Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke

Pan 1974 cover

Wondering where to look next (after Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Lem’s Solaris) for works that touch on the sort of cosmic themes Lovecraft addressed, though without his emphasis on horror, I wondered if Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama might be a good candidate. Clarke, whose “The Sentinel” was the kicking-off point for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is both an old-school hard-SF writer and one whose work strayed into themes of “the metaphysical, even to the mystical” (as the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction puts it). In fact Rama, published in 1973, was the first novel Clarke wrote after his collaboration with Kubrick (the novel of 2001, which was written alongside the screenplay, came out in 1968, but only after it had been revised and rewritten — at Kubrick’s behest — throughout the four preceding years), and reading it I found myself wondering if Rama might be a result of Clarke blowing off steam about the things Kubrick (who ultimately had final say on 2001) wouldn’t allow into the novel. (Clarke was very respectful and polite about Kubrick and their working relationship, despite the director’s demands over the novel resulting in Clarke apparently coming close to financial hardship at one point. The closest I could find to any criticism of Kubrick from Clarke, though, was this, from when the director’s demands for yet more edits meant they had to cancel the existing publishing contract and find a new one: “There seems to be a right way to do things, a wrong way, and Stanley’s way.”)

Rendezvous with Rama opens by introducing us to Project Spaceguard, an effort to alert Earth (and, this being a few centuries in the future, the other inhabited planets of the solar system) about any potential collisions with comets and other objects. A new object has been spotted passing Jupiter, heading sunwards. It’s dubbed Rama, and it soon becomes clear this is no wandering asteroid:

“Its body was a cylinder so geometrically perfect that it might have been turned on a lathe — one with centres fifty kilometres apart. The two ends were quite flat, apart from some small structures at the centre of one facet, and were twenty kilometres across; from a distance, when there was no sense of scale, Rama looked almost comically like an ordinary domestic boiler.”

The closest spacecraft, Commander Norton’s Endeavour, is diverted to intercept and explore this object in the roughly month-long window before it gets too close to the sun. Landing on one of its flat ends, the Endeavour’s crew finds its way into the interior, which contains an entire landscape — there’s even a band of (at first frozen) sea about halfway along.

Bruce Pennington cover

It soon becomes evident Clarke’s focus is on the very practical problems of exploring such an object, and the sort of physical environment it presents. For instance, it has a certain amount of gravity, but because the explorers are inside it, when you’re standing close to the axis, gravity is pulling equally in all directions, so it cancels out to zero-G. But gravity is felt increasingly as you move towards the surface of this artificial world. And, where any other author might provide a quick method to get people from the axis (where you enter Rama) down to the surface, Clarke spends several chapters on his characters exploring the best method of traversing the several kilometres of stairs: as it’s in low gravity, for instance, it’s tempting to just float down, but will this world’s gravity be enough to result in injury? And then there’s the Coriolis Effect caused by being inside a spinning object, meaning if you drop, say, some supplies above one point, they might land several kilometres to the side. And once Rama gets closer to the sun and starts to warm up, climatic changes kick in and its sea thaws, meaning Clarke gets to describe what he thinks would happen in such an artificial enclosed environment.

The closest parallel to a work by Lovecraft, I’d say, is At the Mountains of Madness, where scientists are exploring a remote alien city. But where Lovecraft’s city is covered in enough wall-art to give us a good idea of the culture and history of its former inhabitants, Clarke gives us few clues as to what the Ramans might look like, or what this massive object is for. He doesn’t even have his characters speculate, as though they’re too scientifically disciplined to do so on such little evidence. Perhaps it’s because Clarke knew how inevitably disappointing it could be to bring his aliens into the light after such a long build-up; but I can’t help feeling he was simply having too much fun focussing on the physical problems associated with this artificial world. He’d maybe get to the aliens, but only once he’d got through all the physics — and there’s plenty of physics to get through.

