34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A First Man writes.....
After 20 years of reading about Last and First Men (they had not even heard of it in Hay-on-Wye)I have found it at last. If your idea of a novel is a book about people's relationships, it may not be for you. That particular element of novels bores me to death and this is more my idea of a compelling read. The history of mankind from 1930 to a few billion years hence is...
Published on 4 July 2002 by DAVID BRYSON
18 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sorry but...
...I have to disagree with all the other reviewers.
I have been steadily reading the SF masterworks series, being a big fan of science fiction, and this was the first one I have read which I didn't like.
It certainly is epic, and a massive achievement - but I just found it to be, at times unengaging, repetative and sometimes even boring.
There are no...
Published on 1 Mar 2004 by R. W. Jackson
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A First Man writes.....,
After 20 years of reading about Last and First Men (they had not even heard of it in Hay-on-Wye)I have found it at last. If your idea of a novel is a book about people's relationships, it may not be for you. That particular element of novels bores me to death and this is more my idea of a compelling read. The history of mankind from 1930 to a few billion years hence is pre-written by a philosopher and fantasist possessed of a great and unquiet mind, inhuman but not inhumane as someone has well put it. On no account skip the opening chapters, whatever anyone tells you. The fact that S got the world's history 1930-2002 completely wrong is not the point -- the rest of it will almost certainly prove to be all wrong too, if we think like that. What these first chapters do is to get us into the author's weird exalted and passionless mindset. He is not so much on another planet as in an alternative universe. It is entirely to the book's advantage that he has no grasp of realpolitik and even that he has no detectable sense of humour -- when I was beginning to feel the latter as a lack I came to the only bit where he ascribes humour to any of his characters, a race of monkeys depicted in general unsympathetically and not least for their possession of this deplorable characteristic. That put me in my place I can tell you. From start to finish I got no sense of either pity or cruelty as he chronicles the the periodic near-annihilations that overtake the various successive human races, and while his account of the systematic extermination of the intelligent life on Venus filled me with a wrenching sense of tragedy that I did not feel for any of the mankinds the author himself seemed as unmoved as ever. If Wuthering Heights was written by an eagle, who or what wrote Last and First Men? Of other human proclivities I can report that sex is methodically accorded its place in a thorough and businesslike manner reminiscent of Peter Simple's great sexologist Profesor Heinz Kiosk (assisted by Dr Melisande Fischbein). Of anything I would recognise as love or affection or friendship I can find not a trace.
-- 'here he has not gone so far as to trouble the eternal gods or the stars that blight our human lot.' That comes in Star Maker. Here the 18th and last men are trapped in our solar system when final doom reaches out from the stars. Next -- Star Maker, which makes this book seem parochial.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Still has a lot to offer, despite its age.,
By A Customer
This is a really old classic written in 1930 and you have to make some allowances for its age, especially in the early chapters. It sets out to tell the ambitious story of the entire history of mankind from the perspective of the Last Men, very distant descendants of homo sapiens. Succeeding chapters take us through the fate of the First Men (ourselves), the rise of the Second Men and their doom and on through a variety of stories each covering a greater and greater period of time until we reach the final end of the Fifteenth Men - the Last Men living in the outer solar system long after the Earth has become uninhabitable. The whole thing is told in the curiously dispassionate tones of an encyclopaedia. It's a story without characters, without much of a sense of place or description and without any human warmth. In fact it lacks almost all of the attributes of a traditional novel. The only excitement is the cold drama of the great sweeps of imaginary history it describes but it works brilliantly to evoke that desolate mood.
'Star Maker', a sort of a sequel (yes, you can have a sequel to the end of mankind!) manages to trump 'Last and First Men' (an amazing feat) and is possibly an even better book but if you want to read either of these you should start with 'Last and First Men'.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crushing, Surprising & Deeply Moving.,
It is hard to fully express the effect this book has had on me. I was lent it by my grandfather, who read it close to 60 years ago and insists that it still haunts him.
I can see why. Stapledon's writing, though rather stale and flat to begin with, belies a stunning imagination that not only beggers belief with its soaring vastness; but really blows a hole out the back of "accepted" morality, social values and most over, polical values.
Stapledon makes modern governments' 10-year line-of-sight feel both criminal and also charmingly, but laughably, childish.
