Reviewing fiction as old as this is hard: how to judge a book that was written for an audience that is generally dead already? In a way, this book is alien itself.
I’ll try to do justice to its historical relevance, and also say something about it as a contemporary reading experience.
This review is heavy on quotes that are often long. When I first started writing it, I typed in all the 21 quotes I considered using, and ended up with more than 1600 words already. I ditched a few, but quite a lot remain.
The final text has 3655 words. That’s about an essay of 10 pages, so if you don’t want to read an analysis of Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical ambitions just skip the first section. If you’re not interested in the importance of this book for SF as a genre, skip the second section too.
Last And First Men: A Story Of The Near And Far Future is not an easy book. It’s 247 pages of small print, in an English that is still readable, but doesn’t have a contemporary flow. The fact that Stapledon had a PhD in philosophy also shows: the conceptual content is pretty dense. A year after the publication of his first philosophical work, A Modern Theory Of Ethics: A Study Of The Relations Of Ethics And Psychology, he made his debut as a fiction writer with Last And First Men at age 44.
The book is set up as an historical account of the human race, and it describes the evolution from the 1930s onward, across two billion years, and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first. There are no main characters, and the book reads more as a collection of history lessons than as a regular fictional story.
I’ll discuss the conceptual & philosophical content first, then talk about its science fictional relevance, and end with some of the cons that colored my 2016 reading experience.
AN EARLY DEFENSE OF SCIENCE FICTION, STAPLEDON’S PHILOSOPHICAL AMBITIONS & FICTION AS THERAPY
Stapledon himself is explicit about a few of his goals, and to a certain degree the few pages that consist the preface, are among the best of the book. It’s interesting to note that a serious philosopher as Stapledon felt the need to defend his practice of writing speculative fiction.
To romance of the future may seem to be indulgence in ungoverned speculation for the sake of the marvellous. Yet controlled imagination in this sphere can be a very valuable exercise for minds bewildered about the present and its potentialities.
At the same time he limits “valuable” speculative fiction to what we today might call Hard Science Fiction.
To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values. But if such imaginative construction of possible futures is to be at all potent, our imagination must be strictly disciplined. We must endeavour not to go beyond the bounds of the possibility set by the particular state of culture within which we live. The merely fantastic has only minor power.
Maybe as the first author to do so, he even names and thanks a handful of professors in the preface. Stapledon indeed wants to write true science fiction.
A bit further on in the preface, we stumble upon Stapledon’s ultimate ambition. He talks about Last And First Men being an “essay in myth creation”, and sets himself a serious, difficult task. Although it is pompously formulated by today’s standards, it’s something a significant amount of contemporary artists still attempt, and as such Stapledon’s intentions are not dated at all…
Not that we should seek actually to prophesy what will as a matter of fact occur; for in our present state such prophecy is certainly futile, save in the simplest matters. (…) We can only select a certain thread out of the tangle of many equally valid possibilities. But we must select with a purpose. The activity that we are undertaking is not science, but art; and the effect that it should have on the reader is the effect all art should have. Yet our aim is not merely to create aesthetically admirable fiction. We must achieve neither mere history, nor mere fiction, but myth. A true myth is one which (…) expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within that culture. (…) This book can no more claim to be true myth than true prophecy. But it is an essay in myth creation.
I’ll write more about that mention of tragedy, but first I want to contrast the bombastic nature of the above with a much more humble part, that disposes a bit of the arrogance that permeates the rest of the preface. These few lines might seem unimportant, but without them, the book might have collapsed under its own weight.
If ever this book should happen to be discovered by some future individual, for instance by a member of the next generation sorting out the rubbish of his predecessors, it will certainly raise a smile; for very much is bound to happen of which no hint is yet discoverable. And indeed even in our generation circumstances may well change so unexpectedly and so radically that this book may very soon look ridiculous. But no matter. We of today must conceive our relation to the rest of the universe as best we can; and even if our images must seem fantastic to future men, they may none the less serve their purpose today.
