Last and First Men (Dover Books on Literature & Drama)

by Olaf Stapledon

Paperback, 2008

Call number



Dover Publications (2008), 256 pages


One of the most extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novels of the century: a history of the evolution of humankind over the next 2 billion years. Among all science fiction writers Olaf Stapledon stands alone for the sheer scope and ambition of his work. First published in 1930, Last and First Men is full of pioneering speculations about evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and many other subjects.

Library's review

This is one of those books that I like the idea of, rather than one I actually enjoyed reading. To realize that it was written in 1931 is part of what makes it amazing (it predicts climate change problems related to treating fossil fuels as inexhaustible, for example). The decision to tell the
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story as a book written by a collective human consciousness narrator (millions of millions of years in the future) is both intriguing and distancing, making it harder to identify and engage with the descriptions of future life. (Brian)
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User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyStafford
My reactions to reading this novel in 1996. Spoilers follow.

"Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future" -- Everything I’ve ever heard about Stapledon is correct judging on the basis of this novel. He was a totally unique voice in sf when this novel was published, and he is still
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totally unique. His epic style in which millions of years can routinely pass in the space of a paragraph often has a religious flavor to it harkening back to psalms (his first book of poetry was called Latter-Day Psalms). The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (in a blurb at the front of this book) claims Stapledon is the second most influential writer in sf next to Wells. I think that claim is arguable. Certainly Wells introduced, or gave a big boost, to such perennial sf tropes as time travel, alien invasion, surgery on/genetic manipulation of animals, the far future story, the physical evolution of man. Stapledon creates few new ideas but his epic style and his spiritual concerns are different than Wells’.

Wells, in The Time Machine and, to a lesser extent, A Story of the Days to Come, shows us humans evolved physically and socially. However, Wells does not dwell at length on the various stages of evolution. He contents himself with showing some final end stage like the Morlocks and Eloi and giving a brief explanation as to how they evolve. Stapledon insist upon showing 18 species of men in greater and lesser detail and often gives explanations for their evolved traits. (Stapledon places a great deal of emphasis on physiological causes, be it genetic or hormonal, of behavior. I suspect this seems so noticeable because, in the years since this novel was published, the explanations for human behavior relied heavily on culture and society. Only now, with evolutionary psychology, is the pendulum swinging back.)

Stapledon seems to have been a much more spiritual minded man than Wells, and this is definitely reflected in their writings. Wells’ main concern is how to build a society that would ameliorate or eliminate the social problems he saw. That seems to have been the limit of his vision for man. Stapledon seeks to find meaning for men in a godless universe. He postulates (in a sort of Boethian way) that human personalities exist eternally and can be accessed by those from the future, that man must view his life and tragedies as part of the great story of the universe, that he is a theme in the music of life, or, at least, a brief theme in the universe. (The novel’s final sentence, as 18th man prepares for the death of man in the nova of the sun, is a classic as man meets his end with composure: “For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.” In effect, man is to merge his identity into the universe. Or, at least, so the Neputanian 18th men wanted to as an end result of their studies.

Stapledon’s influence is all over sf. The 18th men scheme for spreading “an artificial human seed” to avoid human extinction in the nova is a probable inspiration for the “Martian” scheme of reproduction in the face of their extinction in Star-Begotten. Man’s composure in the face of annihilation finds a similar tone in Greg Bear’s The Forge of God. Arthur C. Clarke has listed Stapledon as his main influence. The influence seems particularly evident in his future The City and the Stars (also known by the Stapledonian title Against the Fall of Night). George Zebrowski’s fiction shows heavy influence, freely acknowledged, by Stapledon. Zebrowski exploits a curious scientific and technological conservatism by Stapledon in the latter’s use of space travel. Zebrowski brings a Stapledonian vision to a wider physical universe.

