The International Writers Magazine: John M. Edwards enters the alt universe of “Star Maker” Olaf Stapledon
The Oddness of Olaf Stapledon
John M. Edwards
“For we shall make after all a fair conclusion in this brief music that is man.”
--Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
Ever since the editor of Amazing Stories Hugo Gernsback coined the pulp term “science fiction” (derived from “scientifiction”), readers have been in a quantum quandary about whom to included in this fairly recently created fantastical rubric: Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov. . . .
Harder to categorize are more literary fantasists of “belle lettres,” such as the so-called Immortals: Mary Shelly, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and last, but not least, Olaf Stapledon. Throw in Ray Bradbury and we almost have a separate category called sci-phi (“science philosophy”).
William Olaf Stapledon (10 May 1886--6 September 1950) was born in Seacombe, Wallasey, England, United Kingdom, as the only son of William Clibbert Stapledon and Emmeline Miller. Even though the first six years of his life were spent in Port Said, his family moved back to England, where he was educated at Abbotsholme School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he got a BA in Modern History in 1909 and a MA in 1913. After a brief stint teaching at the Manchester Grammar School, he worked, at his father’s request, in shipping offices in Liverpool and Port Said from 1910 to 1913.
With a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1925, Olaf used his thesis as the basis of his first published prose book, A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929). Yet he switched soon after to fiction in the hope of reaching a larger audience. “Last and First Men” (1930) and Last Men in London (1932) would butter up Olaf with critical praise and even fandom, allowing him to become a full-time auteur. He never referred to his work as either “novels” or “science fiction.” Instead, he used Swiftean subtitles such as “A Story of the Near and Far Future” or “A Story Between Jest and Ernest” or “A Fantasy of Love and Discord.”
Even though a staunch socialist, surviving on his generous inheritance rather than gainful employment, Stapledon became both a bonafide British philosopher and (shudder) science fiction writer. Olaf’s far-sighted polemic philosophical books, not novels, still stay with readers long after digestion, such as good Oriental food with extra MSG. With the anniversary of his death occurring every year, there is no better time than now to explore when.
Nobody is more associated with the idea of advanced beings, created out of natural evolutionary forces or accidents inside the laboratory, than odd Olaf Stapledon. Obviously influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” (Overman) from Thus Spake Zarathustra, Olaf’s handling of this myth in his best known works, Last and first Men (1930), Odd John (1935), and Sirius (1944), evidence a kind of moral indictment of the human race. His revenge: the ultimate demise of mankind.
In Odd John, Olaf states:
“’Homo Sapiens’ is a spider trying to crawl out of a basin, so long as he is on the bottom he can get along quite nicely, but as soon as he starts climbing he begins to slip.”
With his precise antique diction, Stapledon evidenced an anti-Victorian ethos and misanthropic rejection of modernism, tracing the end of mankind in the future in his classic Last and First Men, a mesmerizing work now ranked among the genre’s finest. Tracing the evolutionary adaptation of mankind over 2 billion years, a time traveler from Neptune, a later species of human who “possesses” a writer from the present, recounts what will happen to mankind in the future until the 18th and final species of man—a hook that in its time must have sounded revolutionary, but now seems a little bruised and banal.
Take, for example, these linguine-like lines of disillusionment from Last and First Men in the form of a poem:
“Vision! From star to star the human donkey/
Transports God’s old street organ and his monkey.”
A fearful cosmic voyager of the mind, rather than a brave explorer of physical reality, Olaf rarely left his home in order to remain close to the stars, far from the light pollution of London. Much of his philosophical nonfiction sympathizes with the Soviet Union and castigates American capitalist imperialism.
Olaf gave many lefty lectures to lower-class proletariat workers, including a famous gathering of communist sympathizers at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Yet, while certainly a socialist, maybe even a Marxist, Olaf, despite his propaganda postmortems, denied actually being a communist. As he frequently reiterated, “[Myth] must be based on “concepts” . . . alive in the mind of its public . . . the more credible . . . the better!”
