Artificial intelligence, gender identity, hive minds, exponential technological growth, natural resource availability, evolution, life extension, terraforming, genetic engineering—these things are very much the issues of our time. The current and future generations, quite absurdly perhaps, will argue that in this brave new world we are best equipped with the intelligence to chart the course. And yet in 1930 a little known author of speculative fiction, Olaf Stapledon, took on these issues in his novel Last and First Men. A book that caused Arthur C. Clarke to say, “No book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination.”
Stapledon, still apparently angry at Germany over World War I, and suspicious of America’s dominant and tempting brand of free enterprise empire, sought to project humanity’s propensity for self-destruction into the future—to see where our progress would take the human race. Even in 1930 this wasn’t some new notion, especially in science fiction circles. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were exceptionally topical in their fiction (Wells with When the Sleeper Wakes and Jules Verne with The Mysterious Island and Magellania). Stapledon was every bit their equal, but he was also a poet and philosopher.
With Last and First Men it’s almost as if Stapledon were mapping out, like Jorge Luis Borges, a future moral and ethical philosophical document.
Sure, in the early chapters (numbering some 70 pages), Stapledon’s speculations on the fortunes of America and China were off-base, but accurate predictions are not the function of science fiction. SF can be many things, but the genre, so kaleidoscopic in its narrative and tonal possibilities, is at its best when it it unleashes novels of ideas. SF must make people think. And this is what Stapledon was after with Last and First Men, using a poet’s pen and no small amount of Hegelian Dialectic.
Through Stapledon’s eyes we see innumerable rises and falls, as humanity grapples with its ethics and technology, stuck in Giambattisa Vico’s idea of cyclical civilization. We see humanity head for the stars. We see how we could go wrong, which provides us with some insight into how we may yet do things right.
Here is an excerpt from Last and First Men:
“Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard.”
All that and more aways readers in Mr. Stapledon’s fine novel.