Last and first man of vision

January 20, 1995

While reading this book, I was continually hypnotised -- that is scarcely too strong a word -- by the penetrating gaze from Howard Coster's portrait on the jacket. I found myself trying to bridge the almost half a century since my only meeting with Olaf Stapledon -- but, alas, it didn't work. Instead, I went back another decade, to the moment in 1931 when I discovered Last and First Men on a shelf round about knee-level in the Minehead Public Library. As the dust-jacket accurately states, "No other book had a greater influence on my life."

So it was with some nervousness that I agreed to review this biography of one of my gods (the other, of course, is H. G. Wells). Would he turn out to have feet of clay, as do most of the victims of the industry that has now added a new terror to Death? I need not have feared; Robert Crossley's splendidly researched study reveals O. S. to have been every bit as noble as his admirers hoped. Even his rare lapses from monogamy -- so unlike the home lives of our own dear Aldous and Bertie -- were conducted with an honesty so agonisingly scrupulous as to be almost comic.

It is indeed true that the past is a foreign country, and young Stapledon was brought up in a world that no longer exists. His middle-class, mercantile family read and debated Carlyle, Ruskin, Browning, Tennyson, Bunyan -- as well as Darwin and Huxley. The explosion of multimedia entertainment has now made such a print-orientated lifestyle impossible, except for the most determined of hermits. At the very dawn of the electronic revolution, Stapledon may have glimpsed its final outcome. Today's couch potatoes, surfing the channels with their remote controls, may be the precursors of his still more sedentary "Great Brains", encased in their concrete igloos yet free to roam the world via their mobile sense organs. (Soon after writing this paragraph, I encountered this gruesome statistic in New Scientist: 18 per cent of American women and 9 per cent of men, would rather give up sex for a week than their TV remote control. The Great Brains may be nearer than O. S. imagined.)

A biographer confronted with such an uneventful life as Stapledon's has a rather uphill task, and it is not Crossley's fault that most of his book's excitements are intellectual. Apart from a traumatic and horrifying period as a driver with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in the First World War, almost the only drama in Stapledon's later life was provided by such incidents as confrontations with Stalinoid thugs trying to hijack peace conferences, and interrogations by United States Immigration officials hunting for fellow-travellers, and nervously aware that Senator McCarthy was looking over their shoulders. It is somewhat ironic to read that, though they were often distressed by the role their country played in Last and First Men, Stapledon found his most enthusiastic supporters in America. One of the happiest experiences there was at a meeting of the New York science-fiction community's Hydra Club, whose members included at least one writer of almost equal genius -- Theodore Sturgeon. As a pure writer, in fact, Sturgeon is much superior: but neither he, nor anyone else, has ever matched the range of Stapledon's imagination -- though several have come near.

A surprising omission from Crossley's otherwise comprehensive survey is any reference to the novels of Sydney Fowler Wright, merely referred to as an "accountant-turned-writer" and the editor who in 1923 started to print Stapledon's poems in his journal, Poetry. Yet the very next year -- six years before the appearance of LAFM -- Wright published The Amphibians: A Romance of 500,000 Years Hence (better known in its 1953 version as The World Below). The invaluable Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction gives it "classic status as a vividly exotic novel of the far future", and as Stapledon was in constant touch with its eccentric author, it is inconceivable he was unaware of The Amphibians while his own visions were evolving.

When LAFM burst upon the literary scene like a nova in 1930, it was met with applause from a remarkably wide range of reviewers. "As original as the solar system," said Hugh Walpole, while Arnold Bennett commended the author's "tremendous and beautiful imagination". It was also singled out for praise by a failed politician, at that time trying to make a living by his pen: one Winston Churchill.

Unlike Brian Aldiss, who confesses to stealing the first copy he saw (later atoning for his crime by persuading Penguin to do a reprint), I dutifully returned mine to the public library. But before I did so, I made a detailed synopsis of the whole two billion years of future history, and carefully copied out the five mind-stretching "Time Scales", beginning with the one that spans a modest 2000 bc 4000 ad, through the Fourth (2,000,000,000 years ago: PLANETS FORMED -- 2,000,000,000 years hence: END OF MAN) and on to Time Scale 5. This final scale (in which PLANETS FORMED and END OF MAN are an eighth of an inch apart) is, dare I say, almost certainly wildly inaccurate. We are so accustomed to cosmic horizons receding in space and in time that is quite a shock to recall that, when LAFM was written, leading astronomers such as Sir James Jeans believed the universe to be about a thousand times older than now seems to be the case. Stapledon's Scale 5 runs from 10,000,000,000,000 years ago to 5,000,000,000,000 years hence. Unless -- despite all the evidence -- the Steady Staters are right, it would have been better to have knocked off those last three zeros. We will just have to wait and see.