Like Wells – and as a devout Marxist – Stapledon is concerned with his own ideas of social justice. The first fourth of the book is a relatively near future tale of a race corrupted by capitalism and America’s influence. (However, Stapledon was perceptive in showing a world increasingly bound together economically and becoming more dominated by American culture.). As Gregory Benford notes in his introduction, the opening fourth of the book is fairly dated. (Benford is another author influenced by Stapledon, particularly in the far-reaching vistas of his Galactic Center series.) Stapledon – assuming the five timelines at the end of the novel are his – increases the timescale logarthimically throughout the novel. (James Gunn once said sf was race fiction about the human race. This novel is as pure expression of that idea as can be found. Only very briefly do we see individual people.) Poul Anderson consciously used the same technique in his Tau Zero.

This novel is so rich, I can only give a brief list of the story elements I liked: the aeronautically obsessed civilization at the end of 1st Man and the scientists who suppress a superweapon. (The notion of scientists seeking to rule the world via a new, closely possessed technology was also explored in Vernor Vinge’s The Peace War. Both authors come to the conclusion that even relatively cosmopolitan, international-minded scientists with good intentions can’t be trusted with such power.); the survival of the remnants of 1st Man in the Arctic; the invasion of telepathic Martians who at first don’t recognize Man’s sentience (Stapledon goes to great lengths to rationalize Martian telepathy) and exist as a group-mind; the talented, religious, sexually-colored, sadistic manipulation of the living flesh of animals – the so-called “vital art” by the 3rd Man and his creation of the Great Brains of 4th Man and the latter’s enslavement of the former (as well as killing most animal species off); the creation of 5th Man by 4th Man (deliberate engineering of humanity is a constant theme in the book as is the notion incomplete human species somehow missing some element of sexuality, intellect, empathy, or religiosity – only the 18th Man is complete; in effect, Stapledon views the human evolution of the book as moving toward an ideal human form – a notion of evolution criticized by some evolutionists); the mental time-traveling of the 5th men and their obsessions and unfortunate involvement with tragedies of the past (detachment from the tragedy of life is a trait admired by Stapledon); the terraforming of Venus and the extermination of the native sentient Venusians (a replay of the Earth-Mars war with Man as the Martians); the Flying Men of Venus and the degeneration of man; and the rebirth of ideal 18th Man (the narrator is one talking, via mental time travel, through a 20th century man) who faces annihilation. I’m not sure how original many of the details of Stapledon’s story are but his tone and epic sweep influenced sf greatly. This is a great work of sf – presumbably only matched in flavor by other Stapledon works. (Oct. 7, 1996)

In an afterword, Doris Lessing has a brief essay on Stapledon’s influence on literature and Lessing’s reaction to the novel.
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LibraryThing member M.Campanella
If someone told me (in fact, someone has told me something rather similar) they aimed to write a story with no true characters, I would dissuade them as quickly as I could. I would not see a point to reading such a book. As a reader, I tend to crave some empathetic connection. I managed to keep
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myself in for about 50% of this book, at which point it became a herculean struggle. Why? Because it is about 50% of the way through that the situations described become so far removed from any link to our experience as to come across as nonsense. It was at about the 3rd man that I realized I no longer cared, and that I no longer recognized anything human in the societies described.
Maybe I am being too conservative with my definition of human. If so, so be it.
I imagine that were we too find a history book from some different race of people, but we had no idea who the people were or where they hailed from, that text book would be equally boring, even if it had been written for us. The context would not be there, nor would there be a minimum human anchoring that could place us in relation to them. This book is almost as bad; while we see the link between us and them, it is INCREDIBLY far removed. Somewhere in all our family trees there is the first ape that picked up a took and became slightly more human. Are we proud of that link too?
I think this could have been an excellent work if made less abstract. If he could have put character vignettes (as done in A Canticle for Leibowitz) even if they did not have a common character, it would have made it a much more interesting (or hell, bearable) read.
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LibraryThing member pierthinker
Stapledon has produced a masterpiece that is staggering in its scope and themes. A history of mankind spanning 2 billion years, starting at the end of the Great War (the book was written in 1931) and ending with vast astronomical events in the far future. We see the evolution of eighteen iterations
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of humankind, some physically very different from ourselves, and we see great geological changes in the Earth and their impacts on Man. Stapledon rarely discusses technology or politics; his focus is on the character of Man and how we develop.

