Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
(Dover, US$11, 246 pages; first published 1930; this edition 1968, includes Star Maker, 1937. Reprinted in the UK in 1999 as part of Orion's Masterworks series.)
Rating: "B" -- interesting but disappointing period piece, with pioneering sfnal ideas and some seriously wrong science.
Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) are considered (by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) to be Stapledon's best work. Some consider them the best SF books ever written. Prompted by a recent online discussion, and laudatory comments by Freeman Dyson, I just reread L&FM for the first time in 30 years. While still interesting, it hasn't aged well.
Last and First Men is written as a future history of humanity for the next two billion years, as told to a First Man (us) by an Eighteenth or Last Man, living on a terraformed Neptune 2 billion years hence. Its chief virtues, for the present-day reader, are its broad scope, pioneering ideas and magisterial tone. Drawbacks include ludicrously erroneous science, unintentionally comic dialog, and moribund political-philosophical rambling.
If you decide to read Last and First Men, I recommend skipping very lightly over the first 50 pages, picking up when the "delicious daughter of Ocean" interrupts two diplomats on an Island in the Pacific. This scene makes Robert Forward look like Vladimir Nabokov:
"Delectable," said the Chinese, "exquisitely proportioned, exquisitely civilised savage! Come with me for a holiday in modern China! There you can bathe without a costume, so long as you are beautiful." [note 1]
[Editor's note: this recommendation to skip the opening chapters is, interestingly enough, echoed in Gregory Benford's introduction to the British 1999 reprint, published as part of Orion's Masterworks series.]
I wanted to like Last and First Men. I try to read stories that have been overtaken by real events as a sort of alternate history, to achieve a momentary suspension of disbelief. But the science in L&FM is such a muddle-headed mess -- and wasn't, I think, a whole lot better when it was written -- that I'd make a hard landing at each absurdity. I realize he wasn't trying to write hard-SF [note 2], but, my God.... Non-scientists might find it easier going. If they enjoy great lumps of 1920s philosophy. And spectacularly-askew projections for the 20th century. Well, it was his first novel.... and he did have the Last Men engage in ritual funereal cannibalism, as well as forming 96-member(!) group-marriages -- ideas later picked up by an upstart named "Heinlein" [note 3], though not to universal acclaim.
I dimly recall that Star Maker was easier going and has aged more gracefully -- see www.qartman.com/brainville/holaf/olaf.html. And there are more positive opinions of both books at Amazon. But I think I'll let old Olaf rest in peace awhile longer.
SPOILERS (and more Crude Critical Carping) follow:
Stapledon projects our culture as continuing for the next 4,000 years as a coal-powered, airplane-mad 1950s-tech civilization. With some very strange turns -- for example, infants are taken up by a "priestess of flight" shortly after birth and dropped, "clinging to a parachute," to be retrieved by the father in his plane. This, as you can imagine, places a premium on that ol' simian grasping-instinct -- infants who couldn't hold tight, fell to their deaths [note 4], the ritual serving as a contraceptive-substitute. This led to a "marching monkeys" devolution of the First Men. One wonders what the mothers thought of this custom.
When the coal ran out, the civilization fell, and a 100,000 year Dark Age ensued. Finally, a new First-Men civilization arose in Patagonia, discovered nuclear power, and destroyed themselves and their environment by a world-wide runaway chain-reaction. This seems ludicrous now, but there were (semi-rational) fears of such a possibility before the first atomic-bomb test. Anyway, vast and (mostly) absurd tectonic disturbances ensued: "...a new land rose to join Brazil with West Africa.... Europe sank under the Atlantic." I'm pretty sure a geologist in 1930 would have found this as silly and impossible as I did [note 5]. Stapledon, who had a doctorate in philosophy, notes in his preface that he "tried to supplement my own slight knowledge of natural science by pestering my scientific friends." Apparently he didn't pester a geologist.
And I don't think he pestered an evolutionary biologist either, as much of the evolution of the various races of Men has a distinct Lamarckian flavor, which I don't think would have passed muster in 1930 either.
Stapledon's Martians, by contrast, are sophisticated aliens: clouds of viral-size units that can unite to form vast group-minds -- in a nice touch, the bigger the group-mind grows, the more dogmatic and bellicose it becomes. They came to Earth seeking water and food, both of which were in short supply on Mars. They got here by dissociating to virus-size particles at the top of Mars' atmosphere, and then light-sailing to Earth, somehow using gravitation to tack. While you can tack with a lightsail -- see, for example, www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~diedrich/solarsails/intro/tacking.html -- you do need a steerable sail, and it's hard to envision a virus with any sort of sail. But let's give Olaf an "E" for effort.
After suffering numerous invasions and defeats, the Second Men finally destroyed the Martians by infecting them with a lethal disease, as in Wells' War of the Worlds (1898), but which also killed humans. And, as the Martian cloud-folk disintegrated, their viral bits gave people pneumonia. So almost everyone died, on both planets, and a new Dark Age descended. A few humans survived, and some eventually assimilated the Martian virus into a symbiosis. Here Stapledon's biology might actually work -- Mars and Earth life had to have a common origin, since they could infect each other -- and indeed some sort of panspermia looks rather likely nowadays [note 6]. And incorporation of disease-causing organisms as symbionts is also respectable in present-day biology. Plus, he evolves the Third Men by a proper Darwinian expedient of isolating a small human population on an island, then changing the environment. Olaf's on a roll!
The Third Men were great music-lovers, and once united in a Holy Empire of Music, ruled by a benevolent monarch, the Supreme Melody, or, more familiarly, "God's Big Noise." The Holy Empire was succeeded by a culture that practiced "plastic vital art", breeding strange decorative creatures as a competitive art-form. Naturally, they experimented on themselves too, creating the first of the Great Brains, a creature with a brain twelve feet across! Thus came the new Fourth Men -- latest models with forty-foot brains (cover art by Frank Paul)! A rather short-lived experiment, and (sigh) pretty much the end of credible science in Last and First Men.
Now we come to a true show-stopper. The Fifth Men are going to have to abandon Earth, because, mysteriously, the Moon is spiraling inward and will soon crash. Why? (oh, God....) Powerful Mental Radiation! From the mighty brains of the culturally and philosophically-advanced Fifth Men! [note 7]
Anyway, the 5ths fix up Venus, wiping out the natives en passant (one might think this alone would have shoved the Moon into a higher orbit) and move in. It's hot and muggy. Some of them grow wings, then some wingless ones come along and wipe out the wing-men. Now we're up to the Eighth Men, and my interest is fading fast. They move out to Neptune to avoid some sort of solar flare, and by this time they (the Sixteenth Men, I think) are Really Advanced: they have to boost Neptune all the time to compensate for those mental Retard-rays, they (the 18ths, now) can pretty much cruise ol' Nep around the solar system like a boat. BUT
Ol' Sol is SICK. We're all gonna DIE. But first we're gonna send [note 8] you sorry primitives a WHOLE BUNCH of REALLY ADVANCED 1930 leftist one-world philosophy. And you'll wake up and think it was all "just a dream." You dumbshits.
Signed, the Brotherhood of the Condemned [note 9].
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© Peter D Tillman 18 December 1999