Sunday, July 10, 2011

Stapledon, Last Men, and the Star Maker

I just finished the novel Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. This book was only available at one of the branches to the Huntington Beach Public Library, the Helen Murphy Branch. When I checked it out it had dust on it. The librarian said it had not been checked out for five years. The book was two novels put together so I will describe both of them.

Last and First Men
This is written like a history of humankind seen from the point of view of one of the Last Men. The book covers the future of mankind from when the book was published in 1930 until two billion years in the future.

The book has an epic scale and a lot of great ideas. The descriptions of epochs in the book telescope as they get further into the future. For the first few years, things are described in detail. As time moves on, the histories become more general as more time is covered.

The predictions of the near future might have been interesting when the book was first published in 1930, but as of today I think most people could skip the first three chapters. I considered putting the book down several times as it was such a slow start.

In this sense the book reminds me of Jack London's The Sea-Wolf. Both of them are great books, except for a 50+ page section that I wish I could summarize and erase. Last and First Men has the misfortune of this bad part being the beginning, while The Sea-Wof has it at the end.

If you make it through Last and First Men, you should check out another one of Stapledon's books. It is a follow up book of sorts.

Star Maker
The form of the book is similar to Last and First Men, except it covers the history of the galaxy and beyond. The narrator is an Englishman whose mind wanders the galaxy. He not only observes other worlds with their inhabitants, but also has the ability to enter into the minds of these alien people. As the narrator gradually learns how to control his travel and discovers more about other worlds, his abilities of vision and observation increase.

The descriptions of other worlds and their inhabitants is the best part of the book. Stapledon's creations are nothing like the anthropomorphic aliens common today. Throughout the book, all these different beings are trying to understand the force behind the universe. This substance, whether it be a god, organized intelligence, or something else is called the Star Maker.

Oalf Stapledon
In the development of science fiction, Stapledon is an important figure. He came up with a lot of ideas and influenced several writers. Arthur C. Clark was greatly influenced by him. C.S. Lewis was also influenced, but in the opposite way. Lewis strongly disagreed with Stapledon's ideas and directly countered them in his writing.

I recommend both books. However, if you do not have the patience the first three chapters of Last and First Men can be omitted.

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