There are few books as original and daring as Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. This remarkable work of science fiction, written in 1930 and reprinted countless times since, has influenced generations of writers. The likes of C.S Lewis, Brian Aldiss and H.P. Lovecraft have all in turn heaped praise upon the novel and Arthur C Clarke went so far as to say that “no other book had a greater influence on my life”. Yet few people are aware that this epoch-spanning triumph of imagination was born, just like its author, on the Wirral Peninsula in North West England.
William Olaf Stapledon was born in 1896 in Seacome, a district in the Wirral town of Wallasey just across the river from Liverpool. After Oxford he worked for a time as a teacher at Manchester Grammar School but Stapledon didn’t take to teaching and soon found work with one of the great shipping companies, first in its office in Liverpool and later in Egypt. And here, among the ranks of the deskbound maritime middle class, gazing listlessly out over the Mersey or the Nile, marking time until time inevitably overtook him, he might have remained. But on one hot June day his life, like the lives of so many others in his generation, was changed forever by the actions of a single Serbian student.
Stapledon was a registered conscientious objector in the First World War and although an agnostic he volunteered for service in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, which had been founded by the Quakers to assist in the care and evacuation of battlefield casualties. Four years of looking after shattered minds and bodies is liable to leave a man asking some rather fundamental questions about life and so when he returned from France, Stapledon went back to school in search of some answers. In 1925, now married and living in West Kirby, he was awarded a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool.
Like a lot of writers Stapledon wanted to change the world, and like a lot of men who’d been through The Great War he was keener on doing it with words rather than bullets. But his first book, a rather academic work called A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929), didn’t exactly set the world alight and so in an effort to get his ideas in front of a wider audience he turned to fiction and a year later Last and First Men was born.
Everything about Last and First Men is epic; two billion years, 18 district human species and 300 glorious pages. So brave and so audacious in its scope that it leaves the reader dizzy at the sheer scale of the writer’s imagination. Yet the book starts modestly, in familiar 20th century territory with the petty squabblings of the great empires of the day who, within a few pages, are at each other’s throats. They ally and scheme, and dream and fight; and then very quickly, and quite simply, they are gone.
All that is familiar to us; the empires of mind and mammon, nations and names, the languages of Shakespeare and Tolstoy are simply swept away by the passing of the years. At first they pass into obscurity, and then they fall into myth, before finally succumbing to absolute oblivion. This is both clever and shocking as it simultaneously allows Stapledon to free his narrative of the shackles of contemporary perception while ruthlessly demonstrating the utterly unsympathetic nature of time. Everything dies and everything will be forgotten.
From this point on the reader is adrift upon a churning sea of the writer’s seemingly boundless imagination. The years roll onward and a Hegelian humanity persists, sometimes soaring to great and noble heights, sometimes sinking into the abyss of savagery and barbarism. Hundreds, then thousands and finally millions of years drift by, years in which mankind is repeatedly subject to near extinction level events, events that are sometimes natural and sometimes self-inflicted.
Eventually the race spreads its wings and other sentient forces are encountered. All the while both evolution and revolution promote different branches of the human family, many of them concurrently, and in time antennae, fingers and fins will all stretch out towards the light of the sun before inevitably succumbing to the evolutionary night.
In the novel, Stapledon thoroughly subverts the usual trite conventions of character and plot. Traditional characters are replaced by the various species of man and the endlessly proselytized story arc is made redundant, ridiculous even, by the sheer relentless march of time, which may be one reason why the book has never been adapted for film or television. In doing this Stapledon pushes the reader’s mind as far as it can go in terms of what we can conceive of in relation to our own place in time.
The book was a great success and allowed Stapledon to take up writing full time and move his family to the leafy Wirral village of Caldy. Here, amid gentile mercantile prosperity, he wrote more novels and works of philosophy, which were acclaimed by the likes of J.B. Priestly, Virginia Wolf and Winston Churchill. As his stock rose he was invited to lecture throughout Europe, and was the only Briton granted a visa to attend the 1949 Conference for World Peace in New York. It was also around this time that he began to become involved with the anti-apartheid movement.
But neither fame nor integrity provides proofing against the flow of time and in September 1950 Stapledon died suddenly at his home in Caldy. He left behind an impressive literary legacy that a lifetime on shows no signs of diminishing in vigour. And although Olaf himself would surely point out that all things pass in time, I would be willing to wager that his words will be with us for some while yet.
What: Last and First Men