Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Last and First Men; Olaf Stapledon (1930)

I happen to belong to a group that does group reads of a variety of SF books (see here), and we happen to have picked “Last and First Men” for this current read. I consider myself quite fortunate, because it is one of my favourite novels, and I need little excuse to reread this book. “Last and First Men” is philosophical treaty of the future history of the human race, extending over the next two thousand million years, and Stapledon covers a gamut of ideas in this time, which I will discuss in a moment.

To be honest, the first part of the book is not nearly as good as the rest of the book, and Stapledon anticipated as much when penning his prelude to the novel. The first part of the novel has Stapledon attempting to extrapolate from the start of the twentieth century, and some of these predictions dated quite quickly. Germany is a pacifist nation, we never achieve space flight. However, predictions that Russia’s communistic ideals are preserved by China, the world is purchased with American money, and saturated with American culture, seem to be far more accurate.

But it is also a prediction of a future that has not come yet, and it makes for extremely interesting even today – poison gas and biological agents killing entire nations, the creation of a world-wide religious movement based on energy, a world under the sway of the twin powers of America and China, becoming increasingly mechanized and less intelligent, and approaching world-wide disaster.

All of what I have mentioned is probably what you would expect from better examples of old SF – a mix of dated and prescient predictions, and some interesting ideas that still read well today. More difficult are Stapledon’s attempts to classify different countries and races with their own unique characteristics, and the generalisation of all minor characters (there are no major characters at all) as having the characteristics inherent of their country. I don’t think Stapledon was being racist at all, because he is far from flattering of his descriptions of America, Europe, and his home country of England, but it can be painfully dated reading at times

After the fall of the First Men, which makes for extremely interesting reading and is even more relevant today than in the 1930's, the book is far more relevant – Stapledon pulls out for a larger perspective of the world considered as a whole, and discusses a gamut of ideas about what events might occur in our future, and how they affect us socially and philosophically. Stapledon writes about organic giant brains as sentient super-computers, the repopulation of a near-dead Earth,, a society eking out an existence in a world depleted of metals and resources, the effects of a plethora of social policies on the general world-wide population, and a host of other ideas that I really should leave you the opportunity to discover should you find a copy of this book.

Stapledon never spends more than a chapter or two on each idea or concept, so if you aren’t terribly excited by a particular idea, a completely different idea will come up. Although it sounds like you would only get the most cursory of examinations of any subject, it’s all you really need to be able to consider the social or psychological ramifications of each. And although some of his ideas have been often dealt with in other novels, Stapledon attaches an interesting philosophical idea, a moral quandary, or a social idea or so forth makes it feel fresh and extremely interesting.

I also enjoy Stapledon’s writing style – it’s detached, clinical and impersonal, an anthropological study of our present and future, constantly cycling between the birth and death of civilisations. Technology is barely described, only so far as we need to understand the overarching story of the progression of humanity, and something of the mental outlook of varied races that exist along the stage.

The start of “Last and First Men” is somewhat dated, as much old SF tends to be, and does drag the book down somewhat. The rest of the book, with the rare mention of an old science term, does not feel dated at all. The plethora of ideas that Stapledon considers, quite a few of which are extremely original, and all of which are dealt with in an intelligent and challenging way, as well as his detached writing style, makes this a must-read book. 5/5.

1 comment:

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