This writeup is in part a response to Dennis Lehane by Bitriot. Because while I love his writing very much he could not be more wrong.
"Such, in brief, was the physical and mental nature of the third human species. In spite of innumerable distractions, the spirit of the Third Men kept on returning to follow up the thread through a thousand variegated cultures. Again and again folk after folk would clamber out of savagery and barbarism into relative enlightenment...
Again and again, then at intervals of a few hundred thousand years, man's whim was imposed upon the fauna and flora of the earth, and at length dedicated to the task of remaking man himself. Again and again, through a diversity of causes, the effort collapsed, and the species sank once more into chaos."
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon was published by Methuen in 1930. Stapledon, a northern England native, was in his forties at the time. He had a book of poetry, a PhD in philosophy and a textbook on ethics under his belt. He'd decided to move into fiction in order to bring his ethical ideas to a wider audience. In this he succeeded - Last And First Men did rather well. It was praised by reviewers from Winston Churchill through to Hugh Walpole. Virgina Woolf sent him a personal letter thanking him for her review copy(1). It is a very English book, it is not a novel, and its ambition is shocking, absurd, and extremely original. The premise was reasonably simple - the future of our solar system told from the perspective of an impartial academic in 300 pages of dense paragraphs.
Science Fiction had already existed for half a century in the novels of Jules Verne and particularly H.G. Wells, but the Newtonian world in which they wrote was on a small and functional scale. Tales of submarines, time machines, invisibility and canon-spaceships were of a very human dimension. The new physics of Einstein and Bohr that emerged and matured after World War I enlarged the canvas of science enormously. Stapledon was the first creative thinker to grapple with a universe that, as Edwin Hubble had determined only a year earlier, had been expanding at speed for 13 billion years.
Within, he tells the history of the human race from the present (1930) until the death of the solar system, following the biographies of 18 separate human species. Humanity as a cat-like hunter, as a teutonic giant, as a race of sessile superbrains ruined by their lack of morality. This sequence of rising and falling species he terms The Human Symphony, with the individual nature of each comprising a different movement in an over-reaching drama of intelligent life. In addressing this enormous canvas, Stapledon chose to write in a similar voice to the one he would have used for a classroom lecture on Plato's Greece. Barren of characters and lacking in dialogue Stapledon's book is closer to an epic poem than a conventional novel. Much like Beowulf or The Odyssey, Last And First Men must be taken on its own terms.
I am staggered by the scope of this work, I've no idea what audience he had in his head while crafting it. The process of writing this story is totally foreign to me, it's as if he didn't realise the rules he was breaking even existed. Let's look at this from the current age - I've always felt the key requirement of good science fiction (as opposed to good fiction) is the humbling of lesser storytelling elements to aid the delivery of the idea. In our present era of Clarion trained short story auteurs we are used to the hegemony of characterisation, the need for development, conflict, resolution, a poignant twist. It's pretty commonplace to throw contempt at the poor character development of Campbellian SF. Yet, it is exactly this choice to reject unnecessary elements that allows concept to soar in stories such as Asimov's The Last Question or Heinlein's And He Built a Crooked House. In Stapledon's book, ten years before Campbell hammered genre SF into a discrete structure, we have a story that masterfully hinges on a continuous orgy of exposition. It's audaciously freeform. In one sentence he will casually dismiss a million years, in the next he will focus intently on a day in a character's life. Show don't tell? These rules are for people with less to say. Yet he doesn't disregard the prose, it is in developing the rhythms of his text that he manages to present a story on a scale that is all-encompassingly grand. Stapledon is the last and the first of epic SF.
Having been written in 1930, there are a few glaring scientific and historical incongruities. Probably the greatest weakness of Last and First Men is the first 80 pages in which he addresses the future of our own human species, it was only on my third attempt that I got past this first movement. The Second World War is replaced by a massive Anglo-French conflict, and his contempt for the American collective psyche is as unpleasant as it is unfair. And yet even here it is charming to see what elements he manages to get right: the bipolar world he draws between a declining American superpower and a resurgent Chinese collectivism seems bizarrely appropriate. And further, in the European Confederacy that he mentions almost in passing he forsees both the benefits and the problems that would face the EU. It's as if he skipped the mid-20th century and got the beginning of the 21st down to perfection. His understanding of biology is pre-genetics, and his understanding of nuclear physics is post Einstein but pre-Manhattan Project. Probably the most glaring scientific error would be the emergence of plate tectonics, which has left his thoughts on the changing state of our planet over the coming billion years a little half-formed... Still, to criticise literature's science based on theories that hadn't even been developed at that point is... Well, a bit mean.
Olaf Stapledon's masterwork is a writer's lesson. If your story doesn't need characters - throw out characterisation. If your story doesn't need conflict - ignore gratuitous action scenes. If your story doesn't need self conscious prose - write it in the most humble way you can. Work within the limitations of the medium. Draw on the grand canvas. Your job is to have ideas and write them in the way they demand to be written. Capture the sheer scale of the universe we are living in, be transcendant if you can.
This story will continue to be inspiring long after you and I are dead. Stick Also Sprach Zarathustra on your stereo and slip 2 billion years into the future.
That's art, and I mean that.
(1) This letter was found in 2008 by Kim Stanley Robinson in the Woolf archive, he republished a later letter from her to Stapledon here.