Darkness & The Light by Stapledon, Olaf, 1942

Darkness & The Light by Stapledon, Olaf

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Darkness and The Light is another one of Olaf Stapledon's excellent speculative commentaries on the future of mankind. Like his masterpiece novel Last and First Men this story is also told from the perspective of a human being situated in the far future, but in this book that far future person is for some unknown reason remembering two different pasts. Told concisely and by an author much wiser, older and content than the man who wrote Last and First Men, this book is much easier to read and I think is much more rewarding. It is also every bit as full of ideas as Stapledon's other masterpiece novels, but in this novel Stapledon went quite a bit further in examining the properties and effects on society of those ideas.

Although this book did come from a later point in Stapledon's life, and it does reflect a sense of optimism that Stapledon is supposed to have developed just before the end of his days, the main point of the book to me seemed to be about finding ways to keep the "dullards" in society from taking control and ruining any chance for the human race to evolve into something bigger and better than we are now. Because of this the book had a "curmudgeony" feeling to it, even though it was overall optimistic in tone. Part of the prevention of that outcome centered on the banning of birth control. Stapledon posited that birth control would be easily available to the rich and powerful, and therefore intelligent, but not to the poor and downtrodden, and thus stupider members of society. As I said earlier, the book is essentially a first person narrative about two different potential paths for the human race. Both tales center on the formation of a world government, but the long term survival of that entity and the people who looked to it for leadership were influenced mightily by the state of affairs and outlook of the people who formed it. Those outcomes were radically different because one was formed by conquest, and the other by enlightenment.

The mysterious narrator told the story of human history after World War II ended, wherein the globe came to be dominated by two superpowers, China and Russia. As those two nations gobbled up all of the other nations in the world, one managed to hold out: Tibet. The Tibetan renaissance was the point of bifurcation of the story. In one instance the Chinese started up a new religion to compete with Tibetan mysticism. It was based on transformation of the soul through torture and pain, and even though it seemed odd, it fit in well with Stapledon's characterization of the Chinese as cruel. As the power of the new religion grew it prevented the Tibetan ideals from percolating throughout the rest of Asia, and eventually the Chinese and Russian armies conquered Tibet and killed most of its people. From then on the world government that formed from the Chinese empire grew and grew until it dominated the entire world. Stapledon's description of its survival policies were stark and frightening: They did things such as place people in a forced suspended animation during times of economic downturn, then forgot about them when the economy turned around. The Chinese psychologists even figured out a way to control individual action first by mass hypnosis, and then by implanting a radio control device into every person at birth.

This book reads much like Last and First Men reads, but I think that this one is the better book. It was every bit as jam packed with different ideas as the former, but all of Stapledon's ideas were better described and well thought through. The big differentiating factor between the two books, I think, is that Last and First Men never really built to anything. Of course, the end of that book was about the end of man kind; The story was the story of a race as it existed for a few billions of years, so it is probably impossible for anyone to say that Stapledon failed in the telling of that story. To my eye he did exactly what he set out to do with that story, and did it very well. But Darkness and The Light does go somewhere. The critical question in this book is whether mankind will die out of laziness, or go on to flourish; it is about enlightenment and hard work and for that reason it is infinitely more rewarding. There is a bigger point here though. Stapledon's premise is that even with the same ungracious start civilization can achieve heaven or fall to hell. What he said to the average European reader of 1942 was that you may be in hell now, but your children might not be.

The sad fact though is that the Utopian aspects of the book were nowhere near as interesting as the dystopic parts. I think that is just par for the course though. I am a huge fan of end-of-the-world and post-apocalypse stories. I think I just get more interested in a story where things fall apart, of the center fails to hold. Ecotopia is the only modern story utopia story that I have ever read that managed to keep my attention. Perhaps 2000: Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy did too, but Iím reluctant to call that modern since it was published in the late 1880's. Anyway, Stapledon's story of the Light essentially starts out as a Marxist paradise where assets and resources are available to all equally, though his elitist voice does come through in his discussions of eugenics.

Much was done in order to foster intelligence and integrity in the rising generation. Lavish research produced at last very reliable intelligence tests. Defectives and certain types prone to criminality were sterilized. Dullards were severely discouraged from having children. Parents of good average intelligence were of course helped to have large families. Those of exceptionally intelligence were handsomely subsidized. Outstanding children were treated as the world's most precious possession, and trained with the utmost care and skill to enable them to make full use of their powers.

Stapledon also described all of the usual advances in energy production, engineering, food production, etc. But the only truly interesting part of his description of the possible utopia were the parts where the citizens of it momentarily backslid towards the Darkness out of sloth. I certainly think that this book is worth reading. Unfortunately it is one of those forgotten classics that are probably destined to stay forgotten. I have not been reprinted in some time, so if you are inclined I would advise starting at your local library.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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