Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930)

I invite you to travel in imagination through the aeons that lie between your age and mine. I ask you to watch such a history of change, grief, hope, and unforeseen catastrophe, as has nowhere else occurred, within the girdle of the Milky Way.

Last and First Men is a towering science fiction classic, a masterwork which influenced generations of later sci-fi writers.

No book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination. – Arthur C. Clarke

Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless. – Jorge Luis Borges

There has been no writer remotely like Stapledon and there is no one like him now. – Doris Lessing

Stapledon was the future maker. – Stephen Baxter

The idea is that the current author (Stapledon)’s mind has been taken over by an inhabitant of the far, far, far distant future, who proceeds to tell us the epic ‘history’ of humanity from the present day to his present – two billion years hence!

The impact of the book doesn’t come from the psychological realism, from plot or character, because there is no plot as such, there are few if any named individuals, and these only make fleeting appearances.

No, the impact derives from the absolute vastness of the scale. The story doesn’t just move forward to one moment in the future and set a story in that time – as done by Wells or Zamyatin or Huxley or Orwell.

Instead it presents a continuous and comprehensive survey of all future history stretching from the present until 2 billion years in the future, tracking not only the rise and fall of different civilisations, but the rise and fall of different species of man himself, with all our evolutions and mutations so that, by the end of the book, humanity has evolved through eighteen species or iterations.

We’re not just talking about thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years – but aeons which cover millions of year.

During the first tenth of the first million years after the fall of the World State, during a hundred thousand years, man remained in complete eclipse…

In its final agony the planet was so seriously damaged that mind lay henceforth in deep slumber for ten more millions of years…

For millions of years the planet would be uninhabitable save for a fringe of Siberian coast. The human race was doomed for ages to a very restricted and uncongenial environment…

Not till after millions of years did the bulk of the planet become once more a possible home for life…

The human beings in Asia remained a mere handful throughout the ten million years of the Second Dark Age…

It was some ten million years after the Patagonian disaster that the first elements of a few human species appeared, in an epidemic of biological variations…

And so on, and so on. It’s as if you and I, used to running a household budget and fretting about £5 here and £2.50 there, were suddenly introduced into a circle of millionaires who casually talk about throwing a few hundred grand on a new car, buying a Mayfair apartment for two mill, maybe investing a couple of mill in a start-up company. The effect is dizzying, mind-blowing.

The creation of a World State, largely under American domination, in the first thirty pages or so of the story – the kind of thing which H.G. Wells devoted entire books to – is just a warming-up exercise, which covers a mere four thousand years. Pah! Chicken feed!

The end of the First Men

After four thousand happy years the civilisation of the First Men comes to an end when the coal which fuels it runs out. As shortages and power cuts come in, the culture is kept going by rumours of an alternative power source, but when these are finally revealed as fake, civilisation collapses.

Dismay and rage spread over the planet. Everywhere the people rose against the scientists, amid against the governing authority which they controlled. Massacres and measures of retaliation soon developed into civil wars. China and India declared themselves free national states, but could not achieve internal unity. In America, ever a stronghold of science and religion, the Government maintained its authority for a while; but as its seat became less secure, its methods became more ruthless. Finally it made the mistake of using not merely poison gas, but microbes; and such was the decayed state of medical science that no one could invent a means of restraining their ravages. The whole American continent succumbed to a plague of pulmonary and nervous diseases. The ancient ‘American Madness’, which long ago had been used against China, now devastated America. The great stations of waterpower and windpower were wrecked by lunatic mobs who sought vengeance upon anything associated with authority. Whole populations vanished in an orgy of cannibalism.

This is a good example of the incredibly sweeping, broad brush, generalised way in which this whole future history is told. The narrative features few if any individuals. Instead, Stapledon is concerned only with the highest-level account of the rise and fall of races and societies and cultures. Whole nations are crushed, entire continents sink under the seas, whole species are exterminated.

