Reviews of Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930) and related work

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930Text)

Olaf Stapledon (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read in the most charming 1966 Penguin edition, with its disintegrating soft cover taped up and every one of its edges rounded by many readers.

Future history. The author calls it an “essay in myth creation”.

During the next two hundred million years all the main phases of man’s life on earth were many times repeated on Venus with characteristic differences. Theocratic empires; free and intellectualistic island cities; insecure overlordship of feudal archipelagos; rivalries of high priest and emperor; religious feuds over the interpretation of sacred scriptures; recurrent fluctuations of thought from naïve animism, through polytheism, conflicting monotheisms, and all the desperate “isms” by which mind seeks to blur the severe outline of truth; recurrent fashions of comfort-seeking fantasy and cold intelligence; social disorders through the misuse of volcanic or wind power in industry; business empires and pseudo-communistic empires — all these forms flitted over the changing substance of mankind again and again, as in an enduring hearth fire there appear and vanish the infinitely diverse forms of flame and smoke. But all the while the brief spirits, in whose massed configurations these forms inhered, were intent chiefly on the primitive needs of food, shelter, companionship, crowd-lust, love-making, the two-edged relationship of parent and child, the exercise of muscle and intelligence in facile sport. Very seldom, only in rare moments of clarity, only after ages of misapprehension, did a few of them, here and there, now and again, begin to have the deeper insight into the world’s nature and man’s. And no sooner had this precious insight begun to propagate itself, than it would be blotted out by some small or great disaster, by epidemic disease, by the spontaneous disruption of society, by an access of racial imbecility, by a prolonged bombardment of meteorites, or by the mere cowardice and vertigo that dared not look down the precipice of fact.

A scope greater than Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), in the hands of a competent writer, with interpersonal drama almost completely removed in favour of the grand scheme. It’s a silly book at times, and never a novel, but the high notes set a world record for the epic mode in literature.

Where Hodgson resorts to forces of good and evil, Stapledon—himself a philosopher—makes the superior choice of naturalism. He has a basic understanding of relativity, explaining why humans never colonize other solar systems despite inventing atomic power (“matter annihilation”) and femtoscale technology (“artificial atoms”), though time dilation is not mentioned. As is to be expected, a lot of the other future technology is rather weak. Computers are not invented and spaceships (“ether ships”) do not recirculate air but only synthesize it. In the utopia of the Last Men, the Arts and Crafts movement appears to be in full swing. I bet they have great wallpaper in their massive buildings.

Stapledon thinks he understands evolutionary theory, but apart from the process that leads to the Tenth Men (tenth human species), very little of the book’s biology makes sense. Consider, for example, how the Fourth Men are interested only in intellect because they lack bodies beneath the shoulders; by that logic, paraplegics would all become scientists. This is not entirely Stapledon’s fault. Darwinism was in eclipse since the 1880s. The chromosome theory of inheritance, which would revive natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution, was still new in 1930 and the structure of DNA (Miescher’s “nuclein”) was unknown. If he’d had any chance of knowing about the Toba catastrophe’s proposed genetic bottleneck, for example, I’m sure Stapledon would have included it. There are many such bottlenecks throughout the narrative, but there is rarely any explanation of how each human species actually goes extinct. The implication is genocide via social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer’s mistaken colonialist idea that evolution works like open war, as is the case between the Third, Fourth and Fifth Men. Spencer believed that evolution acts even upon our social structures and had a callous disregard for history’s victims.

The part of the book dealing with the near future (part I) is therefore full of egregiously poor predictions predicated upon unarticulated imaginary national character. For example, the Germans have learned their lesson in WW1 and don’t participate in WW2. Fortunately, even though the author reifies these bad ideas, his more advanced societies discard nations. Not so fortunately, he still pictures something like a racial psyche before the advent of telepathy, especially in the prolonged eclipse of the Second Men, a kind of species-wide depression of many millennia. There are traces of racism, as in the blood-sport religious ritual of the Sacred Lynching in a post-national future USA, and an attendant Jewish monopoly on true intelligence, but these things all fall by the wayside.

The event that finally kills the Last Men is not war or decadence but a union of a nearby supernova, resulting broad-spectrum radiation as through an ozone hole, global warming, and the life cycle of the Sun, all rolled into one: Real threats, though not all existential. The Last Men hypothesize but cannot prove that the infection killing nearby stars is artificial. It’s not hard science, of course, but it’s an impressive premise for 1930. Like Hodgson, Stapledon goes further outside hard science fiction to include supernatural forces, ambiguously contained inside a fundamental substance monism. Stapledon’s forces are amoral. His telepathic colony-organism Martians are fun. His concept of a near-cyclical universe looping back on itself from the end to the beginning should probably be understood as something like the theory of Big Crunch to Big Bang, before either term was coined.

In his 1962 introduction, Brian Aldiss mentions how his copy ended up with its covers in tatters, like my copy, as he was fighting the war in Burma in 1943. Stapledon, Aldiss writes, “had the courage, in a country and a time still comparatively smug and over-certain of their values, to throw open a wide window of doubt”, yet that country had only quite recently survived WW1, where Stapledon himself served. Aldiss also mentions how the austerity of Stapledon’s vision resonates with the nuclear existentialism of the 1960s. I think every time will find some such resonance in it. The most brilliant characteristic of the book is Stapledon’s ability to balance the sober cosmicism of his contemporary, H. P. Lovecraft, with a more practical concern for building an egalitarian society to achieve a sustainable maximum of human happiness under the circumstances. The ultimate “precipice of fact” is suffering, past and present, human and otherwise. This “abyss of evil” is real, and there is no theodicy for it in Stapledon’s vision, yet the beauty of the cosmos does not spoil.

References here: Under meteorernas trumeld (1932), The Shadow out of Time (1936), “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950), The City and the Stars (1956), Silent Spring (1962), “The Slaver Weapon” (1973), Helliconia Winter (1985), “The Inner Light” (1992), Children of Men (2006), Shin Godzilla (2016).

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Last and First Men (2017Moving picture, 70 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

A condensed version of the last fifth of Stapledon’s text, read by Tilda Swinton, set to the director’s own electronic music and largely static, grainy, black-and-white images shot on film in Balkan Soviet sculpture parks, and a single highly processed shot of the Sun, and some tilted oscilloscope output.

The music works pretty well with the text, and separately, the music works pretty well with the images. Individually, they’re all just OK. The main relationship between the text and the images is a literal correspondence, in that the narrator talks about future megastructures, transformed future posthuman species, and depopulation. This correspondence is weak, and intentionally so. If Jóhann had wanted it stronger, he would have had the Yugoslavian team get up at night and shoot the starry sky, at minimum.

Having seen this, I would happily watch a documentary about the sculptures, and I did read Stapledon’s original text. This film acts as an advertisement for both, but is unfortunately neither.

adaptation fiction moving picture