Last and First Men (Dover Books on Literature & Drama) Paperback – 8 Jun 2008
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Olaf Stapledon's first novel Last and First Men, published in 1930, has sometimes been called science fiction's Bible--a sweeping, exhilarating history of humanity's future. Its awesome timescale, stretching across five billion years, was an inspiration to the young Arthur C. Clarke, who later wrote: "No book before or since ever had such an impact on my imagination." However, Last and First Men should come with a health warning: The early chapters, dealing with near-future politics from the viewpoint of 1930, are mired in dodgy short-term speculation and have dated badly. Soon Stapledon rings down the curtain on us "First Men" as an uncontrolled nuclear reaction sweeps the world and boils the oceans--and now his imagination takes flight. The Second Men are plagued with invasions of cloud-like Martians; the bat-eared, six-fingered Third Men deliberately create the Fourth Men who are essentially huge, immobile brains ... and so on through ever-vaster gulfs of time. Individuals, nations, civilizations, even species are evocatively shown as mayflies flickering in and out of existence in an immense, chilly cosmos that goes uncaringly on forever. Yet it's not a gloomy work: even as the dying Sun promises to become their funeral pyre, the Last Men affirm that "It is very good to have been man." Another classic choice from Millennium SF Masterworks. --David Langford --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
One of the great classics of the first half of the 20th century - 2 billion years of mankind's history --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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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?
-- '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.
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.
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