For Stapledon, influenced by Freud and Jung, sexual repression is not only responsible for personal neurosis, but is an aggravating factor, if not the root cause, of man’s inability to create a just society. With his life-long leftist socialist leanings and working-class origins, Stapledon claimed to be a “pacifist,” refusing to fight in World War I. Instead, he posed as a “conscientious objector” with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium from July 1915 to January 1919. However, like Hemingway, he was an ambulance driver for this Quaker company.
An incident that haunted one of his characters, obviously autobiographical, was when he sped past a wounded soldier under fire, without picking him up.
On 16 July 1919, he married Agnes Zena Miller (1894-1984), an Australian cousin who was just short of being taboo to marry. (Some of Olaf’s characters are charged with Oedipal energy, some even, suggested, but not confirmed, practicing incest and bestiality—as is the case of the superdog Sirius and his human consort Plaxy from Sirius). Together, they had a daughter, Mary Sydney Stapledon, and a son, John David Stapledon, before moving the family to West Kirby in 1920. Much later in 1940, they moved again to Olaf’s beloved Caldy, a perfect place to write and remunerate. “Darkness and the Light” (1942), however, was not well received and deservedly went out of print. Yet his prophetic vision of totalitarianism somehow marched in lockstep with the unforeseen forces soon to be at loggerheads worldwide.
Until World War II.
In response to this war, Olaf temporarily dropped his pacifist pose, even postulating “One seemed even to catch surprising glimpses of a kind of super-human beauty in the hideous disaster of war itself.”
In what many consider to be Olaf’s finest work, Star Maker, he waxes about “the cold light of the stars, with its crystal ecstasy . . . in which the dearest . . . love is frostily assessed.” Stapledon biographer Leslie A. Fielder in Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided, writes of Olaf, conundrums on forbidden fruits aside, “In whose imagination thesis and antithesis forever aspired toward a synthesis they could never attain.”
And so Olaf, with his unique cosmology of the Star Maker (a stand-in for the Christian God), finds man surpassing himself, creature become creator. His protagonist is the “supermind” of many individual consciousnesses forming a recurrent theme in his work. Star Maker contains the first known description of what are now called “Dyson Spheres,” whose idea Freeman Dyson confirms he stole from Olaf. Last and First Men features early descriptions of genetic engineering and terraforming, while Sirius describes a scientifically modified superdog with superhuman intelligence.
Whether a time-traveling member of the 18th Men colonists from Neptune, an odd superman replacement for evolving humankind, or a mutant dog with supernatural intelligence, Stapledon sticks in his philosophic theorems, as he did as a lecteur for the proles on political and ethical subjects, in which he promoted “spiritual” values and greater awareness of the self in a larger context, even though he remained until his death a committed “agnostic.”
After 1945, Olaf traveled widely on lecture tours, and in 1948 he spoke at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland, He also attended the aforementioned (and famous) Conference for World Peace held in New York in 1949 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, the only Briton granted a visa and invited to do so. In 1950 he involved himself in the anti-apartheid movement. All his postwar fiction is, compared to his previous corpus, ultimately unsatisfying, such as Death into Life (1946), Youth and Tomorrow (1946), The Flames: A Fantasy (1947), and A Man Divided (1950), as well as some scraps edited posthumously. But at least “The Flames,” about living fire, indeed delivers a bright idea.
Olaf returned home to Caldy in the Wirral and died of a heart attack at age 64 in September 6, 1950. His cremated ashes were eventually scattered on the sandy cliffs overlooking the Dee Estuary, a favorite spot mentioned in many of his books. He made the map with “Stapledon Wood,” on the southeast side of Caldy Hill, which was named in his honor.
“Last and First Men, a “future history” of 18 successive species of humanity, although Olaf’s best known work, is not as well written as Star Maker (an outline of the history of the universe), or Odd John and Sirius (both hagiographic biographies of superhuman beings). Yet his first book was the only one to draw praise from the big guns such as Jorge Luis Borges, Bertrand Russell, J.B Priestly, Algernon Blackwood, Hugh Walpole, Arnold Bennette, and Virginia Woolf. He also corresponded frequently with Sir Winston Churchill, who shared his distaste of Fascism in any form and taste for vintage Port in any glass.
