21 February 2012

Last and First Men

by Olaf Stapledon

This is famously one of the classics of science fiction. At the time of its emergence in 1930, its scope and audacity were without precedent. However, it has been thoroughly pillaged by other writers since then, and its themes and tropes are now the everyday stuff of SF. Stapledon was a prophet and perhaps a kind of genius, but Last & First Men is a victim of its own success.

Also, it is very much a product of its time. Its physics and cosmology appear naive to us today. This at times works against the suspension of disbelief, to the detriment of the reader's pleasure.

In social and political terms, too, the book is largely concerned with issues that were prominent in between the World Wars but which today seem of little import.

Most tellingly of all, we, whom Stapledon calls the First Men, the primitives of humanity, have already achieved nearly all the great feats of science, technology and exploration that in his book take eighteen successive species of humanity some hundreds of millions of years to accomplish. Apart, that is, from the colonization of Venus and Neptune, which we now know to be impossible.

I don't usually object to anachronisms. One should always keep in mind the historical and social context in which a work was written, accepting these in order to appreciate the work more fully. But you can't do that with Last & First Men; its plot and subtext depend far too heavily on the outdated science and political thought of its time. Even the obsession with flight (by means of aeroplanes, genetically engineered wings or the direct control of gravity) is one that was at its peak in the bomber-obsessed 1930s.

The novel is also repetitive in terms of the cycles of human civilization and achievement. This is, of course, part of the Hegelian lesson the author is trying to teach us, but it makes for a boring read.

On the positive side, the author's resonantly academic style of writing is often elegant and eloquent, and its ponderousness is actually well suited to the material.

A great book, certainly, but a deeply outdated one.


This edition contains an appreciative but chauvinistic introduction by the physicist and SF author Gregory Benford, which urges American readers of the book to skip perhaps the first third of it. This is the part which deals with what Stapledon calls the 'Americanized' future world of the First Men.

Stapledon was a socialist who despised capitalism, and he was suspicious of America and Americans. Benford seems to feel that American readers should be spared his criticisms and jibes. That would be a pity – because what Stapledon points to as the follies and faults of American culture are very much the same ones the rest of the world sees in America, now as then. Some of his comments are remarkably percipient and I think it would do many American readers good to learn how others tend to see them.

Stapledon's criticisms are not the fruit of bigotry and ignorance but the considered and reasoned comments of a brilliant and morally engaged mind. Any American who is offended by them probably doesn't have the moral and intellectual equipment to appreciate this book anyway.