Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Last and First Men (Classic SF Book)

But one thing is certain. 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. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man.
I expect that Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon will haunt me for a long time. First published in 1930, this novel has influenced a number of great science fiction writers, including Arthur C. Clarke and Doris Lessing. I see hints of some of the ideas in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series and McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Series, whether or not the authors were directly influenced by the book. Last and First Men is definitely a forest—in contrast to tree and leaf—novel. It does not have relatable characters or scenic descriptions that make you feel like you are really there. It reads more like an anthropology book of future events. It gives a perspective of mankind over millions of years.

The basic premise of the book is that a man from the future, one of the last men alive before a future cataclysmic event, is able to write a book through a modern-day writer. This future man then goes on to tell the story of 18 species of men.—We are considered the first species. — The author describes the waxing and waning of civilizations and “man” species. A number of times he describes species of men dying out almost to the point of extinction and then slowly coming back in a different form. He tells of knowledge lost, rediscovered, and lost again. He describes encounters with both Martians and Venusians.

The book has its issues. Stapledon did not like Americans, and this becomes rather apparent in the first few parts. Also, written over eighty years ago, it is apparent that he got the near future wrong. In the introduction of the 1988 Tarcher edition, Gregory Benford suggests skipping the first four parts, which deal with the near future. The book also has a bit of racism, one major episode of genocide, and a number of species that practice suicide when they grow old.

On the other hand, I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s catchphrase “billions and billions."  I am left with a sense of the potential immensity of humankind. The novel gives me a new perspective of reality and my little world. It also has a number of very interesting ideas sprinkled in it. I would love to see a project where writers built stories from some of the ideas in the book and then had the stories linked together on one website.

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