It is clear that conflict and self-destruction are always present in Man and will, eventually, always undo any progress he makes. But there is also hope and optimism in the book as each iteration of Man rebuilds the race and the world, aiming always to improve and to create an existence that avoids the troubles of the past. The message of the book is that human endeavour will always take us to a level of understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe that is bigger in scope than we had thought possible in the past.

To the modern reader there are faults: the immediate history of the world told at the beginning of the book is clearly incorrect, being based more on the politics and culture of the 19th century than any of the great revolutions of the 20th century. Many of the developments Stapledon describes as taking thousands of years have actually happened in less than a hundred, specifically, nuclear energy (including nuclear weapons) and genetic engineering. I think he misses the point that the development of society, technology, culture and, perhaps, the mind of Mankind is accelerating (and has been since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s) with ever faster delivery of fundamental changes in society.

If you are interested in ideas about the development of human society in the broadest terms then this book will challenge you to think hard about what it is to be human and what it is we humans should be doing to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
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LibraryThing member TimCTaylor
I'd heard of this book and spent several years chasing down a second-hand copy (the year before it came out in SF Masterworks!). I wasn't disappointed. It's a journey at breakneck speed through mankind's future history. By the end, the last men are far removed from our petty concerns. I've seen
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Well's film of The Shape of Things to Come. Last and First Men feels like that (partly with the pre-war feel) except imagine the film keeps rolling on and on into the distant future.

Great as the scope of this book is, Stapledon's Star Maker makes it look parochial.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
I cried "uncle" on p59 of this book, which was part of a group read here on LT; it was written in 1930 or so, it's true, but nothing as ephemeral as passing time can excuse the line, "A century after the founding of the first world state a rumour began to be heard in China about the supreme secret
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of scientific religion, the awful mystery of Gordelpus, by means of which it should be possible to utilize the energy locked up in the opposition of proton and electron."

*buzz* you're out, Dr. Stapledon, and thanks for playing our game! This is supposedly a novel! That kind of snore-inducing prose is not even excusable in a textbook, though it is explainable there; in a novel, an entertainment, this tone is just about as far off the mark as any I can imagine. I can't fairly comment on the plot, since there isn't any that I can discern. The story unfolds as a being from our remote future lectures us on what we did wrong, with special emphasis on the horrors of America (oof, how very outmoded that sounds) and China as co-controllers of civilization.

Now I can't fault Dr. Stapledon for prescience, since he pegged the two dominant countries of the future so solidly, but there are no characters to make us care about the story and there are no passages of graceful prose to make us forgive the lack of characters. All in all, a waste of a lovely Sunday afternoon.
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LibraryThing member KateSherrod
I'm not gonna lie, folks; of all the books I've tackled so far this year, Last and First Men has been the toughest challenge to my resolve to only read one book at a time. That's not to say it's by any means a bad book; it's part of the SF Masterworks Collection* for very good reasons. It's just
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that, well, gripping storytelling it ain't.

Penned in 1930 by a philosophy professor, Last and First Men is heavy on exposition and all but devoid of character, dialogue or even plot beyond "exploring the nature of the 18 races of man from First (20th Century earthbound Homo sapiens sapiens) to Last (Neptunian superbeings who live for thousands of years) and how their society kept on evolving and devolving and evolving again." The text is presented as a sort of lecture series on the history of humanity, delivered by a Last Men scholar who doesn't quite sneer at his predecessors and their flaws but doesn't exactly hold them in reverence, either. Indeed, often the prose reads like that of a 19th century natural history text on, say, social insects, albeit very sophisticated ones.

