I wrote a 10-page analysis of Last And First Men, Stapledon’s 1930 cult fiction debut. I wasn’t fully convinced by it, but I understood its historical relevance. I didn’t really plan to read another Stapledon title, but I came across Sirius in a second-hand store for 5 euros, and both the cover and the subject appealed to me, so I took my chances.
No 10-page review this time – I’ll try to make it snappy. Unlike Stapledon, who manages to make a mere 188-page novel drag and drag and drag. Not that he doesn’t set a bar for himself – the narrator of the book calls himself a “novelist” trying to “penetrate” into the “essential spirit”.
After all, though a Civil Servant (until the Air Force absorbed me) I am also a novelist; and I am convinced that with imagination and self-criticism one can often penetrate into the essential spirit of events even when the data are superficial.
That “essential spirit” is a bit of a recurring theme. Sirius, the dog with a human intelligence that is our protagonist, likes musing about it. Reading is believing – and I guess this book’s defenders will claim the fact that a dog utters the next quote excuses it. Continue reading
Reviewing fiction as old as this is always 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.