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Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

Last and First Men (1930)

by Olaf Stapledon

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Last Men (1)

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1,0062112,472 (3.62)1 / 49

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English (17)  Swedish (1)  Dutch (1)  Finnish (1)  French (1)  All languages (21)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
This is one of those books that I like the idea of, rather than one I actually enjoyed reading. To realize that it was written in 1931 is part of what makes it amazing (it predicts climate change problems related to treating fossil fuels as inexhaustible, for example). The decision to tell the story as a book written by a collective human consciousness narrator (millions of millions of years in the future) is both intriguing and distancing, making it harder to identify and engage with the descriptions of future life. (Brian)
  ShawIslandLibrary | Nov 29, 2016 |
I'm not gonna lie, folks; of all the books I've tackled so far this year, Last and First Men has been the toughest challenge to my resolve to only read one book at a time. That's not to say it's by any means a bad book; it's part of the SF Masterworks Collection* for very good reasons. It's just that, well, gripping storytelling it ain't.

Penned in 1930 by a philosophy professor, Last and First Men is heavy on exposition and all but devoid of character, dialogue or even plot beyond "exploring the nature of the 18 races of man from First (20th Century earthbound Homo sapiens sapiens) to Last (Neptunian superbeings who live for thousands of years) and how their society kept on evolving and devolving and evolving again." The text is presented as a sort of lecture series on the history of humanity, delivered by a Last Men scholar who doesn't quite sneer at his predecessors and their flaws but doesn't exactly hold them in reverence, either. Indeed, often the prose reads like that of a 19th century natural history text on, say, social insects, albeit very sophisticated ones.

The early chapters of the novel are best read, by a 21st century sci-fi fan, as a strange form of alternate history a la, say, Harry Turtledove; in this case, our point of departure is not long after Last and First Men's original publication date, for nothing like World War II and the Holocaust even remotely figures in this extrapolation. Stapledon possessed an acute talent for that, but humanity has always been full of surprises! One can smile indulgently at how off base he was, but to do so is to completely miss why this book is a classic of the genre; after all, the rest of the 20th century is not even the first tenth of this book, and the First Men's story covers thousands of years of struggle (sometimes genocidal) to form a world government, the creation of a scientific religion in which "divine energy" is the object of worship and the purview of a rigid guild of scientists, and the development of a culture of abundance (no disease, no want, a flying car for everybody) that values strenuous physicality (and flight) above all else, to the detriment of human intelligence. With predictable results.**

But wait! Like I said, that's not even 25% of the book. I've never read any fiction so ambitious in scope, folks. The closest I can think of is maybe Stephen Baxter's Evolution, but even it just took on the life-span of life on planet Earth. Last and First Men covers "about two thousand million years", takes us, or a future version or 18 of us to the outer solar system, and teems with phrases like "Not till many hundred thousand years had passed did..." It's truly stupefying. It's also very, very clever; to encompass so much time in just 300 pages or so, it has to be. There's a mathematical progression governing the level of detail and verbiage devoted to each iteration of humanity; I suspect, though am not really a rigorous enough person to be sure of this, that this is an instance of exponential decay. At any rate, the narrative speeds up considerably once Stapledon has dispensed with our own species, the First Men***, and keeps on speeding up until eventually a million years can pass in a sentence fragment. At one point, ten million years pass because it's a time of barbarism and stasis. Well, okay, Mr. Stapledon; it's your Memorable Fancy.

For a giant William Blakean Memorable Fancy is what this book is, a visionary and somewhat allegorical tale spun out to illustrate the writer's philosophy, hopes and fears. I would love to see an edition of this book illuminated in the way that Blake did his works. It would be an eminently lovely thing.

Along the way, we get to watch Stapledon toss off a stunning array of concepts and ideas that were quite ahead of his time and the influences of which we can find throughout science fiction: the perils of genetic engineering, Peak Oil and its aftermath, the cyclical natures of high civilization and barbarism, aliens that are genuinely and profoundly alien (i.e. not Star Trek humanoids with extra nobbly bits on their faces), the fragility of knowledge, the notion that humans can easily evolve back into animals if care is not taken...

It's easy, in short, to see how Last and First Men came to be such a very influential book. People talk about how Heinlein originally dashed off all of the sci-fi tropes with which we have become so familiar, but for a lot of them, Stapledon was there first.

I wonder what his other novels are like.

*I didn't use that edition's cover to decorate this post because I liked this cover so very, very much better! I mean, look at it!

