Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon (1930)
Recently republished as part of Gollancz’ ‘Space Opera’ Collection (a gorgeously designed set of paperbacks with beautifully thought out black and white cover illustrations made from photographed paper sculpture and cut outs) this was a novel far ahead of its time when first published.
Stapledon, a communist and atheist it appears, here takes us through the twentieth century and then in leaps and bounds through Mankind’s sometimes enforced evolution, the downfall and eventual rebirth of civilisations, until mankind reaches a pinnacle from which one of the Last men reaches back through time to record this history through the pen of a 20th Century writer.
It had been a common convention of writers for some time previous to this novel’s publication to provide a rationale or a link to reality for their work, in order to give it a certain verisimilitude; an explanation as to how we could be telling a story of the future, or of another world far from ours (see also Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was a regular proponent of this practice).
It has to be said that the initial chapters that detail the way world society progresses in the 20th Century is woefully off its mark and seems to have been employed as a platform for Stapledon’s personal politics.
He has been criticised elsewhere for his extrapolation of US Society although in some ways his warnings of the dangers of Capitalism have been borne out.
Sadly, these chapters are a little tedious, and new readers should be encouraged to persevere, since once Stapledon moves away from the world with which we are familiar the novel accelerates and takes flight into the future.
Not many authors can communicate a sense of understanding of vast passages of time but Stapledon carries it off with aplomb.
One also has to consider that he is writing of subjects such as evolution, genetic engineering, even the concept of viruses as vectors for changing DNA sequences (although obviously it is not described in those terms) in 1930, at a time when most other authors were in the genre were zipping about in unobtainium powered speedsters and carrying American values to the four corners of the Galaxy.
Stapledon takes a more cautious approach to interstellar travel. His evolved men see travelling to another star as being impossible or at least not an option worth exploring. Interplanetary travel is another matter, since Humanity – after a protracted war with gestalt entity Martians lasting thousands of years – is forced to move to Venus when the moon begins to close its orbit on the Earth.
Later (a slight scientific faux pas on Stapledon’s part) Humanity moves to the surface of Neptune when the sun begins to swell and here mutates and evolves into an entire biosphere of human descended wildlife before one of the species again rises to an intelligent level.
Again, in an astonishingly prescient concept, years before Heinlein or Blish employed the idea, Stapledon had the Last men sending out ‘seed ships’ into the galaxy packed with micro-organisms which would be pre-disposed to eventually evolve into a form of Humanity. Man himself, by a fluke of the laws of physics was doomed, but there is always the chance that he can be reborn elsewhere in the Cosmos.
Despite the ending containing some dubious talk of spirituality and immortality, the novel ends leaving the reader enervated and acutely aware of the insignificance of our tiny planet, and how brief our lives upon it are.
It’s a stunning piece of work.