Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men isn’t such a well-known book in 2016. There probably isn’t anything really close to a modern equivalent to compare it to. There’s no main characters we get to know and connect with as they follow their personal journeys, and there’s little in the way of plot or action. Picking a well-worn front-coverless Pelican Books edition for €1 today (or about 5 years ago as I did), it might seem like an alien object: a dry, historical book about our future. Though there also wasn’t much to compare it to when it was first published in 1930.
Briefly, it’s a “future history,” beginning in 1930 and imagining the progress of humanity over time. It begins in a relatively realistic manner, extrapolating from the political and social context of the time. While history didn’t pan out exactly as Stapledon imagined, one can appreciate the logic he used in plotting how the world might develop from that he lived in. What’s most interesting about the book is that it keeps going, and going, and going, spanning millions of years of genetic, social and mental evolution, all at a steady, readable pace. Throughout, Stapledon maintains a fine balance between logical extrapolation and sheer imagination. One might marvel at the utter difference between the humans of millions of years hence barely recognisable as the same species as us, and the modern people at the start of the book. Yet as one reads, there’s a logical progression between each stage of man so that it all seems to make sense.
Stapledon also uses the book to examine what it truly is that makes us human. We might not recognise the bodies, minds or mores of the humans of the far-distant future, but through each stage of humanity Stapledon traces the curiosity, the yearning to explore and the desire to make more of oneself that have always motivated humanity, leading us to tragedy and glory, hatred and love, but always struggling onwards. The flame of these urges might ebb and flow, but Stapledon shows that it will never go out, and it is that core spark of humanity that will survive long after what we might recognise as human has disappeared. It makes the book surprisingly poignant, a tribute to human endeavour in the form of what might initially appear to be a dry and imagination-free socio-political work.
Though he’s not so well-known now, Stapledon influenced a great number of science-fiction writers such as Brian Aldiss and Arthur C. Clarke, and his combination of exhilarating imagination and realistic prediction at what we might become can be found in more modern works such as the Culture series of books by Iain M. Banks.
It’s not the book for someone new to science-fiction, but if you’re a fan of the genre and want to see how many of the greats of the genre were inspired, or simply want to be moved by a celebration of what makes us human, you can’t go wrong with it.