I'm no political scientist (far from it...), but I found my atitudes towards my country, my planet and my fellow man re-evaluted through reading this work.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book. Then take 2 aspirin and have a lie down,
By A Customer
This book does nothing less than plot the next two thousand million years of human history. We see the extinction of our own species, and the rise and fall of seventeen others. Civilizations rise and fall, planets are laid waste, humanity repeatedly ascends to transcendance, only to fall to animality for millions of years at a time before the next species comes into its own. The exegesis (there is no other word) ends in a tragedy as the final species of Man (a five-eyed, genetically engineered giant, living on Neptune) gets a glimmer of the Meaning Of It All before a cruel and merciless annihilation. If that was not astounding enough, this whole thing was written in 1930 by a philosopher who hadn't heard of SF. Stapledon is now revered as the SF writer's SF writer. This will clearly not be for everyone. The unimaginative drones of Eng Lit will dismiss it as silliness, but don't be deterred. The prose is difficult but starkly beautiful without being remotely sentimental -- in tone, it is reminiscent of the more serious parts of H. G. Wells. The atmosphere, which H. P. Lovecraft identifies as a crucial ingredient of genre fiction, has a touch of Poe, as well as the cosmic dream sequence in horror classic House on the Borderland by Hope Hodgson. Where it is dispassionate and philosophical, it reminds you of the terrifying metaphysical conundrums of Borges. Yet Stapledon is very much his own voice: icily cool and clear, almost (dare one say it) inhuman, though not inhumane. But what sets this book apart from every other book except one is the majestic scale of the work. The book that trumps this is Stapledon's own Star Maker, in which the entire history of Last and First Men is compressed into two paragraphs. Nurse, pass the aspirins.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Ancient Future,
This review is from: Last And First Men (S.F. Masterworks) (Kindle Edition)
This book, as I write, is over 80 years old, having been written in 1930, a fact worth bearing in mind as you read. The tale within is an attempt to conceive of a future history of humanity that extends for millions of years and to attempt such a thing is ambitious to say the least.
Consider that it was written at a time that predates the Second World War, the Atomic Age, the Silicon Age, the Age of the Genome and the interconnected Internet Age and this throws the scope and thought provoking vision into an unusual focus.
Naturally it is bound by the limits of scientific understanding of the time such that there are some ideas and extrapolations that seem rather odd now with our modern sciences and I have to admit that a combination of the age of the book and its ambitiousness renders the earliest chapters somewhat tedious as they lay out a century of history that we know simply did not unravel that way, but that hardly unusual where all fiction set in the immediate future is concerned.
Every now and again I found myself thinking, "That's not a particularly original idea, why bother putting it in and not explore it?" At certain little germs not fully pursued but it slowly dawned on me that the reason for thinking it lacked originality and failed to follow up on ideas was because this was probably an early, if not original, incarnation, of a concept that a more modern Sci-Fi writer has since expanded upon, a state of affairs that in itself must be some sort a testament to the achievement of the book and its themes.
Interestingly the story holds together with almost a complete lack of characters to empathise with, I think the first and last character, if you exclude the narrator, is the first of the Fourth Men, whose thoughts and motivations are only briefly touched upon. Such a literary structure is quite an achievement in itself.
Having followed another's advice to persevere through the first section of this book I would definitely offer the same advice, in fact to the impatient I might even suggest reading this book by skipping the history of the First Men and going straight to the Second Men and perhaps reading the first section of the book after reaching its conclusion, the final revelation of the nature of its narration mean that I suspect that its not entirely a problem to use that modern trope of telling a tale out of chronological order.
I have to admit that the fate of the Last Men definitely did fairly tug at my heart strings and for me added a poignant conclusion to the tale of the Last and First Men and I would recommend it to anyone with patience and a desire to read some Science Fiction somewhat different to the more modern fare we are all used to which somehow seems very narrow in its predictions compared to the soaring imaginings unfettered by a more modern and scientific knowledge.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another Stapledon masterpiece!,
By A Customer
This book has a unique perspective on time, dealing as it does with the two thousand million year history of the various human species as they all try to answer the question "Why are we here?" Or perhaps more accurately "How do we fill our time while we are here?" This is about the rise and fall of civilisations and about their different solutions to the problem of being alive. If you're into the grand view of history, the rise and fall of cultures, the slow percolation of ideas through society, this is for you. See the bleak future of the First Men; watch in horror the grotesque Fourth Men; marvel at the brilliant Fifth Men!
This is ultimately a hopeful book, dealing with the irrepressible impulse towards enlightenment. As Doris Lessing says of Stapledon: "Who made this extraordinary man? What star shone on his cradle?"
