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First and Last Men - Olaf Stapledon

Discussion in 'Classic SF&F' started by Quokka, Apr 1, 2010.


    Quokka wandering

    Mar 26, 2005
    *Major Spoilers*

    I recently finished reading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and seeing as I couldn’t find a thread to add any comments to I thought I’d start one.

    Overall it was a really great read and I loved the novelty of a future history text instead of a novel that relies on individual characters, in fact I’m not sure if he ever gives an individual a name. I thought he had to of, at least in the beginning but flicking back through it you realise just how many titles and descriptions he uses without actually naming anyone.

    Gregory Benford does the foreward for the SF Masterworks edition and recommends skipping the first 4 chapters completely, that seemed a bit harsh but it did take me two attempts to get into and it’s definitely when it moves into our future (or around the Americanised world) that for me it really starts to flow.

    It was really interesting to read such a detailed future prediction from the 1930’s and he does an amazing job in so many ways, not least of which is how well the biology holds up considering he was writing sometime between when genes and DNA were discovered.

    There were a few points where (imo) it shows it’s age, minor ones like the mention of Jewish businessmen long after the worlds races and religions were meant to have merged, maybe the religion did remain seperate but I remember thinking it was odd.

    Another was how space travel was predicted, in the whole history of humanity it was only developed twice, both times as a direct result of the threat of extinction and it is never taken further than our solar system. In fact those that try to push it come back insane. I wonder if it was a quirk of Stapledon or the result of just how impossible space travel seemed in the 1930’s.

    The timeframe also seems to remain much more linear than I would have expected considering how exponential technological and even cultural change seems to be. The other thing I thought was strange was that for all their repeated advancements and collapse and even to the last most advanced race, humanity never really seems that strange either physically or culturally. Thinking of Clarke’s quote about a sufficiently advanced technology seeming like magic I would have thought that far into the future the changes in every sense will be much greater. Stapledon does address this in his preface including:

    But if such imaginative construction of possible futures is to be at all potent, our imagination must be strictly disciplined. We must endeavour not to go beyond the bounds of possibility set by the particular state of culture within which we live. The merely fantastic has only minor power.’

    The quote kind of brings me to the last thing I wanted to say about the book (the first I’ve read by Olaf Stapledon) and that is just how wonderful some of his writing is. In writing such a sweeping future history, sometimes only using a few paragraphs to outline millions of years he creates some beautiful phrases and sentences and keeps a very personal tone throughout (which is cleverly justified in the end).

    Anyway I just wanted to mention somewhere just how much I enjoyed this book and as usual finding one good book has added a whole new list to the reading pile :).

    AE35Unit ]==[]===O °

    Dec 8, 2007
    Somewhere near Jupiter...
    Good review (should this be posted in Reviews?)
    I have this book in Pelican but havent read it yet-I always find the idea daunting and imagine it to be horribly difficult to read!

    Quokka wandering

    Mar 26, 2005
    I thought about posting it as a review but was hoping it might get some responses from people who had read it and didn't want the spoilers to ruin it for anyone who hadn't?

    As I said in the first post for me it was a little hard to get into but once the story really gets going it's a very easy read and for the scope of it I never found I got lost in the grand ideas, again I thought Stapledon's writing was excellent for keeping the reader personally involved.
    Stephen Palmer

    Stephen Palmer author of novels

    Dec 22, 2009
    Anyone here read Sirius ? Fantastic book...
    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

    Aug 7, 2007
    I've read First and Last Men and recall that I liked it, but not much more than that. (I did read it three decades ago, so I'm allowed a bit of vagueness.)

    I read the same author's Star maker a year or so ago and liked it; as I still have my copy of First and Last Men, I should try to give it a re-read.

    Omphalos הדרךקפיצת

    Oct 24, 2007
    Ive read a bunch of Stapledon's books (yes Stephen, including Sirius - its one of my favorites by him) and while it is dense reading, its very rewarding. Personally I see an enormous amount of his influence in British SF. His works are seminal.

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