Think of epic science fiction and works such as Asimov’s Foundation series and Herbert’s Dune saga spring to mind – sets of novels that are truly on a grand scale, with plots that span millennia and cover vast distances across interstellar space. Yet long before these were written, there existed novels every bit as epic and gigantic in scope. Written by philosopher and pacifist Olaf Stabledon way back in 1930, Last and First Men is certainly one of them.
It is not a novel in the conventional sense, as there are no real characters save for the narrator, who is one of the 18th Men living on Neptune two million years hence and is broadcasting his thoughts back through time into the mind of a contemporary human. Though it could also be said that the story’s protagonists are, in fact, the various races – the First, Second, Third (and so on) Men, who succeed one another and enjoy their moment on the world’s stage. Last and First Men is basically a future history of the human race, from the twentieth to the twenty thousandth century, and a titanic tale of struggle, technical and cultural development, heroic achievements, bitter warfare, near total extinction and the rise and inexorable fall of mighty civilisations.
The scope of the story is absolutely breathtaking. As from an aeroplane travelling across some vast continent, the reader mostly looks down upon the temporal equivalent of a majestic landscape viewed from several thousand feet, with great plains and mountain ranges visible but lacking intimate detail. At times, however, just as the plane must descend to ground level periodically, the narrative sometimes closes in on some pivotal moment in the life of the race – a battle, a discovery, a scientific breakthrough – and then even the occasional individual might briefly come into view. Afterwards, though, it is always time to soar back up to the Olympian heights for another few aeons of world history.
There is much that I enjoyed in Last and First Men. First and foremost, the stupendous scale of Stabledon’s project. “Man’s sojourn on Venus lasted somewhat longer than his whole career on the Earth” is a typical Stabledon sentence, which has all the more impact for being completely undramatic.
And there are some pretty neat ideas in there. The human form as something plastic and malleable, ready to be shaped to suit new circumstances, such as adapting to the hostile environment of Venus or Neptune. Winged folks thronging the Venusian skies, seal-men swimming in alien seas, monkey-like men, giant sessile brains encased in fortresses… I am not sure whether Last and First Men was the first novel to address the theme (in effect, the idea of genetic engineering, decades before its time), but I would not be surprised if this turns out to be the case.
In addition, the Martian cloud-jellies are credible aliens – floating clusters or swarms of living particles that are capable of forming formidable hive minds (a forerunner of the neural network idea, perhaps.) Their long and bitter fight for dominance over the Second Men seems all too realistic – neither side being completely victorious – and resembles the “arms race” type of constant evolutionary struggle (e.g., between plants and insects.)
There’s also, it has to be said, some rather strange science. In around AD 5000, the people of the First World State rely completely on coal for their energy, and relapse into complete barbarism once it runs out, being curiously unable to come up with any viable new energy source. About 100,000 years later, the Patagonian civilisation is wiped out by an atomic explosion which creates a runaway global cataclysm (silly, maybe, but this was a genuine fear in the days of the Manhattan Project.) And roughly 400,000 years after that, the Fifth Men have to decamp to Venus, as the orbit of Earth’s Moon has become dangerously low – due to the effect of thought radiation from humanity’s advanced minds.
And there is also some equally odd future history and psychology. One choice moment that had me scratching my head in puzzlement comes early on in Last and First Men, when representatives of the two superpowers – a decadent Chinaman and a puritanical American – meet on a remote Pacific island to decide the future of the world, only to both fall in love with a mysterious young female native who emerges, as if by magic, to play an unaccountably crucial part in the proceedings. This struck me as being decidedly wacky (although, goodness knows, equally wacky things happen in this reality too.)
In addition, a particular theme that now comes across as very mid twentieth-century (along with the whole idea of telepathy in SF) is that of the group or race mind – humans adding their mental powers to the collectivity until it is capable of becoming a sort of supercharged being, thinking truly god-like thoughts. What might have seemed noble and exalted in 1930, however, now seems rather sinister and repugnant – to my somewhat small and mortal mind, anyway.
Yet despite its oddities and quaint qualities, First and Last Men remains absolutely a work of classic science fiction (“timeless” even, to use the cliché). Indeed reading it can be compared to being fed into the Total Perspective Vortex (in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) an ominous machine which is able to produce a virtual model of the entire universe and show anyone who enters it just how incredibly tiny and insignificant they are.
But Olaf Stabledon’s masterpiece does so in quite a positive and uplifting way. The reader is left marvelling at the sheer immensity of it all, and forgetful of all the world’s problems, which on this scale are as trifling as the merest speck of dust.
I wish I had thought of the Total Perspective Vortex comparison by myself, but alas I didn’t; I read it in this excellent review by Tal Cohen.
The picture for this blog is a detail from a rather good illustration that was made for the Great Moon Hoax, a hugely successful but completely fictitious 19th-century newspaper story. This could almost be a flock of Seventh Men (and Women), fluttering happily about in the atmosphere of Venus.