All this age-long sequence of private living, which is the actual tissue of humanity’s flesh, I cannot describe. I can only trace, as it were, the disembodied form of its growth.

The Dark Age

After America, China, Africa are laid waste, humans descend into a new dark age which lasts for thousands of years. As post-apocalyptic savages always do in this kind of story, the survivors live in superstitious fear of the relics of the Old Ones – in this instance, amid the wrecks of their huge three-mile high skyscrapers – and make up feverish myths and legends about their superhuman powers.

The rise of Patagonia Slowly an organised civilisation arises in Patagonia, partly because of land mass changes which link it to Antarctica. But it is deprived of coal or oil or any of the easily smeltable metals like iron or copper, which the World State had used up.

Stapledon is always more interested in ‘religion’ of these future cultures than in their economics or technology, so he gives Patagonia a religion of ‘the Divine Boy’ who never grows up, an exception to the rule that the new Patagonians age quickly, are middle-aged by 20. Stapleton even gives us a couple of scenes from the life of the actual Divine Boy, who desecrates the temple of their existing god, makes a grand speech, then is led away by the howling mob and executed.

Apocalypse Over hundreds of years Patagonians build themselves up to a renaissance-level of technology and science. But then they discover lost writings in a Chinese tomb which make it clear that all this and much more had been achieved by the World State civilisation long ago. Patagonian society splits in two, some not believing the revelations, some crushed and depressed by them.

The Patagonians achieve industrialisation. A proletariat is created. A hereditary managerial class arises. After four hundred years of this, atomic energy is discovered. But instead of using it to help the poor, it is used to drill deeper into the earth’s core to find the rare metals. This results in increased work and suffering for the proles who, as a result, rise up in protest. Some get hold of one of the new power machines, tamper with it, and it explodes.

It sets off a chain reaction which flashes along veins of the (unnamed) metallic element which is the basis of the technology, and so a vast chain of explosions travels up the Andes, up the Rockies, across the Bering Strait, down to the Himalayas, through the Caucasus to the Alps, turning entire continents into seas of volcanic magma, turning the sky thick with steam and ash, so that:

Of the two hundred million members of the human race, all were burnt or roasted or suffocated within three months – all but thirty-five, who happened to be in the neighbourhood of the North Pole.

Twenty-eight men and seven women – of whom six men and two women are lost when they sail south to discover Britain blasted and France an inferno of volcanoes spewing out molten lava. The entire planet has become uninhabitable. Almost all existing flora and fauna have been exterminated. All subsequent human species are descendants of this minuscule band of survivors.

The new Dark Age

lasts ten million years, during which the continents change and re-arrange – Europe sinks under the Atlantic, Africa is joined to South America, Australia and SE Asia become one – new plants and trees, new mammals and insects emerge. Early in the existence of the first colony it had divided, half remaining on the north coast of Siberia, hemmed in by volcanoes, but developing a strong, healthy culture. The other half set off to see if they could find human survivors elsewhere, never did, and were washed ashore in sultry Labrador, where they degenerated into a more beast-like species.

The Second Men

But all this is just the adventure of the First Men – there are to be seventeen further iterations of the human race – the Second Man who are giants who live to be 300, who develop genetic engineering and are about to begin perfecting the species when…. The Martians invade, the Martians turning out to be fogs of bacteria which can coalesce into ‘clouds’ which have intelligence and purpose.

For fifty thousand years (the time periods keep escalating, producing an increasingly dizzying, vertiginous sense in the reader) the Martians return to earth again and again, causing mayhem and each time are defeated by the Third Men who use electric weapons which create a kind of lightning bolt to disintegrate the Martian clouds. But the Martians’ dying bodies leave behind alien contaminants which spread fatal pulmonary diseases, decimating the Second Men.

