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Format: Kindle Edition
I tend to avoid early twentieth century science fiction because of the vapid plots, hollow characters, and abject cheesiness of the material. Case in point: E.E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928)--hated it. When I hear about a recommended book from the same era, I tend to file that suggestion in the trash bin. However, when I read Brian Aldiss' Farewell, Fantastic Venus (1968) anthology, I was floored by the imagination of one particular story, an excerpt from Last and First Name. I had known the name of the author, Olaf Stapledon, but never thought it sounded good--vapid, hollow, and cheesy are the words that instantly sprang to mind. Reading the excerpt smashed that ignorant assumption of mine.
Thankfully, I was in the right time at the right place when I found a brand-new edition of this book for a mere ninety-six baht (US$3.10). I snapped it up and filed it away on my overloaded bookshelf to one day be read. As a long holiday neared (October 20-23), I opened the book during my commute, then during my lunches, then in the evening in bed, then on the bus to my destination. I was hooked.
Rear cover synopsis:
"Evolution is an astonishing thing.
Over the next billion years human civilisations will rise and fall like waves on the shore, each one rising from savagery to an ever-advancing technological peak before falling back and being surpassed.
This extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novel is full of pioneering speculations about the nature of evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and the savage, progressive nature of man."
Brian Aldiss has called this book "great classical ontological epic prose poems" (vi) and inspired the minds of great men; among them: Arthur C. Clark, Freeman Dyson, and Winston Churchill. I'll respect Aldiss' advice! My Gollancz edition (UK, 2009) has a forward by Gregory Benford (v-vii), an author who I have little interest in after the disastrous reads of In the Ocean of Night (1977) and Timescape (1980). His 3-page forward, while moderately insightful, offers the following advice:
"[S]imply skip the first four parts and begin with The Fall of the First Man [Chapter V]. This eliminates the antique quality of the book and also tempers the rather repetitive cycle of rise and fall that becomes rather monotonous." (vii)
Audacious! This is terrible advice, which confirms my already dislike for Benford. Considering its publication in 1930, the first four chapter of Last and First Men are an amazingly prophetic portrait of the world after World War II with the continuation of the Americanized world into the twenty-first century and America's bipolar relationship with China. Consider these prophetic words:
"In the Far West, the United States of America openly claimed to be custodians of the whole planet. Universally feared and envied, universally respected for their enterprise, yet for their complacency very widely despised, the Americans were rapidly changing the whole character of man's existence. By this time every human being throughout the planet made use of American products ... the American press, gramophone, radio, cinematograph and televisor ceaselessly drenched the planet with American thought ... What wonder, then, that America, even while she was despised, irresistibly moulded the whole human race. This, perhaps, would not have mattered, had America been able to give of her very rare best. But inevitably only her worst could be propagated. Only the most vulgar traits of that potentially great people could get through into the minds of foreigners by means of these crude instruments. And so, by the floods of poison issuing from this people's baser members, the whole world, and with it the nobler parts of America herself, were irrevocably corrupted." (21-22)
Those are true words for this American expat, who renounces most of American television, political rhetoric, slovenly dietary habits, and the obsession with consumerism. Olaf Stapleton in his preface (ix-xii) to Last and First Men says, "American readers ... may feel that their great nation is given a somewhat unattractive part in the story. I have imagined the triumph of a cruder sort of Americanism ... May this not occur in the real world!" (xi). Sorry Olaf, your worst fears materializes much sooner than you prophesized! Further, "Some readers, taking my story to be an attempt at prophecy, may deem it unwarrantably pessimistic. But it is nor prophecy; it is myth, or an essay in myth" (xi). Sadly, what started as an exercise in moldable myth became a monopole of reality.
The first four chapters aren't as weighty as Benford suggests; they are rich with insight and chock full of ominous signs for the next few hundred, thousand, million and billion years of human evolution.
Chapter I: Balkan Europe
Compounded pride and ignorance, ever the silent pusher in human affairs, claim the lives of many in the Anglo-French War. Thereafter, nationalism is seen as a swarthy agent of a nation's demise, yet, when fingers are pointed they point both ways. With global interests of economy, America plays a tepid role in affairs, unacting themselves yet always nosy in the mind's eye of the population; thus, the poisoning of the Russo-German war.
