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July Books 44) Last and First Men

44) Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

Another in my list of classic sf to read.

This is an epic story of the future of the human race, starting in the present day (ie about 1930) and ending millions of years from now just before the destruction of the solar system by cosmic catastrophe. I think of Stapledon's epic yet detached tone as a peculiarly English style of writing; I detect it also in Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, and especially Stephen Baxter who is in many ways Stapledon's heir.

The weakest part of Last and First Men for today's reader is, unfortunately, the first section, where he describes a destructive war between England and France (a peaceful and neutral Germany standing by), followed by a succession of European conflicts which seem improbable to us. (In his foreword he hints that this is really a moral parable, a plea for the success of the League of Nations.) Also his instinctive racialism (I think that is the right word) strikes a sour note today. Still there are a couple of interesting hits, such as the sinister political party which adopts the swastika as its symbol, or the much greater longevity of the communist one-party state in China as compared with Russia.

Then we get onto the meat: the repeated near-extinction of humanity, whether through its own folly or natural disaster, followed by its reinvention of itself; emigration from Earth to Venus and then Neptune, having repelled invasion from Mars in the meantime; huge changes in the human form and lifespan. He achieves very well the epic scale of a few decades in one chapter, centuries in the next, millennia in the next.

Having said that, this is very much a book of telling rather than showing; his excursions into narrative rather than descriptive prose range from the unconvincing to the embarrassing. (I am thinking particularly of the scene where the nude island maiden brings peace between China and America by having sex with the negotiators.)

Yet despite its weaknesses, this deserves to be on the classics list. I think Stapledon's influence, directly or indirectly, reverberates through the sf of the rest of the twentieth century.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 29th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
I forgive all Stapledon's many faults as a writer just for how far his imagination takes us, and Star Maker takes us a hundred times further. Sometimes it seems almost as far as the imagination can go, but then I'm a complete sucker for high-concept SF.
Jul. 29th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
Stapledon appears in thinly disguised form in a Who spin off novella : Time HUnter: Peculiar Lives by Philip Purser Hallard published by telos. Purser Hallard did a PhD in religion and sf (IIRC) and authored this novella and a novel int he short-lived faction paradox series published by Mad Norwegian Press. His website has some wondeful stuff including some Stapledon related material on his Peculiar lIves pages: http://www.infinitarian.com/pl.html

Jul. 30th, 2007 12:18 am (UTC)
Soon after the first time I read Last and First Men, I formed the impression that it was a great outline for a series of novels and short stories. The lack of personality allotted to the different characters was a major issue for me.
Jul. 30th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
I second the Star Maker vote. Also a bit slow at the start, and that same tour guide style of writing but bigger in every conceivable way.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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