It is very typical of Stapledon that he not only goes to great lengths to explain the Martians’s physical being – individual cells which can congregate into unified beings with a kind of group consciousness – but to be very interested in their religion. The Martians, being soft and small and amorphous themselves, have developed a cult or religion of hardness. Having identified diamonds as one of the hardest objects in the universe, on their rampages across earth, the Martians seek out and rescue diamonds wherever they find them, in order to place them in high places where they can be worshipped. And where the Second Men discover them, finally realising that the Martians are ‘intelligent’ life forms, not just purposeless clouds of germs.

Finally, the Martians settle and colonise Antarctica (much warmer than in our day and directly linked to South Africa) and the two species live uneasily side by side on the same planet. Until a Second Man discovers a virus so virulent that it will wipe the Martians out, but probably most humans too. The Second Men are so demoralised by failure to defeat the Martians, as well as by strange viruses which have infected them, that they accept the risk, unleash the virus, wipe out the Martians but also almost entirely exterminate humanity.

The Third Men

Once again there is a vast long dark age. Slowly arise a new species, the Third Men, short, brown-skinned with golden eyes and a cat-like presence, with six fingers. They are interested in music, create a musical religion, consider the universe a great dance to music and, once they have reached a level of technical civilisation, become interested in redesigning living organisms.

The Fourth Men

Hence the Fourth Men. After thousands of years of experimentation, the Third Men create giant brains, which occupy multiple rooms and floors. More and more of them till there are thousands, some deep in the oceans, some in the stratosphere, some at the poles, investigating the secrets of the universe. But the Fourth Men’s intellectual pursuits are stymied when they eventually realise (after the usual millions of years) that there is a limit to purely rational enquiry and that the mysteries of life also owe something to having a physical body, being able to move, having emotions and so on.

The Fifth Men

So now the big brains of the Fourth Men experiment on the humble Third Men – who had been reduced virtually to slaves – in order to create a new breed which will combine the big brains with perfected human attributes. They breed the Fifth Men, twice as tall as us, with additional fingers and thumbs. As you might expect this new super-fit,. super-clever race eventually (after millions of years) comes into conflict with their makers, a war erupts, and the Fifth Men overthrow the big brains.

They rise and thrive and then discover to their horror that the moon’s orbit is decaying. At some point the moon will fall into the earth and destroy it. There are all kinds of reactions, scientific and psychological, to this knowledge, but the wise among them begin making plans to move planet. To Venus.

Voyage to Venus

Venus is second closest to sun, stiflingly hot, torn between a stiflingly hot day and freezing night and, when probes first arrive they discover it is almost all covered in liquid. The Fifth Men devote all their ingenuity to ‘terraforming’ it, removing as much hydrogen as possible from the atmosphere, breeding plants which will survive these conditions and produce oxygen to try and produce a sort of earth-like existence.

But there’s another problem. There turns out to be intelligent life on Venus, dolphin-like creatures which swim in the depths of the endless oceans and don’t like their planet being remade. They retaliate by sending bombs up through the oceans to blow up terran ships, probes, colonies. After all attempts to communicate fail, the Fifth Men have no alternative but to embark on a war of extermination against the Venusians, which succeeds but, as so often in the story, leaves the ‘victorious’ humans with an abiding sense of guilt.

The Sixth Men

Eventually the entire population of Fifth Men, and all the plants and animals worth saving, are transferred from earth to Venus. But the newcomers do not thrive. The conditions are too harsh. Over millions of years a new race emerges, the Sixth Men, stunted dwellers on isolated islands, grubbing for roots among the jungles of flora which have managed to grow on Venus. An entire variation takes to the huge oceans and, over time, develops into a seal-like creature, with mermaid tails. But they eat flesh. And eventually the two species become enemies, both seeking to catch and eat samples of the other, whenever possible.

The Seventh Men

Millions of years pass. Land masses arise on Venus. Populations spread, breed, branch out. Eventually there emerges a new dominant species, the Seventh Men, who can fly. Soaring aloft they create myths and legends of their own, in which flight is the meaning of life, and alighting on land is sadness and woe.

