An important figure in the early years of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon is known for some of the genre’s greatest works, such as Last and First Men and The Star Maker. Both novels imbue philosophy with speculation and look far into humanity’s future. A student of history and philosophy, Stapledon’s works show us just how big the universe is around us.
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William Olaf Stapledon was born May 10, 1886, in Cheshire, England. At an early age, his family relocated to the Port Said in Egypt. Returning to England, he would study at Oxford before trying to work in the family’s shipping business. However, he had a hard time with that career, which prompted his turn to teaching, and he would eventually attend the University of Liverpool. There, he earned his doctorate in philosophy and began writing, turning out his first novel, Last and First Men, in 1930.
Last and First Men follows humanity on its evolution into the future, covering the next 2 billion years and charting mankind’s ups and downs. To say that it’s an epic novel understates the point significantly.
A year after the book’s publication in 1931, Stapledon wrote a letter to H.G. Wells, where he noted Wells’ influences on his writing: “Your works have certainly influenced me very greatly, perhaps more than I supposed when I was writing my own book…Your later works I greatly admire. There would be something very wrong with me if I did not. They have helped very many of us to see things more clearly.”
Well’s response to Stapledon has since been lost, but the pair continued to correspond with one another. Wells noted in 1937 that he enjoyed Stapledon’s later novel Star Maker: “Essentially, I am more positivist and finite than you are. You are still trying to swallow the Whole years ago,” which thrilled Stapledon.
Following the successes of Last and First Men, Stapledon turned to writing full time and he penned a sequel to Last and First Men, titled, Last Men of London, which helps to explain how the first was written. In both novels, Stapledon explains that there is no heroes in the story save for that of humanity as a whole, and that there’s no plot other than their struggles. In a biography that he contributed in the 1942 edition of Twentieth Century Authors, he described his writing as “mostly fantastic fiction of a semi-philosophical kind.”
His next novel, Odd John was published just a couple of years later in 1935, examining the plight of an advanced man, and touching on utopian and Darwinist themes. Elements of the book may have been inspired by the attitudes of Wells, who took on similar themes in his books. Sirius, about a dog advanced by science, was published in 1944, and his last novel, A Man Divided, was published in 1950.
However, Stapledon’s masterpiece would come in 1937 with the novel Star Maker. Encompassing a period of time that renders Last and First Men insignificant at 500 billion years, it continues Stapledon’s efforts to create a modern mythos for humanity. In a large way, Stapledon accomplishes something similar to what fellow British author J.R.R. Tolkien strove to accomplish with his novels.
Stapledon’s works come just before the beginning of a major movement in the genre with the pulps. The cheap magazines, which contained flashier stories, overtook the earlier stories and their complicated ideas. However, his work was not unrecognized, most notably influencing authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, who would invite Stapledon to speak for a meeting of the fledgling British Interplanetary Society. Clarke would later note in a review for Last and First Men: “No book before or since ever had such an impact on my imagination.” Indeed, echoes of Stapledon’s works can be found in Clarke’s own, such as in Childhood’s End, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In a large way, Stapledon’s collective works all attempt to capture a major yet simple idea: searching for one’s creator and discovering just how one fits into the much larger picture. Taken together, Sirius, Odd John, Last and First Men, The Last Men of London and Star Maker all look to vastly grand scales, microcosms of one another. Where one individual works to come to terms with their existence, so, too, does the entirety of mankind as they advance and expand into the stars.