Everyday Semiotics

Monday, December 17, 2007

Last and First

Not only have I set myself lately to reading from the canon of English literature, I’ve deemed it wise to peruse also some of science fiction’s foundational texts. Yesterday afternoon I finally got to the end of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon.

A not altogether very enjoyable read, for one very obvious reason: the “novel” has no characters. My dust jacket calls this and its follow up, Star Maker, “the finest future histories ever written.” I suspect, though, that this refers to a very narrow category of future history indeed.

Of “speculative fiction” there is much; but none that encompasses so broad a span of time. In Last and First Men, Stapledon paints in very, very broad strokes 2 billion years of the human comedy, from 1930 up to the twilight of the race. In that time the organism progresses through eighteen distinct permutations, many of them artificially advanced. At the end, humanity’s only hope of leaving a legacy is the ultralongshot chance that deep-space probes filled with primordial (but inherently human) stuff will take root on some distant planet or planets after humankind proper is extinct.

Stapledon himself compares this saga to myth; indeed there is nothing else to compare it to, for nowhere else is so huge a history ever set down. It’s as though Stapledon were a forward-looking Edith Hamilton. He is certainly not of the same category as an H.G. Wells or a Jules Verne.

In his preface, Stapledon formulates – perhaps even better than Chip Delany (who said it best as far as my reading has shown me hitherto) – the importance of science fiction: “Today we should welcome, and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds” (9).

Stapledon of necessity skirts the issue, however, of truly formulating the more developed minds that follow our own. I can’t blame him. Bear in mind: we may represent a three-dimensional object in just two dimensions; but although we might conceive of a fourth dimension, how are we to represent it even using three? The future humans are all oblique. The more advanced, the narrator tells us, operate on planes beyond our grasp; while the more primitive are barely worthy of contemplation. The only “characters” who “speak” in this chronicle are of the First Men – our breed – and even so they are not named or distinguished beyond their role in historical events.

Two billion years. Not as backstory, but as foreground. The only novels that come remotely close, in my experience, are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, both of which deal with well-articulated characters who technology has blessed, or cursed, with tremendous lifespans. (Oh, I guess Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love should be acknowledged here too – though there’s a novel whose boredom quite possibly exceeds that of Last and First Men.)

Stapledon’s premise is that the virtue of speculative fiction (or in his formulation, myth) is that it “expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within a culture” (9). He does his best at the end to tie it all together into a unified expression. Divergent as are the Second through Eighteenth men from the First, the narrator opines that there is nonetheless something common to them all:
We remember obscurely, and yet with a strange conviction, that all the age-long striving of the human spirit, no less than the petty cravings of individuals, was seen as a fair component in something far more admirable than itself; and that man ultimately defeated, no less than man for a while triumphant, contributes to this higher excellence.
(227)
But the “petty cravings” of individuals is precisely what this “novel” lacks. It sometimes summarizes or encapsulates them. It can tell us but not show us; and in this way it can’t help but sterilize what could have been vital. As fiction, the novel is unsatisfying. Perhaps it expresses the highest admirations possible within a culture, but fails to do so richly.

Somehow, though, I can’t pan Last and First Men completely. The book does have one distinct character: the Last Man who contacted Olaf Stapledon and beamed to him the fanciful narrative that is the actual fact of 2 billions years’ history. There is the shift in this narrator’s distanced and believably objective tone in the first 14 chapters to the subjective mode of the final two, during which he describes his own people. And there is the second shift in the epilogue, set 20,000 years after his dictation of the rest of the book, when melancholia and insanity have set in.

This character is entirely too much in shadow; but how else could the narrative itself be served? Sax Russell or Abelard Lindsay or Lazarus Long could not tell this story.

Next: Wells’s Time Machine.

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