However, over the years they lose touch with the old science, and are also faced with a blight caused by some chemical content of Venusian water.

Now, a certain percentage of their race had always been born without the ability to fly. Previously the Seventh Men had kindly killed these mutants. Now the Seventh Men take the (disastrous) decision to deliberately foster the cleverest of these ‘mutants’, these land dwellers, in order to create a cohort of scientists intelligent enough to combat the water blight. Except that… The mutants – the Eighth Men – do become cleverer than the flyers and grow to resent them.

The mutants breed and slowly take control of the less clever flyers, who they clip and pen up and limit their flying time such that the avian species slowly loses their will to live. Eventually the entire flying population, of its own volition, flies west and immolates itself in a live volcano.

The Ninth Men and beyond…

And we’re not even half way through the eighteen avatars yet! I haven’t got to the part where the threat of a destructive cloud forces the Eighth Men to move planet once more, by ‘ether-vessel’, this time to Neptune, where conditions are so utterly unlike Venus – mainly the crushing gravity – that the Eighth Men have to design and engineer an entirely new type of creature – the Ninth Men, who will make the migration. And then the hundreds of millions of years of man’s  further evolution on Neptune.

Or, as Stapledon puts it, with his typical sober, serious, mind-boggling manner:

We have watched the fortunes of eight successive human species for a thousand million years, the first half of that flicker which is the duration of man. Ten more species now succeed one another, or are contemporary, on the plains of Neptune. We, the Last Men, are the Eighteenth Men. Of the eight pre-Neptunian species, some, as we have seen, remained always primitive; many achieved at least a confused and fleeting civilization, and one, the brilliant Fifth, was already wakening into true humanity when misfortune crushed it. The ten Neptunian species show an even greater diversity. They range from the instinctive animal to modes of consciousness never before attained. The definitely sub-human degenerate types are confined mostly to the first six hundred million years of man’s sojourn on Neptune. During the earlier half of this long phase of preparation, man, at first almost crushed out of existence by a hostile environment, gradually peopled the huge north; but with beasts, not men. For man, as man, no longer existed. During the latter half of the preparatory six hundred million years, the human spirit gradually awoke again, to undergo the fluctuating advance and decline characteristic of the pre-Neptunian ages. But subsequently, in the last four hundred million years of his career on Neptune, man has made an almost steady progress toward full spiritual maturity.

Multiple scenarios

It is not only the almost inconceivable scale of the narrative. It is also that the scale allows Stapledon to explore or experiment or play with whole civilisation-level storylines. Flying humans, aquatic humans, nuclear apocalypse, alien invasion, terraforming other plants, the moon falling into the earth, a flying gas cloud which destroys planets, the creation of artificially massive brains, telepathy, transporting minds back into the deep past – the book is a compendium, a treasure trove of plots and ideas which other writers could mine and explore.

Teleology

Underpinning the huge story is a scientific or biological flaw. Stapledon believes that, time after time, human nature will out. No matter how massacred, no matter how degraded or polluted or redesigned or mutated or evolved, Stapledon believes there is a fundamental unchangeable ‘human spirit’ and that this will always resurface, no matter what.

He criticises the Eighth Men for not having had faith enough in this unstoppable reappearance of ‘human nature’ to have designed the Ninth Men to be primitive, dwarvish thugs – as the conditions on Neptune required – and having the confidence that “man” would sooner or later rise again.

They should have trusted that if once this crude seed could take root, natural forces themselves would in time conjure from it something more human.

‘Natural forces’? Beneath the entire vast narrative is the assumption that there is a fundamental human nature, a triumph of the mind and of the human spirit, which always results in the same kind of civilisation, of self-awareness, technology, reason, the spirit of scientific enquiry. Thus humans may evolve into mermen or flying wombats or rabbit-shaped beings (on Neptune) but underpinning the whole vast fireworks display is the assumption that, given enough millions of years, all these shapes will revert to a roughly human shape (two arms, two legs), walking upright, and with a human type brain which always, in the end, comes round to creating a similar-sounding civilisation, with peaceful communities, great architecture, poetry and philosophy and so on.

