Readers who know nothing else about science fiction are probably familiar with the names of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Few of them, however, will have ever heard of Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950).
Yet Stapledon was perhaps the most creative mind ever to work in SF, and his influence is so pervasive that no intelligent person can claim to understand the genre in its modern form without appreciating that influence.
Stapledon wasn't—and isn't—a popular writer. He considered himself first a philosopher, and his role in science fiction (before the name of the genre was generally accepted) that of a mythmaker. Some of his "novels" aren't novels at all—but he never pretended they were.
A few years ago, there was a sudden wave of enthusiasm among some SF critics for "mythology." What this usually meant in practice was merely the borrowing of plots and symbols from Greek mythology, which has always enjoyed literary respectability. But this wasn't what Stapledon had in mind more than 40 years ago.
"To romance of the future may seem to be indulgence in ungoverned speculation for the sake of the marvelous," he wrote in his preface to LAST AND FIRST MEN (1930). "Yet controlled imagination in this sphere can be a very valuable exercise for minds bewildered about the present and its potentialities.
"Today we should welcome, and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is an attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values."
Science fiction, he thought, should be "neither mere history, nor mere fiction, but myth. A true myth is one which, within the universe of a certain culture (living or dead), expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within that culture. A false myth is one which either violently transgresses the limits of credibility set by its own cultural matrix, or expresses admirations less developed than those of its culture's best vision."
A MAN DIVIDED
Stapledon the philosopher was a man divided—a scientific radical socialist who believed in Earthly utopia, but a mystic whose search for God eventually led him to a deathbed renunciation of his political ideals; a visionary who wanted to change the future by changing people's imaginations, yet a fatalist who believed as strongly as John Calvin in the preordination of human destiny; a humanist who thought that intelligence is the only really important thing in the cosmos, yet a pessimist who doubted human intelligence to be adequate for the challenges of the present and the future.
The often tortured vision that emerged from these conflicts make Stapledon's works seem alternately beautiful and terrible to many readers—awful, perhaps, in the original sense of the word. Yet even those who are repelled by his philosophy find themselves caught up in the brilliance of his imagination.
Besides LAST AND FIRST MEN, his major works include ODD JOHN (1935), THE STAR MAKER (1937) and SIRIUS (1944). Until recently, the only available editions were from Dover Books, but Penguin Books has recently reissued all of them but ODD JOHN. That and SIRIUS are true novels; the other two are imaginary future histories on a scale embracing, literally, eons.
LAST AND FIRST MEN chronicles the entire future history of the human race, from the present—Stapledon's present, of course—to its ultimate extinction on Neptune two billion years hence. Humanity's struggle to achieve the highest possibilities of intelligence is the continuing theme of an epic which covers the rise and fall of, not merely nations and cultures, but entire races.
An American-dominated world-State that collapses with the exhaustion of fossil fuels is only the beginning of this mythological pseudo-history that chronicles mutations that change the very nature of humanity, a disastrous interplanetary war with hive intelligences from Mars, biological experimentation with "improved" forms of men (some with giant brains, other with telepathic capabilities, and—on Venus—even flying men), migration to other worlds, and eventual attainment of the quest for evolutionary perfection—just before the Sun becomes a nova.
It is hard—rather, impossible—to do justice to a work like Stapledon's in a paragraph. Any summary is a distortion of the immense detail and complexity of imagination in the original. LAST AND FIRST MEN alone involves so many varied developments that it would be possible to use its historical background as the setting for literally thousands of novels.
Trying to summarize THE STAR MAKER, an evolutionary history of the entire universe, is an even more hopeless task. Entire species are the "characters" in this epic, which relates the unique development of each to its eventual role in the creation of a Cosmic Mind able to share the thoughts and experiences of all—and to confront the mystery of the Star Maker (a god, but far from a loving one).
Among the species that figure in THE STAR MAKER are humanoids (but often with psychologies based on different primary senses, such as taste), echinoderms, nautiloids, hive-minds, arachnoids and ichthyoids (living in symbiosis) and vegetable-intelligences. Even stars turn out to be sentient beings, and conflicts between stellar and planetary life (as well as between philosophies of star-faring planetary races) lead to wars that devastate entire galaxies before reconciliation leads to the eventual Supreme Moment of the Cosmos.
The influence of both works has been seminal. The Cosmic Mind is echoed in Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END and again—in Clarke's contribution, at least, as opposed to Stanley Kubrick's—2001. Nor could Clarke's THE CITY AND THE STARS have been written without both LAST AND FIRST MEN and THE STAR MAKER having existed. Clifford D. Simak's WAY STATION portrays a relationship between a human protagonist and a galactic culture that can only be called Stapledonian.
Science fiction novels involving symbiotic species or cultures, such as Poul Anderson's THE REBEL WORLDS and THE PEOPLE OF THE WIND owe a great debt to Stapledon, as do many of the imaginative variations in possible forms and psychologies of alien intelligence that are the stock in trade of modern SF. Stories and novels of the remaking of man to live in new environments or for other reasons, such as James Blish's THE SEEDLING STARS and Ursula LeGuin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS also show Stapledonian influence.
To this day, Stapledon still has the last word on some themes. ODD JOHN is a novel about a superman—not the one from the comic books, and not Bernard Shaw's either, but an evolutionary mutation who is to homo sapiens what homo sapiens was to pithecanthropus.
A superman story, by definition, is a virtual impossibility. "A cat may look at a king," the narrator tells John at the beginning of the novel. "Yes, but can it really see the king?" John answers. "Can you, puss, really see me?"
If Odd John had written the novel, it would have been beyond the comprehension of human intelligence, and Stapledon's narrator has to do the best he can trying to "see" his subject, never with the certainty of knowing just what it is he sees. John has a precocious childhood—when he speaks, his first words are complete sentences; and he has gone through practically the entire sum of human knowledge (and more than held his own in learned discussions with mature scholars in various fields) by the time he is 10.
John's efforts to find others of his kind—some of whom have gone insane from loneliness others of whom have tried to adapt to a world populated by (to them) morons—and create a colony on a remote island are told from the human viewpoint as far as they can be understood. But the actual meaning of John's actions—and his inhuman attitude toward them—remain elusive, even before the mass suicide of the colony in face of an attack by the Great Powers.
Superman stories had appeared in SF before ODD JOHN, and have appeared since, but Stapledon set the standard—one which has never been surpassed, or even equalled.
Other works by Stapledon include LAST MEN IN LONDON, an attempt to survey the contemporary world from the viewpoint of the Eighteenth Century; MEN ON NEPTUNE—not as successful as LAST AND FIRST MEN itself; THE FLAMES, about an encounter between humans and energy-beings seeking refuge on Earth; and several others.
Stapledon's works, especially the future history chronicles, are hard to get into for many readers. LAST AND FIRST MEN and THE STAR' MAKER both get off to extremely slow starts, and the really imaginative portions do not begin for several chapters. Too, Stapledon did not have a literary mind—no one could call his style poetic. Yet there is a sort of poetry of ideas to his works that has continued to attract a loyal—if limited—following since his death 23 years ago.
Now that his most important books are becoming available in popularly priced editions, no one with a taste for the imaginative should deny himself the experience they will create in his mind.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.