Home > Books > Olaf Stapledon – Last and First Men (1930)

Olaf Stapledon – Last and First Men (1930)

last and first menI think a reasonable, intelligible first response to this book would go along the lines of “lolololol u w0t m8”. Last and First Men covers the rise and fall of eighteen separate human species who struggle with the rudiments of information science, space travel, electrical power generation, and other tasks. It discusses billions of years at an ever increasing pace, abandoning pronouns, dialogue, and anything but magisterial, moralistic, stilted prose as tools of its rhetoric. These humanities end up exterminating or assimilating the rest of the life in a highly inaccurate solar system before succumbing to their own difficulties with innovation, and it becomes clear that Olaf Stapledon is full of uncomfortable prejudices and cognitive dissonance. However, Last and First Men is also considered a high point of sci-fi, at least for its decade; one that influenced countless scores of further writers in the genre, influencing authors as wide-ranging as Arthur C. Clarke and H.P Lovecraft. I personally started and finished the book of my own will; clearly there’s something of value here.

It turns out that Olaf Stapledon is one of the most imaginative writers of his era, and for all the scientific concepts that didn’t show up until after this book’s initial publication, Stapledon does go quite in depth on the ones that he does manage – for instance, most of the humans (starting from the Third Men onwards) engage in massive genetic and psychological engineering projects that directly lead to the creation of further human species, at least when they’re not being sired by horrific natural disasters like a Martian invasion or the death of the solar system. The implication I got from much of this book is that for all its suffering, humanity is surprisingly resilient if just as malleable. Last and First Men also goes into great detail about the societies the human species form, although as the pace of the novel accelerates, some of the later species are denied such world building.

Before that, though, readers are exposed to what is allegedly the book’s weakest section – its beginning chapters, which bear some resemblance to modern history, showcasing WWI and the rise of Fascist Italy, but rapidly lose it to Stapledon’s lofty ideals. Personally, as an alternate history nut, I didn’t find these sections difficult or boring, but since they hold fast to “no men, only mankind” rule (given that they kind of establish it) and tend to alternate between horrific tragedy and foolish accidents, I can see why other people find them distasteful. While these chapters labor under the most obvious of Olaf Stapledon’s various prejudices, they do contain some poignant passages that feel surprisingly relevant from the vantage point of 2014 fast bleeding into 2015 – American influence everywhere, much to the chagrin of everyone else, people blindly convinced of their various nations’ superiority, and scattered philosophers screech that humanity as a whole is tumbling into decline. What the author intended and what I get from these passages probably doesn’t line up, but you might find some other value in these early sections if you give them a chance.

As for the book as a whole? In many ways, it’s difficult, and in many ways it could be improved by more direct prose or simply a few decades postponement to give it some perspective. Again, Last and First Men wins points for the strength of its worldbuilding and its unique style, but it also loses points because a lot of the worldbuilding is quite frankly illogical and ridiculous, and at times also the prose. Double edged sword, folks. I personally find that this book was good enough to keep my interest, but I would be amiss not to criticize it. I’d probably also be amiss not to read Stapledon’s other works, like Star Maker, and see if they improve upon the formula established here, but that’s a story for another blogpost.

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