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.)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.)
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.