Chapter II: Europe's Downfall
After Europe's bickering divided the continent, America fills the vacuum of power. Globalizing the world with American products, America is "respected for their enterprise" yet "universally feared and envied" (21). Suspicious of competition and resistance, America makes its military pressure known with airbases and flyovers, one of which happens at the wrong time at the wrong place; thus, leading to a European megadeath and global fear of simply criticizing the powerful nation.
Chapter III: America and China
Though as Americanized as the rest of the world in regards to media, language, and habit, China arises to become America's chief global counterbalance of influence. Cultural differences divide the populous nations of China and India, yet America allies itself with Russian mysticism and China allies itself with the rigorous Germans. With the globe divided by the influence of the two nations, conflict can be sparked form noble beginnings and be fueled by patriotism.
Chapter IV: An Americanized Planet
Nearly four hundred years after the European War (Chapter I), a World State and its President of the World are established. Science, empirical thought held in such high regard it borders on mysticism, impregnates the daily life of each citizen who all revere the mysterious greatness of the ancient Chinese scientist Gordelpus, the Prime Mover. However, having expended Earth's sources of oil, they are left to rely on Antarctica's veins of coal.
Chapter V: The Fall of the First Men
With the utter eclipse of the World State and, with it, the knowledge and pride, so too befalls the glory of Man in progress. The Dark Ages settle in for many millennia yet geological processes continue unabated, without care for Man or his progress. From the fragments of Man rise a fledging civilization in the landmass of the once South Atlantic who rediscover their ancestor's greatness and, with it, its power for destruction and cruelty.
Chapter VI: Transition
Only twenty-eight hearty, intelligent souls survived the megadeath of the epic subterranean blast and found purchase on an inhabitable tract of land in northern Siberia. A schism physically divides the settlement--one half of the survivors staying on the coats and the other half crossing the seas... only to slowing devolve to barbarianism. Even the cultured and learned settlement found itself helpless to their natural state of inbred infertility and inflexibility.
Chapter VII: The Rise of the Second Men
From the dregs of the First man's ultimate Dark Age arose a passive species of its very descent. Meanwhile, across the great continental divide of mountains, a lesser form of man had devolved among simians which developed superior intellectual capacity; yet, these capacities were limited when compared to the great Siberian intellect. Jealousy leaves a rift and the demise of both races, regardless of a zenith for sexual revival, soon approached.
Chapter VIII: The Martians
Near a village in the Alpine peaks, a green cloud-cum-jelly descended from the sky to temporarily terrorize the curious and unfortunate. The cloud, actually a supermind of ultra-microscopic Martian entities, soon depart for unknown reasons, but the alien mind of the Martian individual and group psyche are as irrational as the minds of men. While advanced and industrious, the Martians are also flawed by a type of monomania.
Chapter IX: Earth and Mars
Millennia pass as recurrent intrusions by the Martians, each time being defeated by the crafty Second Men, but each time diminishing Man's will to fight. Eventually, complete colonization of the Earth is accomplished by the Martians and further study of the humans reveals their intellectual capacity. Self-confidence is found in Man who then defeat the Martians, but not before lassitude, lingering Martian saboteurs, and starvation change Man's nature.
Chapter X: The Third Men in the Wilderness
Freed from the yolk of Martian overrule and ushered into diversity from a glacial period, the Third Men evolved to become of special aural talent. Keen hunters yet also keen manipulators, the Third Men found a particular pleasure in the godliness of pain and considered its affliction upon lesser beings high excellent as it brought about "vivid psychic reality" (166). Fond of music, objective versus subjective harmony resulted in a chasm of displeasure.
Chapter XI: Man Remakes Himself
Savvy of manipulating germ cells and with a maniacal drive to create the most supreme mind, the Third Men are able to create a superior mind with a vestigial body then, simply, a massive mind capable to incredible intellectual feats... and only that. The Great Minds then produces further Great Minds, thus producing the Fourth Men. Exterminating the pests and peasants of the Third Men, the Great Minds create their own version of human perfection, mobile yet brilliant--the artificial Fifth Men.
Chapter XII: The Last Terrestrials
Telapathically linked as a whole, death much distressed the Fifth Men, whose lifespans reached upwards of 50,000 years. they yearned for the truth of an afterlife and found that the past was still tangible, thus began their obsession with remotely viewing the past. Never deceived, the Fifth Men also had to look forward to the terraforming of Venus because Earth's destiny was to be sealed by its fateful dance with its orbiting moon.
