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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.
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on 27 November 2001
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.
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on 5 June 1999
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'.
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on 16 December 2001
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?"
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on 22 April 2006
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.

Highly recommended.
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on 18 June 2007
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?
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on 13 April 2013
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.
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on 25 March 2015
A great work of Science Fiction with so many brilliant and ground-breaking ideas (there's even a hint of the Culture from Iain M Banks in the Fifth Men's society), but my God, you really have to wade through some twaddle to get to the good stuff! Only for serious SF fans - but if you are, you'll find a lot to like! StarMaker is better IMO (but don't buy the ebook!) but Last and First Men is worth the course if you can last it!
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on 7 June 2014
This book is considered by many to be a classic in the science-fiction genre and now that I've finally read it I can see why. It's an unusual read in that it isn't your typical story as it provides a history of mankind's evolution for the next two billion years. As such there are no characters to become invested in making it difficult to connect to the story.

However the sheer scope and staggering imagination of the story more than makes up for that. It starts off on shaky ground as the initial progression through our own times (it was written in 1930) is very wrong. In fact the forward suggests that the modern reader skips the first few chapters. I didn't and while it gets many things wrong those early chapters expose some of the author's assumptions and prejudices.

As the story progresses further into the future the author's imagination really shines. This is a view of the potential of humanity as well as its flaws. It's also an interesting contrast to modern science-fiction where evolution takes a back stage to technology and trans-humanism. Here we see a varying blend of the possibilities and with it an exploration of what makes us human.

It's fair to say that it's not without its flaws. As already mentioned the early part doesn't correspond to reality very well, although I viewed it as a kind of alternative history. After all just because one path was followed doesn't mean that other paths didn't exist. The language can be a little dry at times and in some ways this is an interesting read rather than an entertaining one, although that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The two big flaws are that the scope and the science. The scope is so large that by the author's own admission much of the story is glossed over. I would have loved to see more detail on the different human species and cultures and in particular some of the individuals. That would have made this a huge book though, so the surface skim is a necessity, but a shame nonetheless. The issue of the science is that a lot of it doesn't stack up with modern knowledge. This is partly due to the limitations of knowledge at the time, but also in part because the author follows some interesting and quite far out threads.

Despite its flaws this book deserves its classic status. The sheer scope and imagination of it was enough to keep me enthralled throughout and I'd recommend it to fans of the genre.
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on 28 October 2013
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.

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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.
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