If this was an ordinary encyclopedia entry, most of it would probably be Olaf Stapledon's biography, with a list of some of his works, and some of the people whom he influenced.

Just for context, he lived in England, has been dead for several decades, and has been referred to by Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001 : A Space Odyssey and much else) as a major influence on his work. The two world wars, communism, and much else of that era left their mark on him.

Actually though, very few of the people interested in Stapledon are interested in him because of when he lived. If you know him at all, it's probably through and because of what he wrote. He is one of the select group of authors still read fifty years after their death by people other than scholars and students. A list of his work isn't really hard to find, so instead I'm going to talk about a couple of his books. The odd thing is not so much that nobody has really successfully done what he did, but it hasn't even been thoroughly attempted.

One of the easiest of his books to find in libraries and bookstores is 'Last and First Men'. This is a future history of humanity spread over millions of years, indeed more, from his own time to the death of the sun. If this sounds as implausible as the worst science fiction and as dull and plotless as a history book, I can only advise you to read it instead of what you're reading now. Not only does the epic scale of his vision come through and sweep you away, but there is also a more personal element, since his future history is made up of individuals as well as rising and falling civilizations. If you don't read science fiction you've never read anything like it - but if you do you probably haven't either. If you don't like science fiction, he is not a pulp author, he is from the era of H.G. Wells and others, when science fiction was not a seperate genre but was understood and enjoyed by mostly the same audience who enjoyed other fiction. If you're interested in what humanity is and what it might become, he is worth reading and thinking about.

The strength of his work is not the only interesting thing about it. Some of his ideas about communism and evolution and other things are indeed outdated, and seeing where we have really and truly moved past his time can be as interesting as seeing how much of his work has held up, or even grown more relevant.

This is not a complete list of his work, I just include it from memory to create a few more softlinks. If you like Last and First Men, you might also try Star Maker. If you live in the United States like me, you might have a little more trouble finding some of his other works.

William Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) was born on May 10th near Liverpool, England. He was a philosopher and writer known mostly for his science fiction. Despite the "Olaf", William Stapledon is not at all Scandanavian,  which explains why the translations seemed so good. He was one of the great old science fiction authors whose ideas have been thoroughly stolen1 and expanded upon. His main contribution to literature was the use of science fiction and the future to comment directly on the culture of the present2. Other major contributions were the widespread introduction of the ideas of genetic engineering (which he called manipulating the germ) and terra forming/colonizing other planets.

His two major science fiction works, Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937)3, are as much experiments in writing macrohistories as they are mainstays in science fiction. Both books are massive overviews of a race (in Last and First Men) or a universe (in Star Maker) and both span billions of years.

Stapledon's two main strengths are ethical philosophy and extrapolation. Stapledons' ideology is very left leaning and community minded and that is felt throughout most of his work. He has innovative ideas and an innovative approach to writing fiction. Olaf's stuff can be epic in scope and is very tightly written. You never feel like the writing4 slips up or gets boring and though he has a variety of sensational ideas, they all work well together. Another thing you notice is that this guy is a fucking genius and you're left wondering how he predicted so many things correctly 5 or how he came up with a myth of the universe, full of so many different cultures and ideas and worlds. He had such an advanced view of social organization, and a look at his background reflects these interests. He had a B.A. and a Masters from Balliol College, Oxford in history as well as a PhD in philosophy from Liverpool University. He also taught at all levels of academia, though never for long, and when teaching it was normally psychology, philosophy and history. He was at one point a full time professor at Liverpool University. On top of his Science Fiction work he wrote non-fiction that focused on social, ethical, philosophical issues. He was a serious guy that happened to write inventively and beautifully about ambitious topics.

 

"The Stapledon vistas of millions and hundreds of millions of years, the rise and fall of civilizations and entire races of men, changed my whole outlook on the universe and has influenced much of my writing since."

- Arthur C. Clarke

 

List of Works

Later Day Psalms. Henry Young, 1914 a book of poetry his father paid for the publishing of, most copies were lost in a fire
A Modern Theory of Ethics: A Study of the Relations of Ethics and Psychology. Methuen, 1929
Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Methuen, 1930
Last Men in London. Methuen, 1932
Waking World. Methuen, 1934
Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest. Methuen, 1935
Star Maker. Methuen, 1937
New Hope for Britain. Methuen, 1939
Saints and Revolutionaries. Methuen, 1939
Philosophy and Living. Penguin Books, 1939
{Beyond the "Isms"]. Secker and Warburg, 1942
Darkness and the Light. Methuen, 1942
Old Man in the New World. Allen and Unwin, 1944
Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord. Secker and Warburg, 1944
The Seven Pillars of Peace. Commonwealth, 1944
Death into Life. Methuen, 1946
Youth and Tomorrow. St. Botolph, 1946
The Flames: A Fantasy. Secker and Warburg, 1947
A Man Divided. Methuen, 19506

 

1 it's hard to know who stole what from who but there are episodes and races in StarTrek in his books, slaughterhouse fives idea of Billy Pilgrim popping randomly back in time is from Last and First Men as well as a race that contains multiple sexes so more then two people are required for procreation. . It's hard to list all those that he influenced because so many of the ideas, creatures and whatever else you will read in First and Star are just staples of science fiction now as well as the fact you would have to read all of H.G. Wells first to make sure stapledon didn't steal it from him, which if you look at the ideas in quick summary stapledon was influenced alot by Island of Doctor Morrow(1896) and First Men in the Moon(1901) but he matured those ideas and added so much more in terms of their importance to humanity(of course he has the advantage of writing decades after those books) and how they might come about, how do you get around borrowing from H.G. Wells if your writing science fiction? He is the Henry Ford of sci-fi.
2 I guess any alternate future reality can be seen as a comment on our reality but Olaf uses the future to directly challenge our views on social order (he is a big commie), religion, mass movements, sexuality, the effect of nature and resources on the development of a cultures values. Also most of his work occurs in the 1930s, between the wars, which is a time of great social change and questioning. I have to admit to parroting the whole 'future as a way of commenting on the present' because Ive read that so much elsewhere and because his work seems to be so focused on social issues but I am sure this is more of a first major well read book to do such and such type statement.
3 I've only read star maker, first and last and some essays and letters on the Internet. The other book you hear about a lot is, Sirius(1944) about a dog given human intelligence
4 He is like Herman Hesse or Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the way you never know the author just the world they create. He is like George Orwell in the way he treats fiction as a way to express his opinions, the politics always bursting through the actual plot line of the book. He is like no one else I know in the way that he will write a book like a piece of music with recurring themes that have been slightly changed to reveal something new but also a new interpretation of the sounds that just passed, everything that brings about a positive shift ends up bringing about a negative, tension and resolution in each theme, so constant everything melds togther into a whole movement, so well crafted, I really liked Last and First Men and Star Maker.
5 he does get some things wrong in First and Last, germany is a peaceful neutral country in the second world war, China discovers how to harness atomic energy first and he totally misses important things but he gets the time of the development of nuclear power, use of weapons of mass destruction to end wars, genetic engineering, American economic culture forming the basis for the first world government. He even talks about a massive network that spans the globe doing the thinking/knowledge accumulation for man, though, of course, he never mentions computers. It's always hard to judge the predicting abilities/originality of SF writers unless you're a science and technology historian that maps the birth and fragmentation of scientific trends. For instance with Stapledon and genetic engineering his ideas of manipulating the germ to create new creatures probably stems directly from J.B.S. Haldane Daedulus (1924) essay which talks about genetics before the science of genetics existed .
6 This list of works is from http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/olaf_stapledon.html.

 

 

 

 

biographical information culled from science fiction biography websites

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