thirty million years ensues before a new species, the Third Men, appear. Much smaller and shorter lived than their predecessors, they produce a great diversity of cultures, some enduring for as long as a quarter of a million years until biological sciences advance way beyond those of the Second Men and at length it is decided to produce a giant brain.

After several failed attempts, a sessile brain in a forty-foot diameter reinforced concrete turret becomes the first of the Fourth Men, who eventually enslave the Third Men, then set out to produce a new species, the Fifth Men. These long-lived beings, of greater stature and intellectual capacity than even the Second Men come inevitably into conflict with their creators, and though the book passes over these events, the Great Brains and their slaves are annihilated.

Surpassing anything that has come before it, the civilisation of the Fifth Men endures for millions of years, but is eventually threatened with destruction as the Moon spirals in towards the Earth (in actual fact the Moon is receding from Earth, but Stapledon would not be the last author to make this mistake). In what must be one of the earliest ever accounts of terraforming a planet, the book describes how Venus is transformed into a new home for Mankind, albeit an unsatisfactory one.

Man's sojourn on Venus, however, "lasted somewhat longer than his whole career on the Earth", and gets off to an unhappy start when the indigenous Venusians have to be exterminated to make way for the newcomers. Rather questionable justifications are advanced for this planetary-scale genocide. A period of some 500 million years sees the passage of three human species, the degenerate survivors of the original migration (the Sixth Men): the winged Seventh Men: and finally the Eighth Men. Eventually Mankind is forced to take flight again, this time to Neptune, when a gas cloud collides with the Sun, greatly increasing its luminosity.

On Neptune, the new species specially designed to live in Man's new home, the Ninth Men, fall rapidly into animality. For millions of years, Neptune is populated by sub-human descendants of the Ninth Men, but eventually intelligence does returns to the planet. However not until 600 million years after the solar collision does a superior species, the Fifteenth Men appear. Thereafter, progress is steady and Mankind advances steadily to "true humanity" in the Eighteenth, and last, human species, which is finally destroyed, ending the story of the human race, when the Sun goes nova after being disrupted by violent disorders taking place in a near-by star.

Incredibly, this gargantuan epic is dwarfed in scale by Star Maker: Mankind's story turns out to be a mere foot note in the history of the galaxy; he is to play no part in the Galactic Society of Worlds.

A man sitting on a suburban hill finds his disembodied mind soaring into interstellar space. After learning how to control his headlong flight through time and space, he comes to rest on the World of the Other Men, humanoids who existed on a distant planet a billion years before the time of Homo sapiens. There he enters the mind of Bvalltu one of the Other Men and through him learns much about the society of the Other Earth, which is terminal decline. The two embark on another journey through space, encountering increasingly bizarre lifeforms along the way, some of whom join the growing band of travellers.

Intelligent mollusc-like creatures that have evolved into living sailing-ships; human echinoderms; symbiotic arachnoids and ichthyoids are only some of the extraordinary aliens the travellers meet, and this is only the beginning of their journey as they go on to learn that planets, stars and entire galaxies are themselves alive. Finally, in the "supreme moment of the cosmos", they come face to face with the Star Maker, who has created and destroyed one universe after another in a relentless drive for perfection.

The two works are really a series of linked essays on the culture, art, science, history and philosophy of human and non-human civilisations utterly unlike our own. Almost any could be used as the starting point for a full-length novel; indeed many have. Time and time again, one sees where the idea for such and such an SF story originated - including some very well-known works.

This is not really surprising. Sir Arthur C. Clarke said of Last and First Men that "no book before or since ever had such an impact on my imagination" and Brian Aldiss described Star Maker as "the most wonderful novel I have ever read". Fellow Liverpudlian Stephen Baxter has also claimed Stapledonian inspiration for his superb epic Evolution, published in 2003.

It is safe to say that nothing comparable with two monumental works will ever be written again. The fictional narrator of Star Maker constantly refers to his sense of utter inadequacy when it comes to describing the wonders he has experienced, and I can only admit to feeling exactly the same way in attempting to write about Last and First Men and Star Maker.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

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