Now then, what are those admirations that Stapledon wants to express? For experienced readers of philosophy they belong to a familiar theme. Basically, Stapledon is a transcendentalist. He writes about the possible unity of “feeling” and “thinking”: in other words, about the famous union of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
The Last Men, the 18th species, are obviously much more advanced than our own. They can be regarded as Stapledon’s ultimate dream of what humanity could possibly be. To a certain extent this last species has achieved said Transcendental Unity. They are able to telepathically connect with all other individuals and (temporarily) form what Stapledon calls the “racial mind”. This group mind is reminiscent of the hive mind of the Borg (Star Trek) or the Conjoiners (Alastair Reynolds), but maybe resembles the planetary Gaia consciousness of Asimov’s Foundation And Earth most. Stapledon is probably the first author that has written about such a group mind. As a racial mind, the Last Men are able to Truly See, Truly Understand, Truly Feel.
(…) the most fundamental relations of the physical universe were found to be of the same nature of the fundamental principles of art (…)
In the following quote, from the end of the book, the Last Men describe themselves. Doing so, it becomes clear that – aside from a craving for transcendentalism – the main goal of Stapledon might have been therapeutic. His fictional construction ultimately tries to find a way to justify or at least appease suffering, and is an attempt to give “evil” an acceptable place.
This is a debate that’s still ongoing among philosophers. The late Richard Rorty asked the question whether there could be any consolation or justification for “oceans of human suffering”. This ocean is the tragical core that Stapledon wants his myth to be about.
We who, in our familiar individual sphere are able to regard all conceivable tragedy not merely with fortitude but with exultation, are obscurely conscious that as the racial mind we have looked into an abyss of evil such as we cannot now conceive, and could not endure to conceive. Yet even this hell we know to have been acceptable as an organic member in the austere form of the cosmos. We remember obscurely, and yet with a strange conviction, that all the age-long striving of the human spirit, no less than the petty cravings of individuals, was seen as a fair component in something far more admirable than itself (…). Even the First Men, in their respect for tragic art, had something of this experience. (…) But their minds were cramped; and all that they could appreciate was their own small world and their own tragic story. (…) Knowing well how strange it is to admire evil along with good, we see clearly the subversiveness of this experience. (…) And so, if we were mere individuals, there would remain conflict in each of us. But in the racial mode each one of us has now experienced the great elucidation of intellect and of feeling.
The myth that Stapledon tries to write is one that envisions a true equanimity, the ‘Gelassenheit’ that’s generally more extolled in Eastern philosophies and religions than in their Western counterparts – early in his book, Stapledon explicitly muses about humanity trying to find a union between the two spheres.
I’m not sure if I can agree with Stapledon’s version of dealing with tragedy. It goes beyond the scope of this analysis to write something meaningful on it, but I’ll say a few words nonetheless. While I advocate a certain kind of detached realism (one could call this active nihilism too), equanimity should not lead to complacency or moral indifference. Misery, death and sorrow are part of our reality, true, but we – as individuals and as a species – should actively strive to reduce all kinds of suffering, and not merely give it a place in our conceptual framework, as something to admire as a part of a larger Whole, as is the case with Last And First Men.
But this we know: that we ourselves, when the spirit is most awake in us, admire the Real as it is revealed to us, and salute its dark-bright form with joy.
It seems as if Stapledon’s answer is a kind of cosmological aestheticism as a consolation for war, famine, loss, injustice, and mortality. Rather than this kind of ethically dubious acceptance, I favor Vonnegut’s way of dealing with it: ironical protest.
Last And First Men ends with a few pages of mystical gibberish, in which Stapledon hopes that this transcendentalism of future minds ultimately will console and even make up for the suffering of all human individuals, so also all those of the past – yet the victims won’t know it in their own time. Stapledon was agnostic, but is this simply a hope for an eternal afterlife?
(…) in the long-drawn-out defeat of life, yet would the awakened Soul of All have eternal being, and in it each martyred spirit would have beatitude eternal, though unknown to itself in its own temporal mode. It may be that this is the case. If not, then eternally the martyred spirits are martyred only, and not blest. We cannot tell which of these possibilities is fact. As individuals we earnestly desire the eternal being of things may include this supreme awakening. This, nothing less than this, has been the remote but ever-present goal of our practical religious life and our social policy.
Earlier in the novel, in a passage that’s obviously meta, Stapledon writes about the literature of the Second Man, the race that will follow our own. The nature of their literature is clearly reminiscent of Last And First Men itself: all things considered, Stapledon might be considered a despairing pessimist, next to a hopeful transcendentalist. Literature, as life, is full of paradoxes.