Folio Society cover

But since I was on the look out for hints of Lovecraftian cosmic awe, I did spot a few instances. Rama opens with mention of the 1908 Tunguska explosion (when “Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometres — a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe”). But where Lovecraft would have taken that near-miss as evidence of how overwhelmingly random the universe’s destructive forces are, and so how little human life matters, Clarke takes it as just one more practical problem humans have to deal with. Hence the creation of Project Spaceguard, to spot asteroids on their way towards Earth.

The sheer scale of time associated with the spacecraft Rama — Clarke points out it must have been “more than two hundred thousand years since Rama passed near any star” — comes close to another Lovecraftian note, as Lovecraft got a particular horror-thrill from the passage of time (he called time itself an “especial enemy of mine”), and even more so with vast eons (“After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again”), but in Clarke’s hand two hundred thousand years feels like a number of interest to note, and no more. As a scientist dealing with astronomical objects and forces, he’s used to massive numbers.

Commander Norton does get a glimpse of the sort of vertiginous fear Lovecraft associated with the cosmic/alien as he descends to Rama’s surface:

“His well-ordered universe had been turned upside down, and he had a dizzying glimpse of those mysteries at the edge of experience which he had successfully ignored for most of his life.”

But he has the mental discipline to rein himself in:

“There was mystery here — yes; but it might not be beyond human understanding… At all costs, he must not let Rama overwhelm him. That way lay failure — perhaps even madness.”

He goes on to muse that “The wonder and strangeness of Rama would banish its terrors, at least for men who were trained to face the realities of space.” (And I suspect Clarke was of that generation of SF writers who throughout their lives continued to find the very word “space” inherently thrilling.)

US first edition, 1973

Ultimately, for Clarke, Rama is a physical puzzle, not the calling card of cosmic horrors Lovecraft would have made of it. I’ve always felt that, by the time of At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft’s insistence on horror as the only response to the unusual was wearing a little thin, certainly when assigned to the scientists who make up that story’s Antarctic expedition, who’d more likely be positively thrilled to discover an alien city. But the almost complete lack of awe felt by Clarke’s protagonists leaves the weird fiction reader in me feeling something is, perhaps, missing in Clarke’s approach, where such an awesome alien object is merely an intriguing physical puzzle.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction talks of Clarke, in his work as a whole, presenting “images of humanity childlike in stature compared to the ancient, inscrutable wisdom of Alien races” — and that is, I think, his most characteristic note. Not the humans-as-insects of Lovecraft, but humans-as-children.

As I said above, I couldn’t help but read Rama with the feeling that something, shall we say, monumental might be looming over it — Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. And Kubrick does get a brief allusion in the text of Rama, with the mention of “Sid Krassman’s famous late-twentieth century [film] Napoleon” — that being something the real S. K. was planning as his follow-up to 2001. In the end, I never really felt Rama showed any evidence of letting off left-over steam from the Kubrick collaboration — I suspect Clarke was just too genuinely good-natured a person to have any resentments at all — but it was interesting that both 2001 and Rama end with a space-baby of sorts. With 2001, it’s the Star Child (which seems to have been Clarke’s suggestion); in Rama, it’s the news that one of Commander Norton’s wives (in this future, men and women can have multiple spouses) has been inseminated, thousands of miles away on Mars. Norton is the father, but:

“Like every astronaut, Norton had been sterilised when he entered the service; for a man who would spend years in space, radiation-induced mutation was not a risk — it was a certainty.”

It’s not, then, the mystical wonder-child of 2001, but a combination of scientific miracle and practical necessity, something that feels more in line with Clarke’s approach.

Clarke in 1974

Clarke might create situations of awe and wonder — the size of Rama, the implications of its hundreds of thousands of years’ journey — but is always ready with a bathetic counter-note (“Rama looked almost comically like an ordinary domestic boiler”) or has his characters focusing too much on the immediate practicalities — as trained astronauts would have to, practicalities being so necessary to their survival — to stand back and really bask in the sort of awe (or horror) a weirder-minded writer might.

Ultimately, there’s something childlike about Clarke himself. He’s intrigued by Rama as a sort of toy — what can it do? what’s it like inside? what happens if we drop things? — rather than the religious-level object the title of the novel implies.