This is to suppose that the whole universe is somehow geared to producing ‘mind’, mentation, intellect, soul, spirit and all the rest of it.

Why? There’s no evidence it is. All the evidence is stacked against it. The universe is overwhelmingly full of non-mind, in fact packed out with non-life. There is no God. There is no plan. Nothing is fore-ordained. If humanity is wiped out then billions of other species will truck along quite happily without us, as will planet earth, all the other planets and the rest of the universe.

The book is underpinned by this tremendously optimistic belief in the triumph of human nature, against all odds, perils and mutation, which is very much of its times. The structure of DNA was only discovered 23 years later, in 1953, and the full implications of the evolutionary genetics are, in a sense, still percolating through our culture.

In Stapledon’s time, of course evolution was known about and central to any intelligent person’s thinking; but because the precise mechanism of mutation and variation wasn’t understood it was still possible to think in vague terms of some spirit or mind or some other numinous driving force which shaped and directed evolution. That it had a goal or purpose or aim.

80 years later we are much more realistic and disillusioned. We know that random mutations occur all the time in everyone’s DNA, most are harmless, a lot can be corrected by the body’s defence mechanisms, some persist and result in the numerous cancers we are prone to. The existing genepool is shuffled when sperm meets egg. Every new individual is a genetic experiment.

The advent of ‘mind’, or at least the kind of mind Stapledon is thinking of, has occurred only on one remote twig of the vast bush of life forms and not at all, or not in any form we can recognise, in any of the trillions of other life forms which have or currently do exist.

Which is why Last and First Men is not only a science fiction classic in its own terms, but also a testament to an era of cultural optimism, a period of confidence and anticipation. Lost forever after the Nazis, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the countless other blows which humans have administered to our amour-propre.

Last and First Men – structure

Chapter 1 Balkan Europe
1 The European war and after
2 The Anglo-French war
3 Europe after the Anglo-French war
4 the Russo-German war

Chapter 2 Europe’s downfall
1 Europe and America
2 The origins of a mystery
3 Europe murdered

Chapter 3 America and China
1 The rivals
2 The conflict
3 On an island in the Pacific

Chapter 4 An Americanised planet
1 The foundation of the first World State
2 The dominance of science
3 Material achievement
4 The culture of the first World State
5 Downfall

Chapter 5 The fall of the First Men
1 The first Dark Age
2 The rise of Patagonia
3 The cult of youth
4 The catastrophe

Chapter 6 Transition
1 the First Men at bay
2 The second Dark Age

Chapter 7 The rise of the Second Men
1 The appearance of a new species
2 The intercourse of three species
3 The zenith of the Second Man

Chapter 8 The Martians
1 The first Martian invasion
2 Life on Mars
3 The Martian mind
4 Delusions of the Martians

Chapter 9 Earth and Mars
1 The Second Men at bay
2 The ruin of two worlds

Chapter 10 The Third Men in the wilderness
1 The Third human species
2 Digressions of the Third Men
3 The vital art
4 Conflicting policies

Chapter 11 Man remakes himself
1 The first of the great brains
2 The tragedy of the Fourth Men
3 The Fifth Men
4 The culture of the Fifth Men

Chapter 12 The last terrestrials
1 The cult of evanescence
2 Exploration of time
3 Voyaging in space
4 Preparing a new world

Chapter 13 Humanity on Venus
1 Taking root again
2 The flying men
3 A minor astronomical event

Chapter 14 Neptune
1 Bird’s-eye view
2 Da capo
3 Slow conquest

Chapter 15 The Last Men
1 Introduction to the last human species
2 Childhood and maturity
3 A racial awakening
4 Cosmology

Chapter 16 The last of man
1 Sentence of death
2 Behaviour of the condemned
3 Epilogue


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1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

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