The early chapters of the novel are best read, by a 21st century sci-fi fan, as a strange form of alternate history a la, say, Harry Turtledove; in this case, our point of departure is not long after Last and First Men's original publication date, for nothing like World War II and the Holocaust even remotely figures in this extrapolation. Stapledon possessed an acute talent for that, but humanity has always been full of surprises! One can smile indulgently at how off base he was, but to do so is to completely miss why this book is a classic of the genre; after all, the rest of the 20th century is not even the first tenth of this book, and the First Men's story covers thousands of years of struggle (sometimes genocidal) to form a world government, the creation of a scientific religion in which "divine energy" is the object of worship and the purview of a rigid guild of scientists, and the development of a culture of abundance (no disease, no want, a flying car for everybody) that values strenuous physicality (and flight) above all else, to the detriment of human intelligence. With predictable results.**

But wait! Like I said, that's not even 25% of the book. I've never read any fiction so ambitious in scope, folks. The closest I can think of is maybe Stephen Baxter's Evolution, but even it just took on the life-span of life on planet Earth. Last and First Men covers "about two thousand million years", takes us, or a future version or 18 of us to the outer solar system, and teems with phrases like "Not till many hundred thousand years had passed did..." It's truly stupefying. It's also very, very clever; to encompass so much time in just 300 pages or so, it has to be. There's a mathematical progression governing the level of detail and verbiage devoted to each iteration of humanity; I suspect, though am not really a rigorous enough person to be sure of this, that this is an instance of exponential decay. At any rate, the narrative speeds up considerably once Stapledon has dispensed with our own species, the First Men***, and keeps on speeding up until eventually a million years can pass in a sentence fragment. At one point, ten million years pass because it's a time of barbarism and stasis. Well, okay, Mr. Stapledon; it's your Memorable Fancy.

For a giant William Blakean Memorable Fancy is what this book is, a visionary and somewhat allegorical tale spun out to illustrate the writer's philosophy, hopes and fears. I would love to see an edition of this book illuminated in the way that Blake did his works. It would be an eminently lovely thing.

Along the way, we get to watch Stapledon toss off a stunning array of concepts and ideas that were quite ahead of his time and the influences of which we can find throughout science fiction: the perils of genetic engineering, Peak Oil and its aftermath, the cyclical natures of high civilization and barbarism, aliens that are genuinely and profoundly alien (i.e. not Star Trek humanoids with extra nobbly bits on their faces), the fragility of knowledge, the notion that humans can easily evolve back into animals if care is not taken...

It's easy, in short, to see how Last and First Men came to be such a very influential book. People talk about how Heinlein originally dashed off all of the sci-fi tropes with which we have become so familiar, but for a lot of them, Stapledon was there first.

I wonder what his other novels are like.

*I didn't use that edition's cover to decorate this post because I liked this cover so very, very much better! I mean, look at it!

**Think Idiocracy meets Otto from A Fish Called Wanda.

***In his forward to SF Masterworks edition, the great Gregory Benford advises readers to consider skipping the "badly dated" first 20-25% of this novel, partly for reasons I've already observed (in addition to the wrong guesses at history, this first narrative teems with racial and national stereotypes, and of course gives women the shortest possible shrift) but also to spare American readers some tart observations from a British philosopher who was no great fan of capitalism and American cultural hegemony. But to skip these chapters would deprive the reader of the sensation of being swept along through time at an ever-accelerating rate that is one of this novel's unique and most exceptional offerings. If you're going to read it, read it.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Certainly not the classic that "Starmaker" undoubtedly is, this early English science fiction epic is still remarkable.

It has dated, and severely in places. Stapledon, like most of the rest of the world, fails to predict an approaching world war, and so the first few chapters, that deal with man's
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struggle through that period, are difficult to read, mostly for their naivety. That said, Stapledon does accurately gauge the impact that technology would have on modern society.