Rendezvous with Rama won a host of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial Award and BSFA Award. It was followed by several sequels — all collaborations — but I have to say, I’m not tempted to read them. Rama’s power is in its suggestiveness. Filling in the answers to the questions it raises will, I suspect, only turn it into one more spaceship in the crowded vacuum that is science-fictional space.


Solaris by Stanisław Lem

Solaris was first published in Poland in 1961, and in English translation in 1970 — though this translation (the one I read), by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, is based not on the original Polish, but a 1964 French translation by Jean-Michel Jasiensko. (It’s only in 2011 that a direct English-from-Polish translation came out, by Bill Johnston, though it’s not yet available as a print edition. I’d have read this one, though, if I had done my research beforehand.)

I was prompted to read Solaris following a vague train of thought about non-horror treatments of the sort of cosmic themes Lovecraft addressed — the human individual set against the immensity of the universe, encounters with the incomprehensible/truly alien, and so on — first in Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker, and now here. Solaris certainly brushes up against the horrific — I’d say it has a more viscerally distressing moment than anything in Lovecraft’s fiction, simply because it’s magnified by the sort of emotional aspects Lovecraft left out — but though it insists on the same incomprehensibility of the cosmos, Solaris simply doesn’t treat it as horror material.

Polish first edition

The novel is narrated by Kris Kelvin, who arrives at a research station hovering above the world-spanning ocean of a distant planet, Solaris, expecting to be greeted by the station’s three inhabitants, but finds nobody around and the place in disarray. He finally locates Snow (Snaut in the original), in as much a state of disarray as the station, who at first reacts in fear. When he’s assured Kelvin is who (and what) he says he is, Snow tells him the station’s leader, Gibarian, took his own life that morning. He then gives a number of obscure but vague warnings before asking to be left alone:

“Keep a hold on yourself. Be prepared to meet — anything. It sounds impossible, I know, but try. It’s the only advice I can give you.”

The planet Solaris was discovered over a century before Kelvin was born. An apparently uninhabited world, it elicited scientific interest when it was realised the planet didn’t follow the expected orbital path around its twin suns. It should have been moving through forbidding extremes of temperature, but instead kept within a narrow range, almost as though some force were acting on it to keep its environment stable, even habitable. Could it be the planet’s “ocean”? Described as “a sort of gigantic entity, a fluid cell, unique and monstrous… surrounding the globe with a colloidal envelope several miles thick in places”, it’s a mysterious, ever-moving substance that sometimes forms itself into vast, solid structures, only to let them lapse. Could it be, scientists began to wonder, that these weren’t random effects but the thought processes of some vast sentient organism, in effect a world-sized liquid brain? And so the scientific field of Solaristics was born.

But in the hundred-plus years since, almost nothing has been definitively learned about this mysterious “gravity-controlling colloid”. Looking through one of the many exhaustive and authoritative books on the subject, Kelvin sees:

“Multicoloured illustrations, picturesque graphs, analytical summaries and spectral diagrams… explaining the type and rhythm of the fundamental transformations [of the ocean] as well as the chemical reactions. Rapidly, infallibly, the thick tome led the reader on to the solid ground of mathematical certitude. One might have assumed that we knew everything there was to be known about this representative of the category Metamorph… In fact, by no means everyone was yet convinced that the ocean was actually a living ‘creature’, and still less… a rational one.”

Every attempt to communicate with this vast thing failed. Some scientists turned bitterly against it and did everything to disprove its potential sentience. Others concluded that, however interesting it was to human observers, the ocean itself simply wasn’t interested in them. At the point where the novel begins, Solaris studies are in a lull, but nobody is quite able to break away from this fascinating yet seemingly impenetrable mystery. But things are about to enter a new phase.

Arrow books PB from 1973

Waking up on his first morning in the station, Kelvin finds a woman in his room. He knows her — she’s Rheya (or Harey in the original, though I can see why the change was made), the woman he was in love with ten years ago. The only thing is, he left her, and as a result she killed herself. This Rheya is the same age as that Rheya, and even has the needle-mark from her fatal injection visible in her arm. Yet the skin of her feet is “soft, like that of a newborn child” and her dress, when she tries to remove it, proves to have no zips, and only ornamental buttons. It’s Rheya, but not Rheya. She’s not human, but she looks and reacts too much like a human being for Kelvin to easily treat her as not human.