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sombre vision from a master of perspective,
Ever wondered where our species is heading? Onwards and upwards towards a glorious future? Or hurtling down into an abyss of our own short-sighted making?
In the dark days of the early twentieth century, Stapledon wrestled with these issues and advanced a plausible, thought-provoking and measured interpretation of our evolution over the next two billion years. This is not Star Trek and the universe of the galaxy spanning empire. Rather this is a universe constrained by physics and the sheer magnitude of the distances involved: a universe where triumph and disaster are treated as long term travel companions rather than the impostors of Kipling.
Would I recommend it? Well that depends on the reader and what they are looking for. If you're after an exciting story, perhaps it would be better to look elsewhere.
But if you're interested in the slow march of time Stapledon advances something very different and, for me, truly extraordinary here ... a view of the future that is both spectacular in its breadth and heart wrenching in its final conclusion. You won't be excited and gripped by the pace and challenge. But something else is at work here. Something subtle, perspective shifting and ultimately moving. It's a gentle opera with deep themes and the ability to place our own worldview into a very different context....
And I first read it as a child twenty years ago ... and it still echoes today. How many books can do that?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stapledon's First Masterwork,
Prior to the publication of "Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future" in 1930, Olaf Stapledon had already published a couple of short stories, poems, including a book of poetry, a non-fiction book "A Modern Theory of Ethics: A Study of the Relations of Ethics and Psychology", and numerous essays. However, this was his first book of fiction, and remains, if not his most famous work, than one of his two most famous works. While clearly Stapledon's fictional work falls into the category of science fiction, in many ways it is unique and while it is easy to find authors who were influenced by Stapledon, it is much more difficult to find an author who has significant influence on Stapledon's work.
The narrative of "Last and First Men" is driven by ideas, and not by characters, and in many ways this is true of all of his fictional work, though certainly novels like "Odd John" and "Sirius" have characters and take on the appearance of a standard novel. The novel has tremendous scope, the narrative being given from billions of years in the future by a member of the last race of men, i.e. the Last Men who are aware that they will destroyed and thus be the last of men. They story covers the cyclical nature of the history of the First Men, i.e. us, and the cyclical nature of many of the races of Men who follow. It also discusses the psychology and the philosophy of the races as well as some of the physical and physiological changes.
The journey into the far future moves faster and faster as it continues. A fair amount of time is spent on the First Men and our future both near and far. This speeds up as Stapledon takes us through the Second through Fifth Men and faster still until he reaches the Last Men. He covers many concepts such as genetic engineering, terraforming, alien invasion, biological warfare, and so on.
The cyclical nature of many of the things he discusses tends to make parts of the novel a bit repetitive, and so I believe that it detracts a bit from the overall effect of the novel. That being said, it is still an extraordinary novel and unlike anything else you will likely ever read, with the possible exception of Stapledon's "Star Maker" which has a similar scope as well as an unusual narrative, but also has a different feel. Stapledon did not finish with the idea of the Last Men with the publication of this novel, as he returned to the idea in his radio play "Far Future Calling" in 1931 where he amazingly puts the novel in dramatic form, but which sadly was never performed. He also returned to the idea for his second novel "Last Men in London" in 1932, which focuses on a look back at the 20th Century from the perspective of one of the Last Men.
This book was rated 3rd on the Arkham Survey in 1949 as one of the `Basic SF Titles'. It also was tied for 30th on the 1975 Locus All-Time poll for Novels; 43rd on the 1987 Locus All-Time pool of SF Novels, and tied for 43rd on the 1998 Locus All-Time Poll for Novels written prior to 1990. This SF Masterworks edition includes a Foreword by Gregory Benford and an Afterword by Doris Lessing. This is the 11th of the SF Masterworks paperback series released by Victor Gollancz Books.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving and visionary work,
The term 'novel' is something of a misnomer as far as this work is concerned and most definitely misleading, as the few disappointed reviews testify. 'Novel' carries with it long-held associations of characterisation, inter relationship, plot and a degree of verisimilitude that grounds it for the reader, even when in science fiction the `real' world it seeks to represent is pure fantasy.
Stapledon's work is fiction and it is a history book, but by any accepted definition of the term, it is not a novel. If you disestablish yourself of that mistaken preconception, you can enjoy this work on its own merits.
