Book Review: Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon


First and Last Men by Olaf Stapledon – Available Here

I read Stapledon’s Star Maker several years ago and I was unimpressed. This is the equivalent of walking to up the outside of the Sistine Chapel and saying, “Okay?” Stapledon is put on something of a pedestal within the literary science fiction canon. He is not a king, like the hallowed names of Asimov, Clarke, and, if we are reaching, Heinlein. He is more of a thing that came before, a sort of ideological bedrock upon which the next generation would build their legacy. It’s not his writing that is remembered, but simply his ideas, and as far as that goes it is true. No one can deny the aggressiveness with which he throws ideas against the page, though he rarely looks back to see whether any of them have properly stuck.

And why should he? According to nearly any measure neither Star Maker nor The First and Last Man are really novels. He is Jackson Pollock and books are merely his preferred canvas. The narratives that he offers are little more than railings that he can use to guide through the cosmos as it manifests itself in his mind. As you may have noticed, I consider Star Maker the younger brother of this, his first novel. Here we are given the flimsy and never properly explored, “Help me, First Humans, you are our only hope” as pretext de jour for his billion-year alt-history book, where half a decade later any character that may have existed at the beginning simply falls asleep before falling into space. One takes a constant reminding, and gives the book a remedial English vibe, the other takes all of two pages and opens us up to what I can only describe Racist Space Grandpa as narrator.

So this is less a novel and more of an alt-history America and Germany are ****ing terrible textbook. At least for the first civilization and by that I mean ours. And by ours I mean 90 years ago when the book first got it published.

Ignore this part. Seriously. Just skip it. Why this piece hasn’t been exhumed and buried with the author is absurd. It burdens the book with a tedious and phobic hurdle right out the gate. While for the more historically minded/possessed it is a curiosity, if you are reading this because someone recommended it to you as classic science fiction just skip it. Unless you’ve done something where you feel you need to pay some sort of penance in which case read it twice. It won’t kill you, but I promise you you’ll be thinking of anything but the words on the page.

Stapledon has ideas. I’ll die before I deny him that, but the package they are wrapped in is rather cheap and spotty. Written with a debonair style of the time, the details the book offers often selective and Stapledon just sort of abandons things whenever he gets bored with them, which makes sense when a child plays with a creator’s toolbox, but it’s so uneven and selective it reeks of a lack of consistent vision rather than narratively amenable reason.

While I understand that we should all look down at the earth that allows us to thrive in order to gain a true appreciate the world, I will always feel a greater sense of awe at the jade and glass monoliths erected on top of it.

“We all desire the future to turn out more happily than I have figured it. In particular we desire our present civilization to advance steadily toward some kind of Utopia. The thought that it may decay and collapse, and that all its spiritual treasure may be lost irrevocably, is repugnant to us. Yet this must be faced as at least a possibility.” ― Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men

About Tietsu

Someday the words that fill my brain will fill cheap paperback books. Until then, I will collect them here.
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