Last and First Men by Stapledon, Olaf, 1931
I usually tear through books, and if I'm motivated I can finish 1,000 pages in less than a week. Even at 250 pages though, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men is clearly the exception to the rule. I made a note on my website five months ago that I was starting the thing. Granted, I have picked up and read 32 books since then, but still, I read through this thing like a snail crawling across an ice cube. Why, you may be asking? It's because this book demands careful attention. It is the seminal future history SF story, and Stapledon takes his time meandering through eighteen distinct evolutions of mankind to give you a 2 billion year history of our race from roughly the year he wrote it, 1931, to the far, dim and distant future. Itís an excellent book, though it may not be right for everyone.
Last and First Men is not a novel, per se. It is a work of fiction, and itís clearly a SF book, but Stapledon does not really waste time with characters or plot. The work is written in essay form. Simply put, the story is that a telepathic member of the eighteenth race of man from approximately 2 billion years in the future has contacted a being from our era and explains to him or her the future history of man. Given that the book is only 250 pages, Stapledon touches only on the really big events. I will not bother going into any of those details, because it would be pointless. There is just too much detail to ever hope to recap, and Stapledon whips around from era to era, sometimes concentrating for pages and pages on one peace negotiation, for example, then in the following sentence passing 100,000 years, or one million, or even more.
Stapledon's unique strength with this book may be the breadth of his vision. Though the book is terse in many aspects, Stapledon pays loving attention to the faults and foibles and strengths and virtues of most of the different races of man. And at least on the macro scale Stapledon touches on many of the more important aspects of life, such as international relations, sexual mores, linguistics, religion, morals and ethics, urban planning, resource management and exploitation, war, genocide, abortion, suicide, immigration and refugees and much, much more. Because the book is so amazingly huge in scope, and is told over such a long period Stapledon works with many themes and technologies. I tried to put a complete list together as I went though, but Iím sure I missed a few. Technology includes genetic engineering, alternate fuels, birthing tanks and cloning, space craft/ether ships, and arcologies. Themes and motifs include creation of a superman, alien invasion, first contact, cyborgs, AI, post human, cloning, atomic warfare and nuclear energy, xenogenesis, civil war, telepathy, space travel, time voyaging, inner space, terraforming, cosmology, creation of an overmind, and solar manipulation/system engineering.
I have seen several reviewers over the years who comment, time and time again actually, out of both sides of their mouths that Stapledon really did a terrible job of forecasting future history, but that he did a good job pigeon-holing the United States of America when he called "that young nation" a source of "great good and great evil." How prophetic, is what I say in reply. And that Stapledon really was not interested at all in predicting what would happen in the near history of humanity. This book, despite the social and cultural undulations all sixteen races of men went through, including some pretty dramatic ups, has a gloomy tone and ends on a gloomy note. Sitting where he was in 1930 England as he wrote Last and First Men, Europe had just finished WWI, and fascism and WWII was on the horizon. I can only imagine what the typical European's world view was like. What Stapledon was writing about in this book was two things, which I think were very much on the minds of those typical Europeans. First, he very subtly dealt with issues of fear, and second, about the propensity of mankind to repeat its mistakes over and over again. To a lesser degree he also dealt with how mankind is plagued by its animal tendencies, but all of these major thematic vehicles really serve the same meta issue, which is mankind's continual and unending fall from grace, and the destruction of cultural institutions that they have built up. It may be the oldest story in the world; consider the story of the Garden of Eden, followed in fairly rapid succession by Cain and Able. It is the same thing.
I find much of Stapletonís prose telling, but perhaps the following quote the most. In this chapter the second race of men had gone to war with an invading force of Martians. The Martians were a race of gaseous creatures whose intelligentsia refused to acknowledge that we were sentient, so they culled us from time to time from their city in Antarctica when we became problematic. Mankind eventually gave up all hope of anything other than a Pyrrhic victory and took whatever steps were necessary to eliminate the Martians. The solution was viral warfare, which freed mankind from the Martians but also killed off most of second man too. But before getting to that point, the Martians performed pogrom after pogrom against mankind and any other form of animal life that invaded the southern hemisphere of Earth.
But ever afterwards the Martians suffered from the psychological effects of their victory at the close of the epoch of the racial wars. The extreme brutality with which the other races had been exterminated conflicted with the generous impulses which civilization has begun to foster, and left a scar upon the conscience of the victors. In self-defense they persuaded themselves that since they were so much more admirable than the rest, the extermination was actually a sacred duty. And their unique value, they said, consisted in their unique radiational development. Hence arose a gravely insincere tradition and culture, which finally ruined the species.
I suppose the best way to describe this book these days is to say that it must be the ultimate exercise in world building, because that essentially is what Stapledon does again and again. This book really is not for everyone, although if it were a perfect world, everyone would read it. Stapledon in his career produced at least four masterpiece books. This is clearly one of them, and it should be read before tackling the next, Star Maker. Last and First Men is a "warm up" for where that book is going, as there are significant thematic similarities. But this book requires a big commitment and a very open mind. If you have the time and the inclination, I promise you a singular kind of experience in SF. If you don't have either, maybe you should wait until you do.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell