Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

US HB, published by Jonathan Cape

How to approach Olaf Stapledon’s future history epic Last and First Men today? It was first published in 1930 (by Methuen, who clearly weren’t too burned by the poor sales of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus ten years before), and its first chapters — all the ones which use such terms as Europe, America, Britain and China — were instantly outdated by the outbreak of the Second World War. These early chapters, which perhaps might be read as satire if Stapledon were of a more satirical bent, are anyway the least interesting. (The most successfully satirical moment, perhaps, is a Gulliver’s Travels-like glimpse the Second Men get of our own primitive descendants, still recognisably human but fallen into serving as beasts of burden and objects of mockery for a race of semi-intelligent monkeys, about 10 million years from now.)

It’s after the rise of the Second Men that Stapledon’s novel really becomes what it’s meant to be — not political commentary or satire, but a

“…serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarise ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds. 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.”

Magnum 1978 PB, art by Peter Goodfellow

Last and First Men, he goes on to say in his Preface, “is not prophecy; it is myth”.

But what sort of myth? Stapledon is writing in the cosmic mode (which might be considered the religious aspect of atheism), but not cosmic horror a la Lovecraft. Take a passage such as this, a direct pronouncement of the book’s narrator (one of the Eighteenth, and final, race of humans, dictating this novel from billions of years in our future):

“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies.”

The first sentence could be Lovecraft, but by the third we’re in a different mindset altogether. Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, in their history of science fiction Trillion Year Spree, point out both Stapledon’s link to, and difference with, cosmic horror by comparing him to another writer in that genre:

“We may suspect that Stapledon’s alienation was at least as severe as [William Hope] Hodgson’s; but Stapledon’s powerful intellect has shaped his mental condition into a metaphysic.”

So if it’s not horror, what’s a better term for Stapledon’s brand of cosmicism?

Dover Books omnibus with Star Maker

To him, humankind is not, as with Lovecraft, an insect-like nothing crushed by immense and indifferent alien powers, but a potentially noble race. This nobility, though, doesn’t come from being the favoured creation of a benevolent Deity. It’s self-generated, derived from an intelligent self-consciousness that allows it to appreciate both its huge potential and its immense vulnerability. Humankind, in each of the eighteen “races” Stapledon presents us with, is constantly beset with difficulties, both self-created (the “anti-social self-regard” of the First Men, for instance, which led to so many self-destructive wars), and visited upon it by the workings of a genuinely indifferent cosmos, whether this be disease, natural disaster, or shifts in the conditions of our solar system that threaten our delicate survival.

A growing awareness of this vulnerability only heightens the potential, as Stapledon sees it, for each of the races of humankind to achieve a fulfilment of its place in the cosmos — not because this is destined to happen, but because not to do so would be a waste of such a “fair spirit”. Stapledon doesn’t believe this fulfilment is guaranteed by any means, even given the many millions, if not billions, of years through which he pursues these eighteen races, each one “in spite of innumerable digressions, a single theme, a single mood of the human will”. In fact, he seems to take it as granted that such a fulfilment may never occur (unless that fulfilment is to be found in the attempt, rather than a final moment of achievement).

Penguin omnibus with Last Men in London, art by David Pelham

Perhaps, then, the best way of describing Stapledon’s brand of cosmicism isn’t cosmic horror but cosmic tragedy, though it’s a tragedy of genuine nobility faced with insurmountable odds, not the Shakespearian type of tragedy in which an overweening nature gets ideas above its station. (Perhaps cosmic elegy might be a better term, if an elegy can be written while its subject is still alive.)

There’s something of this tragic air in the moment when the Second Men find the knowledge-tablets of the First Men, which that initial race of human beings created so as not to lose all they felt most valuable when faced with a race-threatening disaster. Deciphering the tablets, the Second Men find little in this culmination of their predecessors’ civilisation to be of any interest:

“The view of the universe which the tablets recorded was both too naïve and too artificial; but the insight which they afforded into the mind of the earlier species was invaluable.”

