Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon is possibly one of the most remarkable – and most forgotten – products of early science fiction. Originally published in 1931, it is a companion piece with its “sequel” Star Maker, published in 1938.

Stapledon (despite his distinctly Nordic name) was a British philosopher who lived from 1886 to 1950. Although he published widely on philosophy, ethics, industrial history, and psychology, it is as a science fiction author that Stapledon is (however tangentially) remembered today. He used SF to disseminate his philosophical ideas, and was both commercially successful and critically acclaimed during his life. He was also deeply influential on the science fiction of writers such as Arthur C Clarke, C S Lewis, and Brian Aldiss.

Stapledon’s philosophy was essentially existential, although he is now also regarded as one of the pioneers of the philosophy of transhumanism (the philosophy of “improving” humanity – whether physically or existentially – through genetics, integration with non-organic devices, psychological intervention, etc). The essential problem with which Stapledon grappled in his fiction is eloquently expressed by the Book of Ecclesiastes, 3:11 – God has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. In other words, the fact that humans have both an innate sense of eternity and of their own mortality and transience; and the question of how this conflict is to be addressed if we are not to lapse into either apathetic melancholy or outright insanity.

Last and First Men is a “future history”; in this case, the future of humanity related as a past event by someone living in the remote future. “Future history” is a device that has frequently been used by SF writers, usually to extrapolate on a line of speculation arising from present social and/or technological trends. Writers like H G Wells went a step further; in novels like The World Set Free, and, most notably, The Shape of Things to Come, Wells articulated his expectation that humanity would bring itself to the brink of destruction and then establish a kind of utopia in which an enlightened cabal of scientists, technologists, artists and philosophers would assume control of human affairs to bring about genuine civilisation. In effect, these “future history” novels by Wells were extrapolations on Plato’s Republic.

Stapledon also utilised a philosophical base for his “future history”, although in his case it was existentialism. In it, Stapledon depicts humanity’s efforts over billions of years to rise above the limitations of its physical self, in order to become pure “intelligence” or “mind” that would be able to establish communion with the “cosmic mind” of all life within the universe. Stapledon did not imagine this “cosmic mind” to be God, so much as the “All Real” or the “Soul of All”, the once and always awakening of all life within the cosmos to its own reality and worth, death and entropy notwithstanding. In other words, Stapledon’s novel depicts humanity’s struggle to understanding itself, to perceive, in objectively verifiable terms, its own “reality” as distinct from its mere existence.

This yearning, this search for transcendence from mere existence into awakened reality, is powerfully expressed toward the end of Stapledon’s novel:

For, if ever the cosmic ideal should be realised, even though for a moment only, then in that time the awakened Soul of All will embrace within itself all spirits whatever throughout the whole of time’s wide circuit. And so to each of them, even to the least, it will seem that he has awakened and discovered himself to be the Soul of All, knowing all things and rejoicing in all things. And though afterwards, through the inevitable decay of stars, this most glorious vision must be lost, suddenly or in the long-drawn-out defeat of life, yet would the awakened Soul of All have eternal being, and within it each martyred spirit would have beatitude eternally, though unknown to itself in its own temporal mode.

Stapledon’s conclusion is gloomy: humanity’s efforts to rise above itself, to escape the limitations of flesh and become “spirit” or “mind” and enter into he cosmic communion of life and being are doomed by our species’ nature as beings. Yet he also declares that the struggle itself, doomed though it may be, is heroic and beautiful and worth undertaking; it is an aspect of weltschmerz, the terrible cosmic sadness and beauty of being that is part of the whole symmetry and tragedy and glory of the universe.

Man himself, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall afterall make a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.

And it is this bitter-sweetness that underlines one of the most extraordinary aspects of Last and First Men: the very fact that its does not see humanity as immune from the effects of evolution and the operations of the physical universe. Time and again in the novel, humanity is brought low by cataclysmic environmental or geological or astronomic events; time and again, humanity has to adapt to drastically altered climactic conditions. And as a consequence of these changes, humanity evolves: indeed, Stapledon depicts seventeen different human species, each one radically different from its predecessors, but each one also recognisably human. And in doing so, Stapledon draws our attention to a very important point: the present human species is not the “end of evolution”. There will come a time when homo sapiens is extinct, either because we have succeeded in destroying ourselves, or because we have (or have been forced to) evolve into a different human species. Just as homo neanderthalis no longer walks the earth, there will come a time when homo sapiens belongs exclusively to the past.

His existence has ever been precarious. At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly.

One of the most startling – and to a modern reader, disturbing – aspect of the novel is the centrality of eugenics to progress human evolution. To be sure, the eugenics Stapledon depicts is not the “racial eugenics” of the Nazis. Rather, Stapledon saw no ethical quandary in humanity manipulating its own physical state – “remaking” itself – in order to improve its psychological/existential/emotional/spiritual condition. This has subsequently developed into the philosophy of transhumanism, and at the time Stapledon wrote, was a widely held and respectable viewpoint among scientists and philosophers. Nonetheless, to modern readers it will seem vaguely sinister and disturbing, redolent of Nazi atrocities and nightmares about servile human or quasi-human underclasses (a la the “replicants” in Bladerunner).

Finally, the feature of Stapledon’s novel that is most striking is his prescience in anticipating many things that have either come to pass, or which closely resemble what he thought the near future might look like. Granted, he missed his target in several respects – the effectiveness of the League of Nations, for example; the speed with which space technology would develop; the impact of coal burning on the environment; or the development of first atomic and then nuclear weapons – but many of his social and political anticipations are astonishingly accurate. How many of these were reasonably predictable in 1931 can only be speculated on, but the list is impressive nonetheless:

  • The emergence of globalisation – the pre-eminence of industrial-economic imperatives in world affairs – in the late 20th century;
  • The emergence of India and China as world economic powers
  • The collapse of state totalitarian societies through their inevitable interface with, and dependence upon, market/consumer capitalism;
  • The preservation in China of the facade of one party rule with a highly individualised society the underlying reality;
  • The global dominance of American cultural, social, and economic values;
  • The emergence of Christian fundamentalism in the US and its alliance with radical free-market capitalism;
  • The philosophical sympathy between theoretical physics and theology;
  • The development of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction;
  • The increasing specialisation and complexity of the various branches of science;
  • The pre-occupation of industrialised society with economic growth and mass consumption to the point where resources are exhausted;
  • The rapid exhaustion of reserves of fossil fuels and their replacement with renewable alternative energy sources;
  • The illusion of material prosperity as an index of human well-being;
  • The emergence of the cult of celebrity;
  • The emergence of “extreme sports” as a distraction from existential ennui, or as part of an increasingly desperate search for originality;
  • The growing importance of “major events” as means of mass entertainment;
  • The emergence of anti-intellectualism and the imperative on “practical” or “vocational” education;
  • The emergence of existential nihilism as a consequence of excessive materialism.

All this can seem rather depressing, a litany of human failure in the midst of the splendour of being and the majesty of the cosmos. But Stapledon noted that humanity was in many ways a noble creature, striving to rise above its limitations, to become greater than the sum of its parts. Therein lay its great tragedy; but therein also lay its poignant beauty.

We, who have now learnt so thoroughly the the supreme art of ecstatic fatalism, go humbly to the past to learn over again that other supreme achievement of the spirit, loyalty to the forces of life embattled against the forces of death. Wandering among the heroic and often forlorn ventures of the past, we are fired once more with primitive zeal. Thus, when we return to our own world, we are able, even while we preserve in our hearts the peace that passeth understanding, to struggle as though we cared only for victory.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.