The lasting upshot of this civilization was a brilliant literature of despair, dominated by a sense of difference between the actual and the potential in man and the universe. Later, when the race had attained its noontide glory, it was wont to brood upon this tragic voice from the past in order the remind itself of the underlying horror of existence.
To end this section, just a quick note that Wikipedia mentions a strong influence of Hegel, the German philosopher that died in 1831. More specifically it points at the Hegelian dialectic, a cycle of progress and decay, that’s indeed clearly present in the succession of the 18 human species. I don’t know Hegel well enough to further comment on this. I did however want to mention it here, for the sake of completion.
SUCCESSES OF LAST AND FIRST MEN
One can debate parts of its philosophical content as I have above, and well before 1930 voices in philosophy – like Nietzsche – had already dismissed transcendentalism. One can also point at a few other flaws of the novel, as I will in the last part of this analysis. But considering the fact that this book was published in 1930, one cannot but admit that it is a towering achievement for Science Fiction. It influenced most notably Arthur C. Clarke, who even said that “No other book had a greater influence on my life”.
In the preface, Stapledon states that he doesn’t attempt prophecy. Yet he manages to foresee the victory of capitalism over communism, that fact that a second European world war would be good for the USA, genetic biotechnology, nuclear weapons & nuclear energy, and the depletion of fossil fuel, among other things. He also hints at the possible impact of a book like Mein Kampf, that was published in two parts, in 1925 and 1927.
Not only does Stapledon show remarkable insight in how the remainder of the 20th century might go, he also uses numerous concepts that would later become standard fare in other science fiction… He imagines a post-scarcity society, an alien invasion, terraforming Venus, communication across the boundaries of time, the break-up of the moon (eat that, Seveneves), a dying Earth scenario (as the sun becomes a red giant/white dwarf), artificial gravity, giant brain creatures, giant tower cities and “psycho-phycics”, just to name the ones that spring to mind. He doesn’t elaborate on all of these things however, some are just mentioned in passing.
Stapledon wrote his book with the clear concept that humans are animals. Darwin died in 1882, so this surely was nothing new in 1930, but it is still makes for a remarkable and fairly early adaptation of evolutionary thought into fiction. Just consider that up unto today there still is a significant amount of people that can’t wrap their heads around them being naked apes. There is a tremendous sense of evolution throughout the novel, and it deserves praise because of that.
Animals that were fashioned for hunting and fighting in the wild were suddenly called upon to be citizens, and moreover citizens of a world-community.
Other snippets of other interesting thoughts are found throughout the entire book.
But in fact man’s career has been less like a mountain torrent hurtling from rock to rock, than a great sluggish river, broken very seldom by rapids.
Other stuff I liked as well was that Stapledon is clearly against nationalism and other herd mentalities, and firmly acknowledges our human biological corporeality. His attempt to write social science fiction always takes this biological factor into account, with a surprising amount of sexuality. Also of note is that the alien invasion is an invasion by aliens that are truly alien. They are not just humans with lizard skin, green eyes and three legs. Remarkable, again.
The book doesn’t have a happy ending: the Last Man demises, as the sun demises too. I’m not familiar enough with the literature of its time, and surely tragedy as a genre is thousands of years old, but to write such an ultimate tragedy, that of the entire race, seems to me to be a bold choice. Stapleton muses on this in the preface.
In particular we desire our present civilization to advance steadily toward some kind of Utopia. The thought that it may decay and collapse, and that all its spiritual treasure may be lost irrevocably, is repugnant to us. Yet this must be faced as at least a possibility. And this kind of tragedy, the tragedy of a race, must, I think, be admitted in any adequate myth.
I’d like to end this section with a few remarkable quotes that may or may not turn out to be prophetic. I think it is safe to say that in the 86 years that have passed since the publication of Last And First Men, the gravity of these words has only increased. The spectacle of Donald Trump’s rise, the anti-intellectualism of parts of the G.O.P., and, more generally, the imperialist form of late capitalism that seems to only increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots is interesting in the light of what Stapledon wrote, to say the least. The first quote is from the introduction to the first American edition, the second is lifted from the novel itself.
