Last and First Men: The ultimate vision of man’s evolution

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLast and First Men by Olaf Stapledon speculative fiction book reviewsLast and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon‘s vision of mankind’s entire future history until the end is profound, beautiful, and affecting, and was written way back in 1930. It is unfortunate that Last and First Men has not found a wider audience, though it had a deep impact on many of science fiction’s luminaries, including Arthur C. Clarke, who indicated that this book and its later successor Star Maker were the two most influential books he had ever read. In my mind, it is one of the most imaginative early SF classics ever written, and is just as important as the works of H.G. Wells.

Stapledon touches on many themes that still resonate today, particularly mankind’s potential for both great achievements and selfish cruelty, for deep insight and self-delusion. As mankind progresses through 18 major stages over billions of years (apparently influenced by the Hegelian Dialectic), even delving into his own racial past, we see the vast potential of mind in the universe. And though mankind is finally likened to a single movement in the vast eternal symphony of the cosmos, this does not detract in any way from the tragic beauty of our brief existence.

Unlike modern novels, Last and First Men reads like a future history without specific characters, touching down briefly to document key events and pausing to reflect on their significance. Because it was written in 1930, the early chapters about the First Men actually cover world history through our present time, so they are interesting in their predictions of world politics between the two world wars. However, it is only as the time scale picks up towards the end of the First Men that the book hits its stride, so I think most readers can safely skip the first 3-4 chapters without missing anything.

Last and First Men gets far more fascinating as newer generations of men develop, forming larger brains and a telepathically-linked groupmind, but ever again falling back into decay and destruction before seeding the next generation of man, until the Eighteen Men, who turn out to be the Last Men. It’s hard to imagine a grander scale of progress and decline, and it is stunning that Stapledon produced a work of such scope and vision during a time when Europe was consumed by nationalism and conflicting ideologies.

Publisher: “No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination,” declared Arthur C. Clarke of Last and First Men. This masterpiece of science fiction by British philosopher and writer Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950) is an imaginative, ambitious history of humanity’s future that spans billions of years. Together with its follow-up, Star Maker, it is regarded as the standard by which all earlier and later future histories are measured. The protagonist of this compelling novel is humanity itself, stripped down to sheer intelligence. It evolves through the ages: rising to pinnacles of civilization, teetering on the brink of extinction, surviving onslaughts from other planets and a decline in solar energy, and constantly developing new forms, new senses, and new intellectual abilities. From the present to five billion years into the future, this romance of humanity abounds in profound and imaginative thought.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. If I remember right, I did bog down in those early chapters. I didn’t finish this when I first tried it. Thanks for the insight that it is written as a history. I think the lack of viewpoint character also stymied me.

    I might try it again though, for this influential author. Thanks for the insights, Stuart!

  2. Hi Marion, I would definitely skip ahead to the end of the First Men section. I was starting to get concerned after the first few chapters, but it really picks up after that, since the book actually covers 5 billion years of human evolution. No time for small details like characters or dialogue, so it really is an unusual book, but so worth reading!

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