When asked to name authors of “early” (before WWII) science fiction, most people can only come up with two names: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Those two are rightfully considered giants in the field, and the impact of their ideas and speculations can still be felt in stories published today.
However, there’s another towering figure who is not so well remembered (at least not by the general public): Olaf Stapleton. Like Wells and Verne, his work, published in the 1930s, raises questions that authors still wrestle with. Questions like, “what is the eventual fate of mankind?” and “what are the possible modes of life?”
Stapleton’s works are remarkable in both their sheer scope and ambition. Stories that span billions of years and entire galaxies, with alien species whose diversity and inventiveness have seldom been rivaled. A saga spanning the entire history of the cosmos, from the formation of the first stars to the heat death of the universe.
Stapleton’s literary style is also worthy of attention. While much of the writing style will seem antiquated to modern readers, and plot and character are primitive and unpolished (and in some cases non-existent), at the same time there’s a certain poignant poetry to his prose which makes it strikingly different from modern works.
I originally stumbled upon Stapleton’s work as a teenager, when I bought a trade-paperback book containing two of his novels: Last and First Men and Star Maker. I can say that these two novels had a deep and lasting impact on my perspective on the universe and time.
Last and First Men describes the history of humankind, starting from our modern era and extending almost two billion years in the future, to a time when humanity is facing certain extinction.
The first few chapters take place over the next several centuries from now, and are concerned primarily with the political events and wars that lead to the eventual downfall and dark ages of us, the “first men” (homo sapiens).
There are several remarkable things about these early chapters.
First is just how much Stapleton got right. Stapleton wasn’t trying to predict the future or make prophesy; in his own words, he was performing an experiment in myth-making. And of course, real history did not turn out anything like his tale, at least not in the broad outlines. And yet, there are details and flourishes that echo strikingly with subsequent historical events. For example, his description of the future dictator of Italy, or the party structure of post-Communist China, are hauntingly familiar.
The second is Stapleton’s treatment of race. Of course, coming from that era, he uses the word “racial” to mean cultural as well as biological lineage. But it’s still interesting how Stapleton tackles head-on topics that most authors would shy away from today (usually for good reason).
Like most men of his time, he views the world through a lens of racial and cultural stereotypes; However, what’s different about Stapleton is his sincere belief that each of those unique racial archetypes is something to be celebrated and cherished. More, that every race is a necessary piece to a puzzle that will eventually become mankind’s destiny; And that the loss of one or more of those pieces (which happens in the novel) is part of what spells the doom of the First Men.
For Stapleton, the highest ethical and moral principle is one that applies equally to all intelligent life everywhere; And the enemy of this principle is tribalism — the “us” vs. “them”.
Parts of the writing are controversial, even objectionable to modern readers — such as discussions of eugenics. On the other hand, this is a topic that can hardly be avoided in a book that includes mankind’s biological destiny as one of its major themes.
The next few chapters cover the rise and fall of the second species of man, the “Second Men”. This is a more highly evolved human race (a million years of post-civilization will do that for you), but not without flaw.
The ultimate downfall of the Second Men comes in the form of first contact with an alien species — the Martians, a collective “hive mind” life form. The two species are simply too alien to each other to ever get along, or even communicate. Interplanetary war leads to the ruin of two worlds, and a much longer dark ages.
After than, the story picks up the pace and describes each subsequent species of humankind, until we get to the eighteenth — the Last Men. Now living on the planet Neptune (the Earth having long since become uninhabitable), it describes a world-spanning telepathic Utopia, a society vastly more advanced (both technologically and culturally) than our own.
The last chapter discusses the eventual fate of the human race. A stellar disease has affected the Sun and will soon make it impossible for life to exist anywhere within the solar system.
The last few paragraphs, in which the fictional author contemplates the meaning of extinction, and the beauty of the universe despite it’s terrors, are possibly the best writing in the book:
“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills….But when he is done, he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.”
Star Maker is an even more ambitious work, as it encompasses the entire history of the cosmos.
The protagonist is an Earthman who has mysteriously given the power to telepathically explore the universe. At first, he does so alone, but eventually he joins up with other telepathic explorers from other worlds. Together they visit many alien planets and get to know (and love) the inhabitants.
Here’s where Stapleton’s fertile imagination really shines, as he describes worlds inhabited by living sailing ships, symbiotic lifeforms, plantlike beings and so on. Living stars and gaseous nebula. He talks about the struggle of individual specis to attain societies of community, and communal lifeforms to achieve individuality.
The cosmos is filled with tragedy. Many a fair species shows early promise, only to be wiped out by a cosmic accident, evolution gone awry, or a war of self-extinction.
Eventually the surviving civilizations join together in a cosmic fellowship. The goal of this galactic civilization is to achieve oneness with the source of all existence — the Star Maker.
The Star Maker is not a “god” in any Christian or even human sense. It is a dispassionate intelligence whose primary characteristic is not love, but creativity. It is both eternal and yet evolving — that is, from our perspective the creative spirit is eternal and timeless, but ours is neither the first nor the last cosmos to be created, and like an artist, the Star Maker learns from its earlier work.
I think for me, the most profound effect of reading Stapleton at an early age is that I still believe that the concept of “us” isn’t just my race, or my nation, or even my species — it includes every being that looks up at the night sky and marvels at the grandeur of creation.
Here is a link to these two novels on Amazon.