Olaf Stapledon, Neglected Titan

To whom do we owe each of the following concepts in science fiction: (a) galactic empires in whose rise and fall the terrestrial history of man is utterly forgotten; (b) a superhuman race on another planet who cannibalize their beloved dead; (c) a Venus covered by water, with humans dwelling on islands of floating vegetation. Many readers would confidently answer (a) Isaac Asimov, (b) Robert A. Heinlein, and (c) C. S. Lewis. They would do so because they have never read the works of one from whom each of these later authors borrowed and who possessed, according to critic Sam Moskowitz, “the most titanic imagination ever brought to science fiction”: William Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950).

Stapledon, a lecturer in English literature, industrial history, psychology, and philosophy at the University of Liverpool, produced, along with several less distinguished books, five influential science-fiction novels. Christians may read these as they do Nietzsche, reveling in the author’s rare beauty of phrase and brightness of imagery, yet troubled by his anti-Christian metaphysics (in Stapledon’s case, an extremely remote and forbidding deism) and his innovative ethics.

Like Nietzsche, Stapledon has influenced millions who have never read his works. In his first novel alone, Last and First Men (1930), hundreds of striking ideas used by later science-fiction writers appear—ideas on eugenics, on behavior modification, on social structure, on new sources of energy, on sex, on psychology, on population control, on ethics, on art, on telepathic communication. Many of these ideas are now being promoted outside science fiction as if they were something new.

Stapledon predicted an energy shortage and the worldwide search ...

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