I have imagined the triumph of the cruder sort of Americanism over all that is best and most promising in American culture. May this not occur in the real world! But since the possibility of such an issue is admitted even by many Americans themselves, I shall, I hope be forgiven for emphasizing it, and using it as an early turning point in the long drama of Man.
Thus it was that America sank further and further into Americanism. Vast wealth and industry, and also brilliant invention, were concentrated upon puerile ends. In particular the whole of American life was organized around the cult of the powerful individual (…). Those Americans who wholly failed to realize this ideal, who remained at the bottom of the social ladder, either consoled themselves with hopes for the future, or stole symbolic satisfaction by identifying themselves with some popular star, or gloated upon their American citizenship, and applauded the arrogant foreign policy of their government. (…) Both as individuals and collectively, they became increasingly self-righteous, increasingly hostile to critical intelligence, increasingly superstitious.
FAILURES OF LAST AND FIRST MEN
I’ve mentioned Stapledon’s anti-nationalism as one of the pros in the previous section. However, one of the first flaws that a contemporary reader will spot are a lot of sweeping generalizations about the spirit of the people of a certain nation. This occurs mainly in the first half of the book, as that half discusses the first men, our own species, but also occurs later on, when nationalities are used almost like adjectives to describe the first men’s successors.
For, poles asunder in tastes and ideals, these two peoples [= the French and the English] were yet alike in being on the whole more skeptical, and in their finest individuals more capable of dispassionate yet creative intelligence, than any other Western people.
But partly also it was due to their combination of a practical common sense that was more than British, with more than Russian immunity from the glamour of wealth, and a passion for the life of the mind that even Greece had never known.
Another negative is that there is, at times, a random feeling to the story. Again and again certain things just pop up, without warning, and steer the particular history of the human species at hand in yet another direction. It makes the story unpredictable to a degree, which is good, but it also seems haphazard. This isn’t helped by the fact that these twists often are odd and even unbelievable, like this:
(…); and wars were so hampered by impulses of kindliness toward the enemy that they were apt to degenerate into rather violent athletic contests, leading to an orgy of fraternization.
The final flaw I’ll discuss is that the book is repetitive: societies rise and fall, and rise and fall, and rise and fall. Stapledon manages this structural weakness in his basic plot pretty well: he takes a long time to describe the rise and demise of the First Men, and gradually picks up the pace, rushing through the history of Man #6 to #17. Mankind’s technological power also increases, and there’s an alien invasion, so the novel becomes more futuristic in the second half, and managed to keep my interest a bit better.
Stapledon acknowledges this repetitional weakness himself: “the main phases of man’s life on earth were many times repeated”. That gets us a typical passage like the following, describing 200 hundred million years of human evolution on Venus:
Theocratic empires; free and intellectualistic island cities; insecure overlordship of feudal archipelagos; rivalries of high priest and emperor; religious feuds over the interpretation of sacred scriptures; recurrent fluctuations of thought from naïve animism, through polytheism, conflicting monotheisms, and all the desperate “isms’ by which mind seeks to blur the severe outline of truth; recurrent fashions of comfort-seeking fantasy and cold intelligence; social disorders through the misuse of volcanic or wind power in industry; business empires and pseudo-communistic empires – all these forms flitted over the changing substance of mankind again and again, as in an enduring hearth fire there appear and vanish the infinitely diverse forms of flame and smoke. But all the while the brief spirits, in whose massed configurations these forms inhered, were intent chiefly on the primitive needs of foods, shelter, companionship, crowd-lust, love-making, the two-edged relationship of parent and child, the exercise of muscle and intelligence in facile sport.
In general, this book is hard work, not recreation. There’s no characters to care for. There’s no emotions, except for a certain kind of intellectual pleasure at times. There’s hardly any tension. The prose is dry and dense. Stapledon’s Hegelian transcendentalism is dated. Most 21st century people will not enjoy this, and I’m not sure I did either. Still, it makes you think: how do I feel about the human tragedy?
Last And First Men is definitely recommended for those with an interest in the history of science fiction, and it is also of minor interest for those passionate about the history of philosophy. But both as literature and as philosophy it doesn’t completely live up to today’s expectations. So if you don’t like reading in a near constant historical-eye-mode, there’s no use starting this.
I’m glad I read it, but I’m not going to follow up with Star Maker – a kind of sequel published in 1937 that has an even bigger scope, as it deals with the entire history of the universe.