In 1948, only two years before his untimely death, I persuaded Stapledon to give what Crossley refers to as "the most famous and often-reprinted talk he ever gave . . . He took great care over his lecture. After a nine-page outline and two heavily revised longhand drafts, he produced a 41-page typescript with numerous inked emendations in his meticulous penmanship."

"Interplanetary Man?'' -- the question-mark is typical of Stapledon -- was delivered to the British Interplanetary Society at the Charing Cross School of Art on a Saturday evening (October 9) and received wide, though usually facetious, publicity. No one -- even we space-cadets -- could have dreamed that less than 21 years later, men would be walking on the moon.

Although much of "Interplanetary Man?" is -- inevitably -- dated by the astonishing advances in our knowledge of the solar system brought about by the Space Age itself, its underlying message is as timely as ever. Stapledon pointed out that it was futile to think of exploring the planets until we had put our terrestrial house in order. Yet only nine years later the political confrontation of the Cold War got mankind into space perhaps half a century before the normal course of technological development would have done. This is an irony that Stapledon would certainly have appreciated.

Opening the discussion, I doubted that Man could ever take part in a galactic culture, even assuming that the technical difficulties set by the velocity of light could be overcome. The human mind would be strained to the utmost to deal with a solar civilisation of even a dozen worlds, and a galactic society implied an increase in complexity of perhaps a thousand million. Rereading these words today, immediately after watching the UN agonising over the behaviour of various feral ex-countries, my estimate of "even a dozen worlds" seems wildly optimistic.

Another BIS member complained that it was hard to feel any kinship towards the weird types of "man" that Stapledon had invented for the colonisation of very large planets. To this he replied that he could accept any lifeform, however alien, if it were orientated to the fundamental values -- which he considered must hold for all races at all times.

If we met a race that nearly matched us in culture, Stapledon hoped that co-operation would be possible, and that we would not treat it as we had treated the aborigines. On the other hand, if it was superior and turned earth into a reservation, that would be the end of humanity, as it would lose the will to live.

Although LAFM remains Stapledon's best-known book, seven years later he produced the even more ambitious Star Maker. Indeed, no work in the whole of literature has a grander theme, for Star Maker is nothing less than a history of the Cosmos -- majestically defined by Carl Sagan as "All that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be".

But for the majority of readers, Stapledon will be more approachable through two works of fiction that really are novels and not a latter-day Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire. In the now fairly extensive category of Superman (and Superwoman) stories, Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) still has no rivals, though it has had many imitators. I am both startled and flattered to read, in Leslie Fiedler's 1983 memoir Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided, that "in 1953, Arthur C. Clarke, most ardent and faithful of all Stapledon's disciples, made fully explicit in Childhood's End the mythological meanings which remained half implicit in Odd John.'' I had absolutely no idea: but, of course, few writers realise what they are up to, until the literary critics graciously condescend to enlighten them.

Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944) is an intimate -- even domestic -- study of an alien yet familiar intelligence: an "Alsatian, perhaps with a dash of Great Dane or Mastiff", whose IQ had been artificially enhanced. As my own garden holds the graves of three beloved German Shepherds, I am hardly an impartial judge; but it seems to me that no one who has ever been owned by a dog can fail to be deeply moved by the fate of Sirius, trapped in a biological limbo between Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris.

Although Stapledon was deeply concerned with the affairs of the heart, what sets him apart from other writers is his unique power as a maker of myths. Perhaps the most awesome of these is the one near the end of Darkness and the Light (1942), in which, after much striving, a society of mystics succeeds in glimpsing an appalling ultimate reality: "The universe of galaxies and atoms, of loves and hates and strifes, is not more than a melting snowflake which at any moment may be trampled into the slush by indifferent and brawling titans . . . Myriads upon myriads of these snowflakes, each one a great physical cosmos, faltered downwards and rested on the field of snow. The footmarks of the 'titans'. . . were areas where thousands of these universes had been crushed together . . . At any moment our own many-galaxied cosmos might be reduced to chaos, so that in a flash all its frail intelligent worlds would vanish . . ."

Yes, Olaf Stapledon is not for the faint-hearted. I sincerely hope that Crossley's labours will revive interest in an unique and -- perhaps for that very reason -- sadly neglected author, whose books are full of lessons for our time. And I am grateful for this reminder of one of the noblest and most civilised men it has ever been my privilege to meet.

Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future

Author - Robert Crossley
ISBN - 0 85323 388 8
Publisher - Liverpool University Press
Price - £32.50
Pages - 474pp

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