The one thing the Second Men do value are the words of what the First Men called the Divine Boy, a prophet who preached an at-the-time unpopular way of understanding life:

“For I seemed to see a thousand worlds taking part with us in the great show. And I saw everything through the calm eyes, the exultant, almost derisive, yet not unkindly, eyes of the playwright.”

We should, Stapledon seems to be saying, learn to look at ourselves — our lives, our strivings, our failures — in purely aesthetic terms. Not as an excuse to escape into make-believe, but, in the words of the Second Men, so that “Seeing the depth, we shall see also the height, and praise both.” Or, as the Last Man-narrator puts it:

“But this we know: that we ourselves, when the spirit is most awake in us, admire the Real as it is revealed to us, and salute its dark-bright form with joy.”

Humankind, for Stapledon, “is dignified by his very weakness, and the cosmos by its very indifference to him”. It’s an outlook that has the same conditions as Lovecraftian horror, but which has plenty of room for things of genuine (though never lasting) human value.

The metaphor Stapledon reaches for is of “that great music of innumerable personal lives, which is the life of the race”. As the Last Men say:

“For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.”

Which reminds me of David Lindsay in Devil’s Tor — another novel of the 1930s — who uses the same metaphor, also in the same atmosphere of cosmic-level tragedy:

“It was like the ordered emotion of a far-distant orchestra numbering, not hundreds, and not thousands, but millions, it seemed, of instruments… … each instrument, with its voice of unique timbre, should be proclaiming its own peculiar message…”

C S Lewis found Stapledon (as he did Lindsay) both imaginatively inspiring and philosophically detestable. In fact it seems to be Stapledon, rather than Lindsay, who was the immediate spur to Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, through a need to take what he thought of as Stapledon’s “desperately immoral outlook” and critique it through the character of Weston. (And, just as Lewis found Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus “detestable, almost diabolist”, he thought Stapledon’s sequel to Last and First Men, Star Maker, “ends in sheer devil worship”.)

Whereas for Lewis the world was as God made it, and it was up to humankind to fit in with the cosmic harmony or suffer, for Stapledon suffering was the only thing that was guaranteed, making it all the more important that humankind should work towards its own kind of meaning and fulfilment. For Stapledon, there was no cosmic harmony, because everything is in constant flux, and we must instead learn to appreciate this difficult cosmic music, with all its dissonances. For him, humankind reaches its apex in the Fifth Men, but they’re not the end of the story — far from it — for no sooner have they embarked on their path of perfecting the expression of their potential, than they realise the Earth will soon become uninhabitable, and they’ll have to move to a new world, one where the need to adapt will send them back into primitive forms of life, and into a whole new series of cycles of striving and failure.

Last and First Men is not an easy read. As Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree:

“The atmosphere Stapledon generates is chill but intoxicating. Reading his books is like standing on the top of a high mountain. One can see a lot of planet and much of the sprawling uncertain works of man, but little actual human activity; from such an altitude, all sense of the individual is lost.”

But something of its bleak but uplifting, tragic yet elegiac, mournful yet meditative feel comes through in the recent (2020) film by Jóhann Jóhannsson. This combines Stapledon’s words (read by Tilda Swinton), Jóhannsson’s sombre music, and black and white footage of the strangely futurological/modernist “Spomenik” — war memorials in the former Yugoslavia that were intended, through their abstract forms, to be relatable by all the region’s diverse cultures and beliefs. The result is “a requiem for the Last Men and for the ideals of a failed socialist Utopia” (quoted from the statement at the film’s official website) — but I nevertheless found it uplifting, through its insistence that, even in the face of a race-annihilating threat, humankind can strive for a level of meaning, and fulfilment, on its own terms.

Stapledon, evidently, had a belief in humankind as a united thing, with values and aims in common. Their enemy, as well as their teacher, was the cosmos in which they were born, and in which they are to die, and his eighteen races of humanity, though often breaking out in war, just as often find unified civilisations through which to express a common character. It’s hard to connect this with our often very fragmented world today, but it’s nice to be reminded of it as a possibility every so often.

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