**Think Idiocracy meets Otto from A Fish Called Wanda.

***In his forward to SF Masterworks edition, the great Gregory Benford advises readers to consider skipping the "badly dated" first 20-25% of this novel, partly for reasons I've already observed (in addition to the wrong guesses at history, this first narrative teems with racial and national stereotypes, and of course gives women the shortest possible shrift) but also to spare American readers some tart observations from a British philosopher who was no great fan of capitalism and American cultural hegemony. But to skip these chapters would deprive the reader of the sensation of being swept along through time at an ever-accelerating rate that is one of this novel's unique and most exceptional offerings. If you're going to read it, read it. ( )
1 vote KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
Reviewing fiction as old as this is always hard: how to judge a book that was written for an audience that is generally dead already? In a way, this book is alien itself.

I’ll try to do justice to its historical relevance, and also say something about it as a contemporary reading experience.

This review is heavy on quotes that are often long. When I first started writing it, I typed in all the 21 quotes I considered using, and ended up with more than 1600 words already. I ditched a few, but quite a lot remain.

The final text has 3648 words. That’s about an essay of 10 pages, so if you don’t want to read an analysis of Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical ambitions just skip the first section. If you’re not interested in the importance of this book for SF as a genre, skip the second section too.

Last And First Men: A Story Of The Near And Far Future is not an easy book. It’s 247 pages of small print, in an English that is still readable, but doesn’t have a contemporary flow. The fact that Stapledon had a PhD in philosophy also shows: the conceptual content is pretty dense. A year after the publication of his first philosophical work, A Modern Theory Of Ethics: A Study Of The Relations Of Ethics And Psychology, he made his debut as a fiction writer with Last And First Men at age 44.

The book is set up as an historical account of the human race, and it describes the evolution from the 1930s onward, across two billion years, and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first. There are no main characters, and the book reads more as a collection of history lessons than as a regular fictional story.

I’ll discuss the conceptual & philosophical content first, then talk about its science fictional relevance, and end with some of the cons that colored my 2016 reading experience.

Please read the rest of the analysis on Weighing A Pig ( )
  bormgans | May 31, 2016 |
Stapledon has produced a masterpiece that is staggering in its scope and themes. A history of mankind spanning 2 billion years, starting at the end of the Great War (the book was written in 1931) and ending with vast astronomical events in the far future. We see the evolution of eighteen iterations of humankind, some physically very different from ourselves, and we see great geological changes in the Earth and their impacts on Man. Stapledon rarely discusses technology or politics; his focus is on the character of Man and how we develop.

It is clear that conflict and self-destruction are always present in Man and will, eventually, always undo any progress he makes. But there is also hope and optimism in the book as each iteration of Man rebuilds the race and the world, aiming always to improve and to create an existence that avoids the troubles of the past. The message of the book is that human endeavour will always take us to a level of understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe that is bigger in scope than we had thought possible in the past.

To the modern reader there are faults: the immediate history of the world told at the beginning of the book is clearly incorrect, being based more on the politics and culture of the 19th century than any of the great revolutions of the 20th century. Many of the developments Stapledon describes as taking thousands of years have actually happened in less than a hundred, specifically, nuclear energy (including nuclear weapons) and genetic engineering. I think he misses the point that the development of society, technology, culture and, perhaps, the mind of Mankind is accelerating (and has been since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s) with ever faster delivery of fundamental changes in society.

If you are interested in ideas about the development of human society in the broadest terms then this book will challenge you to think hard about what it is to be human and what it is we humans should be doing to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. ( )
2 vote pierthinker | Sep 1, 2014 |
Unlike anything I've ever read: an exercise in applying an evolutionary perspective and a decent understanding of scientific and technological ideas (for the time) to human history - from the 20th century to two billion years in the future, when the last humanoid species finally goes extinct - because the sun dies. No magic tricks, no wishful thinking - immortality or interstellar travel - no gimmicky plot or comic book characters - just pure speculation presented as if it were a chronological overview of the future history of our species and its descendants. It bears mentioning that one human species after another is basically responsible for its own decline and fall (often, presciently, causing large-scale ecological damage when they go) - and that they all rise, weaken, and die just as individuals or particular societies do. The particulars of Stapledon's future scenarios are fascinating not because they seem to reflect our present - or his - but precisely because they don't. ( )
2 vote CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Olaf Stapledonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bacon, C.W.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Benford, GregoryForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edwards, LesIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goodfellow, PeterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirby, WestPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lessing, DorisAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Observe now your own epoch of history as it appears to the Last Men.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 185798806X, Paperback)

One of the most extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novels of the century: a history of the evolution of humankind over the next 2 billion years. Among all science fiction writers Olaf Stapledon stands alone for the sheer scope and ambition of his work. First published in 1930, Last and First Men is full of pioneering speculations about evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and many other subjects.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:19 -0400)

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First published nearly 70 yrs ago, this text is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction novels of the 20th century.

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