Olaf Stapledon – Star Maker (1937) & Last and First Men (1930)

star makerPerhaps no book has ever been written with a greater sense of scale than Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. Many esteemed people of the day were impressed by it: Jose Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Who was he, and what was the book about?

Stapledon was first and foremost a philosopher instead of a writer, but at one point in his career he decided that the best way to clarify and communicate his ideas was by writing them down as a story. The genre of science fiction was taken up by him as a vehicle for the expression of philosophical ideas. It is no surprise then that Stapledon sees a utility and a social function in science fiction. For him, the genre is a mirror to hold up to the present, and in the mirror the world of today is transformed into new shapes. And we can gain new insights from this.

To quote the man himself: “To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.” “We must endeavour not to go beyond the bounds of possibility set by the particular state of culture within which we live. The merely fantastic has only minor power. We can only select a certain thread out of the tangle of many equally valid possibilities. But we must select with a purpose.” He sees his own stories then as an effort in myth creation, but not as true myth.

Now, Star Maker is quite old by now, written in 1937, and Stapledon’s ideas surely are dated now. But he foresaw this and it didn’t deter him. He takes a moment in his introduction (to the related work The Last and First Men) to say something about that, to us readers from the future:

“If ever this book should happen to be discovered by some future individual, for instance by a member of the next generation sorting out the rubbish of his predecessors, it will certainly raise a smile; for very much is bound to happen of which no hint is yet discoverable. And indeed even in our generation circumstances may well change so unexpectedly and radically that this book may very soon look ridiculous. But no matter. We of today must conceive our relation to the rest of the universe as best we can; and even if our images must seem fantastic to future men, they may none the less serve their purpose today.”

last and first menThis is how we must regard his books, but at the same time they still impress to this day. Back in the days, Stapledon was a highly regarded writer, and his influence on the genre of science fiction cannot be overstated. He was perhaps the first writer to talk about ideas such as genetic engineering, about terraforming, about telepathic superminds, about many other things we are now familiar with. At the back of the book he included a glossary with terms such as nebulae and galaxy, because readers at the time simply weren’t familiar with them. The scientist Freeman Dyson got the idea of Dyson Spheres from Stapledon’s book, and he (Dyson) wanted to call them Stapledon Spheres. Almost all the SF writers of the past century credit Stapledon as their inspiration.

So, I mentioned that there is no book with a greater scope than Star Maker. This is because it is hardly a novel; more a history book, like JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. But in Star Maker it is the history of the future. He describes the history of the next billions of years of the universe. In 300 pages he endeavors to describe the complete history of all intelligent life in the universe, up until the end of history. Every page has enough material to write out as a novel.

Stapledon seemed obsession with the end of the future, always asking what would happen afterwards, and whether history would ever end. At that point, the book moves closer to religion.

At one point, all the inhabited planets of the milky way and the suns and nebulae are telepathically connected and form a single consciousness. This also happened in other galaxies and in the end all the galaxies join into a single conscious entity. At that point, the conscious universe saw the creator, the star maker, and it saw itself as one of many universes in a string of ever improving universes. And then the universe was promptly discarded as an intermediary flawed specimen. The universe continued to exists for billions and billions of years until there was nothing left but black holes and nebulae, and the atoms of the nebulae formed beings that stretched out over light years and lived slowly for billions of years. And then there was nothing left.

Silence.

It is life itself that is the main character of the book, and at the end of his books, both Star Maker and The Last and First Men, it ends. In the silence that follows his books, we feel so small, yet so precious.

Verdict: Read it if you can stand reading about ideas without characters. There are no characters or a story of any kind like in regular prose. But, if you can, Stapledon’s two books, Star Maker and the predecessor The Last and First Men, are the intellectual and philosophical zenith of storytelling about the future.

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