Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #15: Olaf Stapledon

Between 1930 and 1950, Olaf Stapledon wrote some of the most impressive and influential science fiction of the century. He was English, which may have been an advantage. The best English science fiction writers seem to have escaped the American curse of writing within, and for, the science fiction ghetto. In the best of cases, this has meant that what they write has to be not only good science fiction, but also good fiction.

Writing good fiction means, among things, that a novel can't coast on clever gimmicks and gadgets, as so much science fiction of the time did. It has to have something extra. In Olaf Stapledon's case, that meant tackling *big* subjects. Four of his novels stand out in particular:

"The Last and First Men" (***+) is Stapledon's future history of human evolution. Two billion years of it. (Did I mention that he tackled big subjects?) It starts after the twentieth century with the First Men -- our own species -- and the events which led to a worldwide Pax Americana -- a culture based on unrestricted energy usage, which collapses with the exhaustion of the last coal fields. It follows humanity's near-extinction, and the eventual evolution of the survivors into the Second Men, millions of years later, then *their* near-extinction and their replacement by the Third Men, and so on till the Eighteenth and last. The genus has its ups and downs. Some of the species are successors we would be proud to own; others are nasty, brutish, and not very tall. Some are destroyed by cosmic accidents; others bring about their own destruction.

All the successor species are expressions of humanity. Ultimately the questions raised by a two-billion-year cycle of existence are the same as those raised by our civilization's span of a few millenia and our personal spans of a few decades. The final question raised by the impending extinction of the Last Men is -- was it all for nothing?

"The Star Maker" (***+) is written on an even larger scale. Indeed, "The Last and First Men" is a footnote within the time and space covered by "The Star Maker", which presents a history of the galaxy -- later the universe. This is a history of spiritual advancement amidst physical decay. Worlds develop world-minds which (after any number of false paths) become galactic ones. Meanwhile, however, as billions of years pass, galaxies become physically impoverished, energy becomes scarce, the universe runs down. Towards the end, the narrator glimpses later, better universes, each finite and doomed. Once again, the final question is "what was itall for?", and once again, the answer is an optimistic one.

I hope I'm not giving the impression that these books are all grand movements and designs. Imagination can capture a reader's attention, but it takes storytelling to hold it. Oh, it's an impersonal storytelling. When every page must cover millions of years there isn't much room for individuals. The protagonists must be entire species and worlds. The destruction of Patagonia, the Martian Plagues, the abandonment of Venus, the war with the sentient stars: Events that ought to take entire books get tossed off in a few lines.

"Odd John" (***) is more modest in scope, if not in topic. The John of the title is an exceptionally bright little boy who grows up to be that later staple of science fiction, the mutant supergenius. Now, one mutant super-genius is an oddity, but when there turn out to be a good number of them scattered around the globe, it gives some people cause for concern. Not that they have any designs upon humanity -- they form an isolated colony and ask only to be left alone -- but that's asking too much of humanity.

"Sirius" (***) is something of a companion piece to "Odd John". TheSirius of the title is an exceptionally bright dog -- too bright. His 'creator' only meant to develop a "super sheep dog", but wound up with an intelligent and sentient being. Not that Sirius is any brighter than the average human, but it turns out that humans don't seem to take kindly to even fair competition.

These four are Stapledon's best. Some of his other books are far less digestible, and even these may not be to all tastes. They're special enough, however, that if you've never read Stapledon, and any of these four sounds like something you *might* like, I recommend giving it a try. The philosophy behind his books may strike the contemporary reader oddly, but the books themselves have a lasting power.


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Dani Zweig