This Brief Music that is Good SF
İnci German on Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
If I had a typewriter, my wastebasket would be full of crumpled paper trying to review this book. How to describe the unparalleled, the ultimate science fiction?
Let's start with hard facts: Last and First Men: A story of the Near and Far Future was written in 1930 by the British philosopher Olaf Stapledon. Starting with an alternative present, Stapledon moves on to describe the history of eighteen different, fictional human races; civilizations rising and falling, species being born and modified as a result of genetic engineering or of planetary conditions and finally ending in the creation of a supermind.
A short overview of Stapledon's human species:
First Men (Homo sapiens)
The more savage, robust, almost titanic Second Men
The feline Third Men who are masters of genetic engineering
The Fourth Men, who are nothing but giant brains designed by their predecessors
The super tall and six-fingered Fifth Men, created by the brains; they terraform Venus
The more primitive Sixth Men, who repeat the mistakes of the First Men
Seventh Men are flying humans
The Eight Men have to cope with Venus becoming uninhabitable and design their descendants to be able to live on Neptune
Ninth Men are dwarfs due to Neptune's high gravitational force, their civilization falls back to savagery because of hard living conditions and they dissolve into different animal species
Tenth to Thirteenth Men are all several animal-human crossings
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Men are basically Neptunian versions of the Second and Fifth Men
The Sixteenth Men set out to produce an artificial species that would be truly perfect
The Seventeenth Men are flawed in some unspecified way
Eighteenth Men are the most advanced humans of all; philosophers, artists with liberal sexuality and several sub-genders.
It never fails to astonish me that, even though it has no plot and there are no characters in the conventional sense, Last and First Men is one of the most engaging, absorbing reads I know. The reader gets what the title promises; a future history. I wouldn't consider myself a history-nerd but I guess that if you're into big history, assuming you haven't read it yet, you will love this book. Many have criticized the rather dry, almost documentary-like style of the book and I understand that the lack of plot (which is what I see as the central force of this work) is not everybody's cup of tea.
To me, this book is everything good science fiction should be: a speculative future that results from our present state and boundless imagination that takes my breath away! Grab a copy and start reading – do you hear David Attenborough speaking?
“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.”
On a side note: I have called the beginning of the book (chapters one to five, about the First Men) an alternative reality, because it might be conceived by some readers as dated – considering that it was written in 1930, I still think Stapledon does a tremendous job. The reason I'm mentioning this is that in the foreword of the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition, Gregory Benford recommends to skip the first four chapters that he describes as “awkward and naive”. Why anyone would write that in a foreword and how any publisher can use this to promote a book, is beyond me and I strongly disagree. Yes, these chapters contain harsh critique on Americanism and ideas Benford may not share, but they nevertheless are part of Stapledon's persona and of his writing and skipping them would only interrupt the flow of the book. I'd suggest that any reader who feels bothered by the inaccuracies in this book should just try and read it as alternative history - after all, it is only a book; not a prophecy, not a science report. It's fiction.