She doesn’t remember how she got here, and seems unable to be separated from Kelvin — doing so causes her emotional distress and even physical pain — but Kelvin is at first horrified by her. He realises this is what Snow was trying to warn him about, and learns that the other members of the crew have their own “visitors”, though of different, but equally personal significance. (We never learn what Snow’s or — the other surviving station-member — Sartorius’s “visitor” is, though there are hints that Sartorius’s is a child or, even, a dwarf. Gibarian’s, though, Kelvin does see: a tall black woman, dressed in nothing but a grass skirt, like an exaggerated racial stereotype. Snow hints the “visitors” aren’t necessarily people you once knew, but embodiments of deep, often guilt-ridden, perhaps even perverse, emotional responses, which is one of the reasons the crew members keep themselves and their “visitors” hidden away from one another. They’re like walking advertisements of one’s deepest guilt, shame and vulnerability.)

First UK hardback, from Faber and Faber

Although the “visitors” think of themselves as what they appear to be — human beings — they are different at a sub-atomic level. Kelvin, at first refusing to learn from Snow’s cynical-sounding “wisdom”, rids himself of one Rheya only to find a new one there the next morning, oblivious to what he did to her. This is part of what’s putting such pressure on Snow and Sartorius, and what drove Gibarian to take his own life: the “visitors” are a constant reminder of (in Kelvin’s case) the guilt he feels at Rheya’s death, but they cannot be escaped. Worse, the apparently human side of “Rheya” can’t help being aware that something’s wrong with her, that she’s not what she thinks she is. The scientists do their best to discuss these matters in abstract terms, referring to “Phi-creatures”, and not stating things too explicitly, so they don’t distress these “visitors” any more than necessary — while also trying to work out how to rid themselves of them, or at least understand what their purpose might be.

Are they a form of communication from the world-ocean? Are they experiments the world-ocean is performing on its new human inhabitants, or are they attempts to drive those human beings away? Or are they just one more random natural process that surrounds this weird planet of Solaris, devoid of any purpose or meaning?

Ultimately, Solaris is about the essentially unknowable aspect of a truly alien encounter. As Snow says:

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, for death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos…”

Lem says his main idea in Solaris was “to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid”:

“I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”

Iranian cover, art by Yiran Jia

In the same piece (written in response to the 2002 Soderbergh film of the novel, which he hadn’t yet seen, but is sure he won’t like), Lem goes on to compare Solaris with Melville’s Moby Dick and “Capitan Ahab’s pernicious quest for the white whale”. His novel certainly has a few chapters that recall the whale-related info-dumps of Moby Dick, as Kelvin reviews the century of Solaris studies, including the classification of the many forms created by the world-ocean, or the trends in how the ocean’s possible intelligence is judged, at length and in hard-science-fictional detail. For me, though, the first comparison to come to mind is with ghost stories, in particular Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, whose hauntings were equally personally tailored and psychologically manipulative of its poor victim, Eleanor.

But there’s also Mythago Wood. In both Holdstock’s and Lem’s novels, a vast natural form (a forest, an ocean) which can be read as a symbol of the unconscious, generates physical embodiments of what dwells in the human psyche, creatures which appear human and can be interacted with as human, but ultimately are not — or, perhaps, reveal our stranger, less-human-seeming innermost depths. As the narrator Kelvin says:

“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilisations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”

Solaris has the rare distinction of being adapted into films by both a Soviet-era Russian (Tarkovsky in 1972) and a big-name Hollywood American (Soderbergh in 2002).

Tarkovsky’s adds a preceding section on Earth (including here some of the material that, in the novel, was in the later info-dump chapters), and adds a somewhat trippy/highly symbolic ending which perhaps contributed to its being seen, at the time, as Russia’s answer to 2001. But it’s certainly engaging with the ideas of Lem’s novel, even if (as it should) it takes them in Tarkovsky’s own direction.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Soderbergh’s, on the other hand, seems far too intent on hitting the emotional highs without laying the necessary groundwork of plot, situation, or character. The early part of the story is dealt with so perfunctorily, it was obvious the filmmakers had no interest in anything till the drama between Rheya and Kelvin could get underway. Solaris, here, isn’t introduced at all, and it was only in a DVD extra that I discovered the filmmakers thought of it not as a planet with a perhaps-conscious ocean, but a planet-sized entity, seemingly made entirely out of energy. Nobody talks about the possibility of contact with this thing, and the mission is purely one to evaluate Solaris for commercial exploitation. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor for Hollywood there, somewhere.) It ends with a handful of twists, some obvious, some interesting, but in the end doesn’t, in my opinion, hit any note with sufficient force to leave much of an impression.

Soderbergh’s Solaris

Lem seems to have disliked both adaptions — in the case of the Soderbergh, without even seeing it — but that’s a common enough authorial stance. Certainly, his novel provided a template for some of the more thoughtful alien encounters in SF in subsequent years (Arrival, for instance).

For me, there’s an aesthetic to Solaris — both the novel and the films — of a pristine, almost surgically-clean technological surface, an island of apparent placidity and rationality amidst the bleakness and alienness of space, but one that serves to evoke the deepest human emotions of loss, guilt, and of vulnerability to one’s own undiscovered reaches. But I think this sort of emotional evocation works best with a light, even distanced touch, something the Soderbergh adaptation certainly doesn’t do. In space, no one needs to hear you scream; the vacuum, darkness, and immensity is scream enough.


Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

First HB dustjacket, from Methuen, art by Ethel “Bip” Pares

After his first novel, Last and First Men, Stapledon published Last Men in London (1932) and Odd John (1935), but it was 1937’s Star Maker that was the true successor to his first book.

Like that debut, Star Maker isn’t so much a story as a trip through time (and, in this case, the entirety of space as well, before moving outside both space and time in the final chapters). It starts with its narrator leaving his family home one night in a state of bitterness, to sit on a hill and regard “our own house, our islet in the tumultuous and bitter currents of the world”. Soon, it is not his own little house he’s regarding from the outside, but his world, Earth, as some force takes him up on the start of this novel’s journey:

“The Earth appeared now as a great bright orb hundreds of times larger than the full moon. In its centre a dazzling patch of light was the sun’s image reflected in the ocean. The planet’s circumference was an indefinite breadth of luminous haze, fading into the surrounding blackness of space… The spectacle before me was strangely moving. Personal anxiety was blotted out by wonder and admiration; for the sheer beauty of our planet surprised me. It was a huge pearl, set in spangled ebony.”

This makes me think of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth seen from space, taken in 1972, and how it and other Earth photos (Wikipedia has a timeline of them) brought out the preciousness of this speck of rock that we call home, thinly coated with a life-preserving environment, an island in a vast, harsh vacuum — just as Stapledon describes it — and how that fed into the burgeoning environmental movement. (And this makes me wonder who was the first writer to properly see the Earth as such a “Blue Marble” in fiction.)

David Pelham art for 1972 Penguin PB

The narrator becomes “a disembodied, wandering view-point”, capable of inhabiting the minds he encounters, and sharing their experiences. He finds he can enter into dialogue with these beings, and that they can even become fellow travellers. Soon, the narrator is at once the Earthman experiencing all the wonders and mysteries of the cosmos, and a conglomerate of disparate beings, all journeying, like him, by mind, experiencing the many worlds they encounter, learning their stories. In their quest, this narrator becomes aware that he and his fellow travellers can move through both time and space, the only limit to their travels being that they can’t connect with — even become aware of — planets whose inhabitants have evolved to a level of consciousness too far beyond their own. They have to advance their own awareness and understanding before they can experience these more realised beings, or even perceive them as more advanced. There is, for Stapledon, no way to be a purely passive viewpoint and genuinely perceive the truth; you have to be altered by what you see.

As he/they range on this cosmological quest, the narrator becomes aware that “every world that we entered turned out to be in the throes of the same spiritual crisis as that which we knew so well on our native planets”:

“…in which the ideals of the masses are without the guidance of any well-established tradition, and in which natural science is enslaved to individualistic industry…”

This, to me, sounds so much like the modernist crisis of the early 20th century, as found in the likes of T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf: an existential crisis of meaning, driven in part by the First and Second World Wars (themselves perfect metaphors for “natural science… enslaved to individualistic industry” and taken to mass-murderous extremes), but also by the destabilisation of so many ideas and ideals thanks to the revolutions in thought brought about by Darwin, Einstein, and others. As Stapledon’s narrator sums it up at the start: “horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world’s delirium”. But whereas the emphasis in the literary moderns, who were often staunchly elitist, is on the sensitive individual suffering from angst and despair, Stapledon sees this as a worldwide crisis, whose roots lie in the clash between the lone individual and the community:

“This crisis I came to regard as having two aspects. It was at once a moment in the spirit’s struggle to become capable of true community on a world-wide scale; and it was a stage in the age-long task of achieving the right, the finally appropriate, the spiritual attitude toward the universe.”

Les Edwards art from 1999

Star Maker, then, is an attempt to understand this early 20th century moment by stepping outside it and asking: “What if this weren’t just our own dark moment, but a stage that all intelligent races in the universe go through — what if it has a million variations throughout the cosmos? Why might it be necessary?” The answers, for Stapledon, lie in the reason for all of this — life, the universe, everything — and so in the nature of its creator, the Star Maker.

First, though, he has to confront the fundamental question of whether there is a Star Maker. There are certainly moments of cosmic despair as the narrator ranges through the universe:

“The appalling desert of darkness and barren fire, the huge emptiness so sparsely pricked with scintillations, the colossal futility of the whole universe, hideously oppressed me.”

I fully expected Stapledon to leave the question of whether there was a Star Maker hanging till the end — in the classic Lovecraftian style of ending with the moment of overwhelming confrontation — or perhaps to never answer it at all. But no, Stapledon wants to examine what such a Star Maker would be like, so he has to have one and bring it on stage. At first, his narrator becomes aware of the Star Maker through its many aspects. One moment it’s “sheer Power”, another it’s “pure Reason”, or “Love”, or “unreasoning Creativity”. But these are just the trunk, tusks, tail and legs of an elephant too vast for him to perceive as a whole. All the time:

“The felt presence of the Star Maker remained unintelligible, even though it increasingly illuminated the cosmos, like the splendour of the unseen sun at dawn.”

Peter Goodfellow art, from 1979

Even at the end the Star Maker remains — has to remain, if Stapledon is to be intellectually honest — “a dread mystery”. It’s interesting that one of the books that influenced Stapledon in his writing of Star Maker was Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1934), which was about the essentially incomprehensible, alien, or inhuman aspects of divinity, and how the holy is so often associated with darkness — interesting because Otto’s book was also a key influence on C S Lewis, and fed into the shadowy aspect of the primitive goddess Ungit and the not-to-be-looked-on Mountain God in Till We Have Faces. Both Star Maker and Till We Have Faces are about how we cannot even begin to perceive the nature of the divine (or of that level of reality we might call divine) until we ourselves have changed. (Lewis, though admiring Stapledon’s book, thought it “ends in sheer devil worship”.)

Stapledon’s approach (or his narrator’s), in this novel, has been to try to understand the crisis early 20th century Earth is going through by rising above it and putting it into a new and wider perspective. At first, that perspective is to learn that other worlds are going through the same crisis — in fact, have to go through it. Then, rising above that level, he discovers that not only species go through this crisis, but stars too — stars, in Star Maker, are conscious entities, and one of Stapledon’s most inventive moments is to reveal that what we think of as the universal laws of gravitation that dictate how the stars must move in their galactic orbits are, to the stars themselves, closer to social rules or aesthetics. They have no need to obey them — they are, then, not laws — but the stars do obey them, because not to do so would bring them shame and a kind of aesthetic pain.

The ultimate end of this rising-above approach is to see humankind — and the many created races that inhabit our universe with us — from the viewpoint of their creator. What, then, are we, to the Star Maker?

“And at once I knew that the Star Maker had made me not to be his bride, nor yet his treasured child, but for some other end… It seemed to me that he gazed down on me from the height of his divinity with the aloof though passionate attention of an artist judging his finished work; calmly rejoicing in its achievement, but recognising at last the irrevocable flaws in its initial conception, and already lusting for fresh creation.”

The Star Maker, it turns out, has a dual nature. It is at once outside and (when engaged in creation) inside time, evolving in response to what it has created. Stapledon’s cosmos is not an entirely top-down hierarchy. Humankind, and the other races, are not just there to be the playthings of their creator, but to teach that creator how to better create. Which could be a harsh sort of idea — our purpose, it seems, is to be flawed, and to try but fail, so the next iteration of creation might be less flawed — but it comes, for Stapledon’s narrator, as a kind of consolation:

“The incalculable potency of the cosmos mysteriously enhanced the brightness of our brief spark of community, and of mankind’s brief, uncertain venture. And these in turn quickened the cosmos.”

Jean-Michel Nicollet art from a 1979 French translation

What, for me, sets Stapledon’s cosmicism apart from, say, Lovecraft’s (who reveals what I take to be his own longing to be a “disembodied, wandering view-point” in the universe in The Whisperer in Darkness), is that Stapledon is always aware of — insists on — there being both a plus and a minus. At every stage in his narrative, an intelligent race of beings triumphs only to realise its limits, or to find there is more striving to be done; or it fails and learns and starts again. Ultimately, even the tragedies have a purpose. This can make reading Stapledon, particularly as a piece of sense-of-wonder science fiction rather than of philosophy, a mite frustrating, as every payoff is tempered, every revelation is not quite the last. (Another comparison is with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater, whose narrator indulges in a superficially similar experiential tour of the universe, though unlike Stapledon’s narrator he tries very much not to become involved or changed by the wonders he sees — until the final confrontation with that “huge white eyeless Face”, which is where Smith leaves it. Stapledon pushes on, still asking questions.)

Spine of the first edition

Is there a final answer, then, to the modernist crisis that kicked this novel off, and those questions the narrator asked at the start:

“Had we, perhaps, misconceived our whole existence? Were we, as it were, living from false premises?”

The response Stapledon gives is a typically Stapledonian one, in that it isn’t any sort of final answer, but is, rather, an opening up of new questions. Returning to Earth, at the end, the narrator is struck by “The littleness, but the intensity, of earthly events!” He sees his own situation, then, from not a new perspective, but from two perspectives: not just that of the human being caught up in his own troubles and all the intensity of a contingent, mortal life, but also from the cosmic viewpoint, from which his suffering is really quite a minor thing, but nevertheless part of a much larger, ultimately hopeful, project of creating something better.

This is perhaps the key thing that prevents Stapledon from writing Lovecraftian cosmic horror. He does see and acknowledge the horror, but also acknowledges that it is, however true to the one perceiving it, only one perspective among others. The point is not to be caught in one viewpoint — not that of the suffering mortal, nor that of the vastly removed Star Maker — but to move between them, to step outside or inside as required.

(Which is what I’ve always thought is one of the main benefits of “escapist”and imaginative fiction: the ability to step outside of it all, get a new and expanded, or at least refreshed, perspective, then return.)

Is Star Maker fiction or philosophy? Reviewing it in The Sketch when it first came out, L P Hartley called it “the most ambitious novel, if novel it can be called, that I ever read”. It’s certainly not a story, as most novels are. It uses the techniques of fiction to present a philosophical idea of how the cosmos might be ordered, of how the crisis of 1937 might be faced. If Stapledon had written about the nature of his Star Maker as philosophy, he’d have been dismissed as a fantasist; but by writing it as fantasy, he can say something that feels like a sort of truth, even if it doesn’t have to be taken as literally true.

At the same time, it’s a difficult read — far more abstract, and (literally) disembodied, than his Last and First Men. One of those monuments of imaginative literature, Star Maker is a book that, for me, has grown the more I’ve thought about it.