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 for new energy sources: tidal power, wind power, geothermal power, and atomic power. At the same time he predicted, and partly approved, the current sexual revolution, advocating a view of sexuality nearly identical to that of Robert Rimmer in The Harrad Experiment and other popular recent works. Most significant for this review, he also expounded at length the “evolving God” idea, in which man, in his great spiritual quest, hoped to be the germ of a Cosmic Consciousness that could approach and perhaps achieve the omniscience of the mythical God in the old religions. Process theologians, take note.
We could multiply such examples a hundred times without exhausting the contents of Last and First Men, a book so comprehensive that by comparison even Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy seem trivial in subject, constricted in scope, and parochial in viewpoint. Last and First Men is the chronicle of human evolution, presented by a human descendant living more than two billion years in the future. This superhuman being can inhabit, study, and even influence past minds, imagined as eternally present to minds with the sensitivity to perceive them. Homo sapiens, he tells us, is but the first of eighteen human species inhabiting successively the earth, Venus, and Neptune, where the last and greatest of man’s descendants meet their frightful doom in an inescapable solar storm.
Few individuals appear in this chronicle. The characters are more often whole races or nations, and a lover of the novel of manners may feel alienated beyond any appreciation. Yet for the reader who can accept large and strange generalities as characters, there is a continual fascination in the sweep of the narrative and the eloquence of the style. Amid the final horrors, the Last Man speaks to his dying comrades:
“Great are the stars, and, man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills.… Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars.… It is very good to have been man.”
Stapledon’s other science-fiction novels are Last Men in London (1932), a study of World War I from the perspective of the Last Men on Neptune; Odd John (1935), the tale of a mental superman in the twentieth century who attempts to start a new humanity and is destroyed by the old humanity; Star Maker (1937), an incredibly ambitious “hawk-flight of imagination” through all of space and time, called by Brian Aldiss “the one great grey holy book of science fiction,” never surpassed or even approached by any book before or since; and Sirius (1944), the tragic biography of a dog given more than human intelligence by a scientist’s experiment. For the new reader of Stapledon, Sirius, the most human of his books, is probably the best place to start. Star Maker, as Brian Aldiss warns, is too “huge and frightening” in its imaginative sweep.
Stapledon’s literary output was modest in size, even if we include all his writing. But within the five most popular of his books can be found most of the philosophical and psychological problems plaguing twentieth-century man, together with most of the solutions that have been suggested. While we may deplore his rejection of the Christian solution, we may yet, as C. S. Lewis did, find much to delight our minds, enlarge our sympathies, and give us insight into the attempt of a brilliant mind to find spiritual consolation in a universe where God has not spoken.
WILLIAM A. HOLT
William A. Holt is assistant professor of English and religion, Tarrant County Junior College, Fort Worth, Texas.
I tried to read Stapledon’s Odd John several years ago. Our then art/production director John Lawing, who wrote CHRISTIANITY TODAY’S last piece on science fiction (February 27), lent me the book. It’s still sitting on my desk at home, half read.
He claimed back in February that religion had little place in science fiction. Perhaps. But several of its major themes are theological. Creation. God. Heaven. Eschatology. Holt’s discussion of Stapledon bears this out in part.
Why are more and more writers today turning to science fiction in dealing with these questions? Where did science fiction get its start? How does it fit in with the rest of Western literature? All good questions, but few of us have time to ferret out the answers.
Those who are fascinated by these questions—and I’m one—will be glad to hear that their work has been done for them: by Franz Rottensteiner in Science Fiction Book (Seabury, $14.95) or James Gunn in Alternate Worlds (Prentice-Hall, $29.95). Both books are illustrated, hence the high prices. Rottensteiner provides information about science fiction outside the English-speaking world, but Gunn’s book is more comprehensive. The appendixes alone make it worth the price.
Gunn tells us where science fiction came from. Plato, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe. Whether he convinces you or not, it makes an interesting chapter.
But the best part of the book comes at the end. “The Shape of Things to Come” gets into the reasons for theological and philosophical themes in the genre. Gunn, quoting Edmund Crispin, says, “Science fiction is the last refuge of the morality tale.” And I think they’re right.
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