Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton builds on the work of past authors and leads to the ideas found throughout science fiction literature since. That sounds like a statement that could be made of an academic journal article. Deliberately so. This is a novel unlike anything else in the sense that it is presented as an academic’s popular history book. Only the author is from millions of years in the future.
Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, to give it its full title, was written and published in 1930. My edition is the 2009 Gollancz Space Opera Collection. Which is a tad mis-leading. This is no space opera. Space opera requires characters, journeys, cultures and such like. In fact, in this there are barely any characters at all, and those that are written about are architypes, examples or occasional unique individuals.
What distinguishes, if anything, a book from a novel? A story from a narrative? These questions jostled around as I read First and Last Men. This book begins with the fictional introduction from one of the ‘last men’, setting context for what is about to come. Beginning then with the First Men, not long after what is known to us a World War I, with nods to the likes of Jesus and Socrates, the book describes various rivalries in Europe and between America and China. Interesting foresight or extrapolation and logic? The latter, if the rest of the book is taken as the whole. Humans eventually use up all the natural resources, leaving only a Patagonian Civilization, some 100,000 years in the future. A huge natural disaster leaves only 35 humans alive, on a science ship at the north pole. And so begins the cyclic future of humanity, where phoenix-like, a new species rises out of the ashes of an old, only to fall into the fire once more.
The scope of Stapleton’s work is extraordinary. It literally gives historical detail for most of the future races of man, plus some sub-species, lasting to the Eighteenth Man 2 billion years hence. Frustratingly, he uses ‘man’ throughout the work, suggesting that blinkered view of Homo sapiens being a maternal species is one thing that is fixed in stone. There is no suggestion of a paternal or non-binary gendered future for ‘mankind’! Thus ‘man’ has adventures along the way of course. There is the seemingly obligatory invasion from Mars (from much of the SF of this time), although an original take on the alien threat. Also, the only time there is any levity in the book, as the Martians misunderstand the nature of Earthly intelligence. As humanity moves forward through its history, there are obsessions with youth, with flying, with war, genetic engineering, music and more. Man changes appearance and size, and in the case of the Fourth Men, becomes giant brains that use the Third Men as lab rats. Oddly, something happens to the moon’s orbit and the surviving members of humanity venture to Venus for more alien encounters. The Seventh Men of Venus can fly. The Ninth Men relocate to Neptune where they eventually develop the ability to move the planet, as astronomical events threaten and then bring about eventual doom for all of mankind(s).
As mentioned, there are no characters in this book, with a few minor exceptions. It is written as a history book with academic analysis and some speculation. However, although dense with concepts and future facts, it reads like a novel. Life of humanity is the main character, and it undergoes a narrative journey, as a fictional character might in another story. It develops, grows, make mistakes, sometimes learns from them and moves on. Each time Stapleton dwells on a period, it is a different type of humanity. Which brings me to the past works mentioned earlier.
Last and First Men features utopic visions, reminiscent of More and Swift, dystopias of Shelley and Jefferies, Wells’ alien invasion, and the blatant generic manipulation as mentioned. There is so much depth to Stapleton’s ideas that as times they are both overwhelming and somewhat repetitive. He dwells on some areas and skips others, which is interesting. He often suggests that the reader can’t understand some aspects of future science and philosophy. And disappointingly, despite the huge time span of some of the species, and the development of ‘ether-ships’ which transported the species to Venus and Neptune, extra-solar flight is never achieved.
A key theme throughout the book is evolution, and genetic manipulation. I suspect that this is the first science fiction work since Frankenstein to address these concepts to blatantly. There is a great page towards the end of the book, when man is recently moved to Neptune. Stapleton describes the evolutionary progress of a sub-human rabbit-like species, and how natural selection works in its simplest form so this species would eventually give rise to the Tenth Men. Of course, for this to work, Stapleton had to give the book the immense time-scale required for the evolutionary process to work. He clearly knew the subject well.
There appears to be a couple of deux ex machina moments, when survival miraculously occurs, such as the 35 humans on the boat at the north pole. This might suggest that mankind is not destined to survive by its own agency alone. I can’t decide if this is (and also perhaps the ‘reader can’t understand the future’ sections) is lazy storytelling or a deliberate comment on man as an animal species. Stapleton does write at one point that ‘by accident, almost one might say by miracle, a spark of human life was once more preserved’. Maybe Stapleton thought man’s agency impotent? The mind-reading dénouement and the cultural effects on the moon are the weakest ideas in the narrative, meaning this book can’t be considered to complete success.
Last and First Men is a hard book to enjoy, reading as it does as an academic history book. Fascinating, yes. A novel with a narrative, yes. A story, maybe. Despite having no real characters to empathise with, for the most part I was engaged. A remarkable work of science fiction, definitely.
“Lastandfirstmen firstedition” by Derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg