July 8, 2011

Last and First Men (#102)

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

What I said then: 

A sci-fi classic, this one covering the entire future evolution of humanity.

What I say now:

Re-defines 'Epic.'

In a nutshell: having a more nuanced vision of the nature of time, future versions of humanity have discovered the ability to communicate telepathically with other advanced species from the past. One member of the 18th race of men, the Last Men, has invaded the mind of a writer in the late 1920's (one of us, the First Men), and he/she/it dictates this book, which covers the entire future of humanity. Or, as the Last Man puts it in his/her/its foreword: "The actual writer thinks he is merely contriving a work of fiction. Though he seeks to tell a plausible story, he neither believes it himself, nor expects others to believe it. Yet the story is true. A being whom you would call a future man has seized the docile but scarcely adequate brain of your contemporary, and is trying to direct its familiar processes for an alien purpose. Thus a future epoch makes contact with your age. Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help."

From that beginning, the book takes us through the rise and fall of we First Men, then traces across the next two billion years the various rises and falls of humankind. It has a larger scope than any book I've ever known. We build magnificent societies, then destroy them. We get sick, then become well. We blow each other up, and seek shelter together. We war, and we make peace. Eventually we become smart enough to realise our limitations, then use our new knowledge of biology and DNA (Stapledon refers to it as 'germ-plasm') to try and build more perfect successors. We create new humanities to be our descendants, then they turn on us. We are invaded by Martians, but defeat them. When the Earth is about to be consumed, we travel to Venus and, needing a new home, we commit genocide on the Venusians. The Fourth Men are brains in boxes. The Seventh Men can fly. The Ninth Men leave Venus for Neptune. The Eighteenth Men diagnose a disease that is spreading from star to star, and realise that every sun within reach of them will shortly implode: there is no escape, they will be the Last.

The central conceit of the book is a brilliant one, but the use Stapledon makes of it is flawed in many ways. The whole thing is written in an incredibly dry, academic tone that makes it a book to be waded through, rather than enjoyed. I had to read just about every sentence twice to make sure I understood it, often I had to reach for a dictionary, and sometimes I just let myself be confused and moved on. It's impenetrable. There are no characters, no stories. Very occasionally, when the fate of humanity did rest on one or two people, Stapledon takes the trouble to tell you why. But that happens only rarely: most of the time he restricts himself to describing the great waves of thought, or science, or war, or disease that build us up or tear us down. There's not much that offers an easy way in to the book.

The other issue I had was begun in that quote I wrote out above: 'We need your help,' the Last Man writes, and I thought (not, I reckon, unreasonably) that as we moved through humanity's history, this plea would come to bear on the tale in some way. I expected, in short, that somehow Stapledon would find a way to twist this dry history lesson into a story. Perhaps in reading this book we could take some action which would, all those billions of years hence, affect what was happening to the Eighteenth Men? I was kept reading by the implication that it would all be to a purpose, in the end ... but it wasn't, which disappointed me.

Often Stapledon ascribes a certain trait to a race of men which chimes perfectly with the psychology of our times. You'd read about something someone does in ten million years time, and it would read perfectly true. At other times, he couldn't be more wrong: the book was published in 1930, and Stapledon's version of his immediate future is almost the exact opposite of what was about to happen. Though you have to mine for it, the pleasure of the book is in sorting the realistic things from the fanciful, and in realising how little there often is between them.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald
books to go: 102

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