However, C.S. Lewis was less generous in praise, while at the same time describing Olaf as “a corking good writer.”
Stapledon’s writings directly influenced Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, Stanislaw Lem, John Gloag, Samel R. Delany, Naomi Mitcheson, Vernor Vinge, and others. (Forgive me if you haven’t heard of some of the folk listed above, but should.)
Yet Olaf’s extreme Weltanschaung (worldview) owes its existence really just from one work, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, with its pessimistic future for mankind, including its inevitable eventual extinction. Indeed, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Arthur C. Clarkes’s Childhood’s End would have been impossible to pull off without there first being an Olaf Stapledon to reference, and before him Wells and Verne.
Nor would have A. E Van Vogt’s Slan be possible. Despite Olaf’s personal distaste for stories based upon ESP (extrasensory perception), he used it himself in Odd John, in “channeling” episodes among Homo superior, then popular within the Spiritism movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century, which also brought us for the first time Christmas trees inside the house, a practice which had long before been fashionable only in mainly Germany.
Intentionally, I have left out H.P. Lovecraft as not really being “scientifiction” but rather “weird fiction,” with the exception of his own favorite short story “The Colour Out of Space.” It is uncertain what Olaf thought of that even odder oddball, the world’s most infamous recluse and prolific letter-writer (never mentioning the in-joke “Cthulu Mythos,” for example), other than that both men were in awe of Proust’s handling of time in La Recherche du Temps Perdu (“Remembrance of Things Past”).
None of Olaf’s work has ever been adapted for film or television, although sci-fi wizard George Pal bought the rights to Odd John in 1966, which would have starred David McCallum in the main role, before the production was scrapped.
Above all, Olaf Stapledon should be remembered for his “pacifism” and anti-war efforts, his written work left behind as a warning—dire propaganda--about how similar utopian and dystopian societies really are, and how they all ultimately malfunction and inevitably fail.
Star Maker (1937), for example, describes a history of life in the “toy universe,” dwarfing in scale Stapledon's other books, tackling philosophical themes such as the essence of life, birth, decay, and death, and the relationship between creation and creator. A pervading theme is that of progressive unity within and between different civilizations. Some of the themes prefigure genetic engineering and alien life forms. Arthur C. Clarke considered Star Maker, a stand-in for the Christian God, the “supreme moment of the cosmos” (of which there are many) to be one of the best works of science fiction ever written. . . .
With that out of the way, engraved like an epitaph, his then-fashionable antique square mustache shaved, we will almost completely ignore the secret life and times of Stapledon and concentrate mostly on his impressive body of work and precise flawless diction, neither superfluous nor superficial, but almost literary and loverly.
Once famous, now obscure, Olaf deserves more.
© John M. Edwards, May 2014
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• Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930)
• Last Men in London (1932)
• Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935)
• Star Maker (1937)
• Darkness and the Light (1942)
• Old Man in New World (short story, 1944)
• Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944)
• Death into Life (1946)
• The Flames: A Fantasy (1947)
• A Man Divided (1950)
• Four Encounters (1976)
• Nebula Maker (drafts of Star Maker, 1976)
• A Modern Theory of Ethics: A study of the Relations of Ethics and Psychology (1929)
• Waking World (1934)
• Saints and Revolutionaries (1939)
• New Hope for Britain (1939)
• Philosophy and Living, 2 volumes (1939)
• Beyond the "Isms" (1942)
• Seven Pillars of Peace (1944)
• Youth and Tomorrow (1946)
• The Opening of the Eyes (ed. Agnes Z. Stapledon, 1954)
• Latter-Day Psalms (1914)
• Worlds of Wonder: Three Tales of Fantasy (1949)
• To the End of Time: the Best of Olaf Stapledon (ed. Basil Davenport, 1953)
• Far Future Calling: Uncollected Science Fiction and Fantasies of Olaf Stapledon (ed. Sam Moskowitz
• An Olaf Stapledon Reader (ed. Robert Crossley, 1997)
Winner of 22 NATJA Awards. I also won 2 Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest Awards (2009 and 2012), as well as 3 Notable Essays nods in The Best American Essays (2011/2012/2013).
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