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on 2 September 2009
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.
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on 27 March 2009
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.
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on 18 June 2007
So one evening, you are relaxing on a hill near your home ... looking at the stars and contemplating the complexities of the universe.

Soon you have left your own body and are drifting through the universe, searching from planet to planet and seeking the answers to the universe's ultimate questions. And just out of interest, why you and not someone really important like George, Tony or that chap from Fingermouse?

Stapledon takes the reader on a galaxy spanning adventure where we watch the central character struggle to use their very human perception to understand all they encounter. And of course, being human it's equally important to grasp and evaluate the lost grain of ones own life.

Not as deep and sonorous as 'Last and First Men' - but far pacier and more uplifting - this is another fine offering from Stapledon that builds towards a truly awe inspiring conclusion.

And is it just me, but was Fingermouse's demise just a little too disturbing for children's tv? The revenge of a weary traveller?
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on 18 August 2000
As Brian Aldiss remarks in Trillion Year Spree, it is truly remarkable that the massed ranks of Eng Lit have ignored this book. Well, more fool them -- but it means that thousands of people will go through life in complete ignorance of this incredible, visionary work.
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on 26 August 2010
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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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 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.


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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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 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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