For us, the work is a fictional view of the future; for the fictional narrator it is history and this, plus the fact that the narrator is supposedly several species of humankind ahead of us, accounts for the consciously detached tone of the writing, I think.
The text works on several levels - as fantasy, as philosophy and, I think, as a celebration of humanity. It doesn't shy away from the inherent brutality and cruelty of human nature, but this is part of its strength as it contextualises and points up what Stapledon obviously sees as common threads that have run through homo sapiens from its earliest days through to our own time - an awareness of the riches and beauties of the world around us, music and the arts, curiosity and the thirst for knowledge, courage, determination, altruism. While acknowledging the spiritual, this book seems to me to be the closest thing we have to a humanist mythology.
I first read this work when I was a teenager, some two decades or more ago now, and it had a profound effect on my view of the world. Perhaps this sounds pompous or pretentious, it certainly isn't intended to do so; at the time I was coming to the realisation that I no longer had faith in the religious beliefs I had been taught at school and, while coming to terms with that, the world seemed a bleak place in many ways. Stapledon's work made me realise that simply living and being human, with all the social responsibilities that go along with that, is enough. It was kind of humbling and exhilarating to realise that we are a tiny part in something with such potential and yet so ephemeral. I write as a humanist and as an agnostic, but if you have a faith, I don't think Stapledon's vision of the future is necessarily incompatible with that either.
Stapledon is dealing with timescales that we don't have the capacity to properly envisage, any more than a dog or cat has a sense of centuries or millennia, but his skilled conceits (such as the analogy of the aeroplane, flying at great height and speed over a continent or slowing down and flying low over the landscape to see it in more detail) do help to make his range more understandable.
This is a visionary work and a beautiful book, I think. It is one that I have returned to (and will continue to return to) many times. I urge you to try it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Decades Ahead Of Its Time,
This review is from: Last And First Men (Sf Masterworks 11) (Paperback)
Recently republished as part of Gollancz' `Space Opera' Collection (a gorgeously designed set of paperbacks with beautifully thought out black and white cover illustrations made from photographed paper sculpture and cut outs) this was a novel far ahead of its time when first published.
Stapledon, a communist and atheist it appears, takes us through the twentieth century and then in leaps and bounds through Mankind's sometimes enforced evolution, the downfall and eventual rebirth of civilisations, until mankind reaches a pinnacle from which one of the Last men reaches back through time to record this history through the pen of 20th Century writer.
It has to be said that the initial chapters that detail the way world society progresses in the 20th Century is woefully off its mark and seems to have been employed as a platform for Stapledon's personal politics.
He has been criticised elsewhere for his extrapolation of US Society although in some ways his warnings of the dangers of Capitalism have been borne out.
Sadly, these chapters are a little tedious, and new readers should be encouraged to persevere, since once Stapledon moves away from the world with which we are familiar the novel accelerates and takes flight into the future.
Not many authors can communicate a sense of understanding of vast passages of time but Stapledon carries it off with aplomb.
One also has to consider that he is writing of subjects such as evolution, genetic engineering, even the concept of viruses as vectors for changing DNA sequences (although obviously it is not described in those terms) in 1930, at a time when most other authors were in the genre were zipping about in Unobtainium-powered speedsters and carrying American values to the four corners of the Galaxy.
Stapledon takes a more cautious approach to interstellar travel. His evolved men see travelling to another star as being impossible or at least not an option worth exploring. Interplanetary travel is another matter, since Humanity - after a protracted war with gestalt entity Martians lasting thousands of years - is forced to move to Venus when the moon begins to close its orbit on the Earth.
Later (a slight scientific faux pas on Stapledon's part) Humanity moves to the surface of Neptune when the sun begins to swell and here mutates and evolves into an entire biosphere of human descended wildlife before one of the species again rises to an intelligent level.
Again, in an astonishingly prescient concept, years before Heinlein or Blish employed the idea, Stapledon had the Last men sending out `seed ships' into the galaxy packed with micro-organisms which would be pre-disposed to eventually evolve into a form of Humanity. Man himself, by a fluke of the laws of physics was doomed, but there is always the chance that he can be reborn elsewhere in the Cosmos.
Despite the ending containing some dubious talk of spirituality and immortality, the novel ends leaving the reader enervated and acutely aware of the insignificance of our tiny planet, and how brief our lives upon it are.
It's a stunning piece of work.
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Last and First Men. A story of the near and far future (Penguin Science Fiction. no. 1875.) by William Olaf Stapledon (Paperback - 1963)
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