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Last and First Men (wikipedia.org)
92 points by hhs on Feb 22, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

Maynard Smith has said "A man called Olaf Stapledon was a marvellous predictor who wrote science fiction books that I read when I was 16 and that completely blew my mind; and Arthur C. Clarke put his finger on quite a number of bright thoughts. He and I have something in common: we both took out of the public library the same science fiction book when we were boys of about 15 or 16, which was Stapledon's Last and First Men. We took it out of the same country library in Porlock in Somerset. Whoever put that book on the shelves had a lot to answer for!"

Libraries have their uses.

It's not a novel in any sort of modern sense. The different sections are barely even stories themselves, just dry descriptions of imagined worlds.

It's an interesting book for sure.

Honestly, that sounds great to me. I often feel as though a lot of SF forces some sort of human-interest piece into what the author really wants to do, which is world building. Skipping the love story sounds appealing, like skipping the opening vinette that every journalist thinks is necessary before daring to mention a statistic.

I collect role-playing campaign settings for this very reason. I love just reading through long geographies of made up worlds. Pouring over the maps. Imagining the geopolitical landscapes or how the alternative histories or technologies might function in that world.

I don't actually play role-playing games at all anymore. But it's an entire genre of work (made up geographies, bestiaries, etc.) that isn't really served outside of games very much.

There's a niche for a completely new type of fiction on the Internet. Creating a world through a wiki style website. Readers explore by searching for phrases or following hyperlinks instead of going linearly from start to beginning. I've spent hours at a time reading things like the star wars wiki, Depp diving to solve my own questions like "where did the sith originally come from?" or "can you have a black lightsaber?"

For me, the SCP Foundation (http://www.scp-wiki.net) gives that kind of feel, with different cases linking to one another. (SCP Foundation is a collective storytelling wiki about an organization that deals with the strange, mysterious, and horrifying.)

One of the hallmarks of science fiction is building metaphors about the human condition and cultural phenomena in the world that the author creates.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244017723690 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/215824401772369... https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/1339122 https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol13/iss1/5/

That doesn't make it a good idea.

It's not a lot of material, check it out.

Characters add quite a bit to world building though.

"a lot of SF forces some sort of human-interest piece into what the author really wants to do"

I think many authors want the world to serve the perspectives they want to communicate and examine, so if it doesn't work, they just aren't accomplishing that.

You might like "The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu. Very little "story", but a fast paced, coherent sci-fi trip!

Agree. It’s all telling, no showing, which violates a basic rule of good fiction writing. There’s close to zero dialogue. No characters or their development. So applying the expectations of a traditional novel will leave a reader very dissatisfied. But it’s compelling. One of my favorite books (whether we’re calling it a novel or not).

Sirius I found deeply moving and quite different from his more cosmic novels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirius_(novel)

I tried reading Stapledon's Last and First Men and Starmaker multiple times. Super, super, super boring. Reading about them is much more interesting, though.

He really had a wide-ranging vision that is evocative of the sort of thinking that the Long Now Foundation is interested in today. Pity he was such an abysmally poor writer.

I suggest approaching those books the way one should approach the Silmarillion.

Pretend you're reading a history book. There's a lot of detail, many stories, which don't have to follow the novelist's imperative to make sense and have narrative resolution.

It's still quite possible you won't enjoy yourself, there are no guarantees in life. But this approach gives you your best chance.

Even the Silmarillion appeals to readers’ emotions in conventional ways with e.g. the love story of Beren and Lúthien. Not quite as dry as Stapledon.

I'm reading The Silmarillion now (coincidentally, just yesterday finished Beren and Lúthien, indeed moving) but found Starmaker much more "fun" than The S, at least so far.

Abysmally poor? Wow! I love Stapledon’s writing, the opening sentences of Starmaker are up right there amongst my favourite opening passages. Sure, if you’re looking for plot or characters look elsewhere but for sheer poetry Stpledon has few peers in science fiction.

If anyone is curious, here's that opening paragraph from Star Maker:

"ONE night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill. Dark heather checked my feet. Below marched the suburban lamps. Windows, their curtains drawn, were shut eyes, inwardly watching the lives of dreams. Beyond the sea's level darkness a lighthouse pulsed. Overhead, obscurity. I distinguished our own house, our islet in the tumultuous and bitter currents of the world. There, for a decade and a half, we two, so different in quality, had grown in and in to one another, for mutual support and nourishment, in intricate symbiosis. There daily we planned our several undertakings, and recounted the day's oddities and vexations. There letters piled up to be answered, socks to be darned. There the children were born, those sudden new lives. There, under that roof, our own two lives, recalcitrant sometimes to one another, were all the while thankfully one, one larger, more conscious life than either alone."


I must say, I can see what the other person was saying about the style. I could read hundreds of pages of Asimov, for example the Foundation series, but not the above.

You can't really argue about writing style. For comparison I just Googled the opening paragraph of Asimov's Foundation and was immediately engaged and wanted to keep reading.

Of course tastes will differ.

Actually, I'm fine with the start of the book. I think it's by far it's strongest part. It gets much, much worse from there.

Try "Sirius" and "Odd John".

In a 2003 interview, Vernor Vinge points to what may be a reason for the overall reaction to the book.

I also like grand sweep stories such as Olaf Stapledon wrote. I find a collision there, since many of the things I like to talk about -- interstellar empires or even interplanetary empires -- now appear likely to be post-human-era events. That's sad, since the present-day audience and I are not post-human. It's very hard to write stories that realistically talk about such futures.


This is a book well worth reading even if it isn't one of your 'easy to translate into a blockbuster movie with special effects and tailor made cliffhangers'. It's more of a documentary on how a future historian might describe his own history starting with us.

Stapledon is the grandfather of science fiction writing and is quite unjustly overlooked!

I agree with other comments in that it's not a usual novel. If you take a step back and look at it then it could be a novel with the main character being the human race and the story the growth arc of the human race from us to its final incarnation of 1000 year lifespan superbeings.

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