Chapter XIII: Humanity on Venus
With the native Venerians destroyed, the Fifth Men were slowly able to evolve, with much hardship, into the Sixth Men, a species which highly valued the beauty of flight. Their unremarkable, depressing existence gave way to the most splendid , rapturous species of Flying Men--the Seventh Men. Through gaiety and bliss, their short lives focused little on the sciences, so they bore the Eighth men--sturdy, intelligent, diligent, and unexpectedly unprepared to settle the planet Neptune.
Chapter XIV: Neptune
Ill-equipped for the barren wastelands of northern Neptune, the Ninth Men quickly suffered and devolved for millions of years, only occasionally arising to a brief flicker of intelligence. So went the proceeding Men, failures of their own success, until the Fifteenth Men, who "set themselves to abolish five great evils, namely, diseases, suffocating toil, senility, misunderstanding, ill-will" (251). Aware of their flaws, they created the Sixteenth Men, who devised the Seventeenth Men...
Chapter XV: The Last Men
The Eighteenth Men are the best adapted, longest living, and most conscious of the past, present, and future, yet they also know that they are to be the Last Men. They have lived the reality of a billion years of trial and error toward "harmonious complexity of form" and "the awakening of the spirit into unity, knowledge, delight and self-expression" (275). Life their evolution, the cosmos is very beautiful yet also very terrible and tragic.
Chapter XVI: The Last of Man
Inevitable cosmic disaster bestows the Eighteenth Men with a great task: continue the two billion-year music of Man's evolution or return the entire effort to stellar dust. Though slipping into anarchy and tribalism, the Men strive to produce intergalactic spore of Man which may seed a planet and continue mankind's tragic history, though the possibly remains remote. The certain blaze of oncoming death, however, spurs a final brotherly effort to reconcile.
Consider the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh: "Civilisations have been destroyed many times, and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different." This modern Buddhist philosopher's words echo what Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher from decades earlier. By Chapter XIV, Stapledon begins to wax lyrically about the petty existence of Mankind in terms of the lifespan of the cosmos: "[T]he whole duration of humanity ... is but a flash in the lifetime of the cosmos" (244), and yet, even at the crescendo of consciousness which bestow the wise Men of the Last Men, Man still lies prone to all disasters which maybe come, be they cosmic or man-made:
"At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly." (281)
Doris Lessing, in her afterword (295-297), cites four authors who admired Olaf Stapledon's work: Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, and Theodore Sturgeon. This impressive list of admirers is flattery enough, but, as Charles Caleb Colton had said, imitation is sincerest form of flattery. Three books epitomize this flattery:
(1) Aldiss's own flattery in the form of imitation comes from his collection Starswarm (1964) where Man has settled 10,000 new worlds over one million years. These myriad "descendants of the inhabitants of Old Earth" (Signet, 1964) exhibit radical changes in society, in culture, and in physical form.
(2) Jack L. Chalker, best know his endless series of quests, wrote a quadrilogy entitled The Rings of the Master, which starts with Lords of the Middle Dark (1986). The proceeding three books explore Mankind which had been deliberately dispersed by Earth's Master system and the cast's attempt to retrieve the necessary rings to disable the System. Each world is home to an exotic form of Mankind, forcibly evolved to adapt to the planet's climate.
(3) John Brunner's A Maze of Stars (1991) is an amazing stereoscopic view of mankind's evolving and devolving amid "the six hundred planets" which "had been seeded with human stock by the greatest feat of technology ever achieved" by The Ship. The Ship's duty is to visit, time and again, each of the worlds it had seeded, for better or worse.
Regardless of its 83-year age, this book has stood the test of time, rendering it a testament to imagination to a magnificent scale, foresight on an epic scale, and intuitiveness of a grand scale. The decades haven't been as kind to some science fiction books as is has been to Last and First Men--Asimov's Foundation (1951) has a terribly dated feeling and Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) now feels limp and lackluster.
Disregard Gregory Benford's simple-minded advice of ignoring the first four chapters of Last and First Men (a sixth of the entire book) because Stapledon's ingenuity starts even before the first chapter, it starts in his preface; disregard people who dislike a book without a protagonist or central character because Mankind's potential is the highlight here, and disregard my own opinion... this needs to be read.