From there, the book accelerates away from the present. Civilisation is crushed, killed and then reborn, continuously, again and again; the effect is satisfyingly chilling, in the way that it reminds the reader just how little one life, and one generation, can matter in the bigger scheme of things. And also, that there is no "scheme" to speak of.
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LibraryThing member bookomaniac
Perhaps my rating of this book is a bit too flattering. But that's because it's inspired by childhood nostalgia: I first read this when I was only 15, and it just blew me away. Perhaps that was what determined my choice to study history later. Because make no mistake: this may seem like a science
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fiction book, but in many ways it is more of a historical work. In this book, the Brit Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) lets the Last Man (that is, the last descendant of the 18th human species) look back on 2 billion years of human history. Yes, you read that right: 2 billion years. This book does not stick to a million more or less, and one civilization and human species follows the other, at an increasing pace.

Of course, Stapledon was a child of his time and there are expressions and opinions that are ‘not done’ any more in our time (almost a century later), such as the description that 'negro dance' (sic) has a "sexual and primitive character". Especially in the first chapters, which describe the succession of wars between European countries and then between America and China, Stapledon candidly expresses his opinion about peoples and countries. In this way, the unique merits of England are highlighted (English pacifism is interpreted as the highest expression of civilization in our era), and America in particular is hit hard ("this was essentially a race of bright, but arrested, adolescents. Something lacking which should have enabled them to grow up.”). In fact, the entire Americanization of the world would lead to the eventual demise of the First Man. Perhaps it is indeed better to skip the first 4 chapters, because they are too close to Stapledon's own time and as a consequence are too colored by his present views.

From the fifth chapter onwards, the new human species and their ascending and descending civilizations follow each other in rapid succession, spread over millions of years, with regularly very long Dark Ages. What Stapledon serves here testifies to a particularly inventive mind, which was also surprisingly well informed with the state of science at the time. It is striking that he has a good command of the principles of evolutionary theory, and is even up to date with the latest developments in atomic science and quantum physics. Before you start to think that Stapledon mainly focuses on abstract aspects: he pays a striking amount of attention to culture and religion. Almost all civilizations he describes, have special cultural characteristics and in almost all of them forms of religion set the tone, bringing those civilizations to both great heights and terrible lows. For example, during the third human species there is an extremely musical civilization, also called the Holy Empire of Music, which in no time falls into a tyrannical regime, a musical theocracy.

There is, of course, a system in Stapledon's review of the heroic history of the human species: “again and again folk after folk would clamber out of savagery and barbarism into relative enlightenment; and mostly, though not always, the main theme of this enlightenment was some special mood either of biological creativity or of sadism, or of both.” Apparently, Stapledon's vision was strongly marked by the horror of the First World War, and undoubtedly also by Oswald Spengler's Untergang des Abendlandes (the Decline of the West), 1918-1922. He may have derived his cyclical view of man (perhaps it is better to speak of a spiral view of history) from Spengler. But Stapledon certainly did not share the German's deep pessimism. In many respects (as is evident from his other writings) he stands in the utopian tradition, with the associated optimism. This Last and First Men ends with a striking eulogy for humanity (we are now at the 18th and last human species): “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. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, apparently, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.”

As mentioned, my appreciation for this book may be a bit exaggerated. But the lyrical description of so many eras, and the infectious (naive) recurring resurrection of the human species, really appeal to me. Even with almost 50 years between my first and second reading of this book. No doubt that says something about me.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
Stapleton remained consistent only in his Marxism, with a smoldering dislike for Germany and United States, perhaps because of war and materialism they embodied. But his ability to weave a big picture using evolutionary themes was thrilling. He understood intelligence increase and the evolution of
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stars. Seminal work.
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LibraryThing member theboylatham
Five out of ten.
Tells the story of man from First man (now) all the way through our continued evolution to Sixth man. The time-scales involved are enormous but eminently believable.
LibraryThing member JudithProctor
All plot, no story. Not my kind of book.
LibraryThing member ari.joki
The big-picture view was somewhat distancing to this reader.




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