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Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future is a science fiction novel written in 1930 by the Britishmarker author Olaf Stapledon. A work of unprecedented scale in the genre, it describes the history of humanity from the present onwards across two billion years and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first and most primitive. Stapledon's conception of history is based on the Hegelian Dialectic, following a repetitive cycle with many varied civilizations rising from and descending back into savagery over millions of years, but it is also one of progress, as the later civilizations rise to far greater heights than the first. The book anticipates the science of genetic engineering, and is an early example of the fictional supermind; a consciousness composed of many telepathically-linked individuals.

A controversial part of the book depicts humans, in the far-off future, escaping the dying Earth and settling on Venus — in the process totally exterminating its native inhabitants, an intelligent marine species. Stapledon's book has been interpreted by some as condoning such interplanetary genocide as a justified act if necessary for racial survival, though a number of Stapledon's partisans denied that such was his intention, arguing instead that Stapledon was merely showing that although mankind had advanced in a number of ways in the future, at bottom it still possessed the same capacity for savagery as it has always had.

In 1932, Stapledon followed Last and First Men with the far less acclaimed Last Men in London. His other great novel, Star Maker (1937), could also be considered a sequel to Last and First Men, but is even more ambitious in scope, being a history of the entire universe.

Human species

  • First Men. (Chapters 1-6) Our own species: the rivalry of Americamarker and Chinamarker, the First World State, its destruction as a result of using up all natural resources, followed by the Patagonian Civilization 100,000 years hence, with the cult of Youth, and its destruction after the sabotage of a mine which leads to a colossal subterranean atomic explosion and the ensuing intercontinental nuclear holocaust, rendering most of the Earth's surface uninhabitable for millions of years save for the poles and the northern coast of Siberiamarker. The only survivors are thirty-five humans stationed at the North Polemarker, who eventually split up into to two separate species, the Second Men and some sub-humans.
  • Second Men. (Chapters 7-9) "Their heads, indeed, were large even for their bodies, and their necks massive. Their hands were huge, but finely moulded...their legs were stouter...their feet had lost their separate toes...blonde hirsute appearance...Their eyes were large, and often jade green, their features firm as carved granite, yet mobile and lucent. ...not till they were fifty did they reach maturity. At about 190 their powers began to fail..."
  • Third Men. (Chapter 10) "Scarcely more than half the stature of their predecessors, these beings were proportionally slight and lithe. Their skin was of a sunny brown, covered with a luminous halo of red-gold hairs... golden eyes... faces were compact as a cat's muzzle, their lips full, but subtle at the corners. Their ears, objects of personal pride and of sexual admiration, were extremely variable both in individuals and in races. ... But the most distinctive feature of the Third Men was their great lean hands, on which were six versatile fingers, six antennae of living steel." Deeply interested in music and in the design of living organisms.
  • Fourth Men. (Chapter 11) Giant brains, built by the Third Men. For a long time they help govern their creators, but eventually come into conflict.
  • Fifth Men. (Chapters 11-12) An artificial human species designed by the brains. "On the average they were more than twice as tall as the First Men, and much taller than the Second Men... the delicate sixth finger had been induced to divide its tip into two Lilliputian fingers and a corresponding thumb. The contours of the limbs were sharply visible, for the body bore no hair, save for a close, thick skull-cap which, in the original stock, was of ruddy brown. The well-marked eyebrows, when drawn down, shaded the sensitive eyes from the sun." When Earth ceases to be habitable, they terraform Venus, but do not cope well after the move.
  • Sixth Men. (Chapter 13) "Sadly reduced in stature and in brain, these abject beings... gained a precarious livelihood by grubbing roots upon the forest-clad islands, trapping the innumerable birds, and catching fish... Not infrequently they devoured, or were devoured by, their seal-like relatives."
  • Seventh Men. Flying humans, "scarcely heavier than the largest of terrestrial flying birds", are created by the Sixth Men.
  • Eighth Men. "These long-headed and substantial folk were designed to be strictly pedestrian, physically and mentally." When Venus becomes uninhabitable, they design the Ninth Men, who will live on Neptune.
  • Ninth Men. (Chapter 14) "Inevitably it was a dwarf type, limited in size by the necessity of resisting an excessive gravitation... too delicately organized to withstand the ferocity of natural forces on Neptune... civilization crumbled into savagery."
  • Tenth to Seventeenth Men. "Nowhere did the typical human form survive." Sentience re-emerges from animals on multiple occasions. The Fifteenth and Sixteenth achieve a great civilization and learn to study past minds.
  • Eighteenth Men. (Chapters 15-16) The most advanced humans of all. "Superficially we seem to be not one species but many." Are eventually extinguished on Neptune after a supernova consumes the remains of the solar system.


Sub-humans:
  • Baboon-like Submen. (Chapter 7) "Bent so that as often as not they used their arms as aids to locomotion, flat-headed and curiously long-snouted, these creatures were by now more baboon-like than human".
  • Seal-like Submen. (Chapter 13) "The whole body was moulded to stream-lines. The lung capacity was greatly developed. The spine had elongated, and increased in flexibility. The legs were shrunken, grown together, and flattened into a horizontal rudder. The arms also were diminutive and fin-like, though they still retained the manipulative forefinger and thumb. The head had shrunk into the body and looked forward in the direction of swimming. Strong carnivorous teeth, emphatic gregariousness, and a new, almost human, cunning in the chase, combined to make these seal-men lords of the ocean".
  • Period of Eclipse. (Chapter 14) "Man's consciousness was narrowed and coarsened into brute-consciousness. By good luck the brute precariously survived." Nature succeeds in colonizing Neptune where sentient life fails. Mammals of all shapes come to dominate Neptune's ecosystem before adapting well enough for the vestiges of opposable thumbs and intelligence to become assets again.


Appearances in other media

The novel appears in the computer game Deus Ex as a reference when a corporation in the game allegedly tries to develop the Second Men in the series, but also in a much broader aspect as the game deals with genetic engineering, the next phase of evolution and human augmentations. Also similar to the book are the options presented to the player as to where human kind will go next: a fall back into an almost savage state of humanity, or extreme progression with the danger of sacrificing basic rights.

Influences on other writers

Brian Aldiss, in his preface to the 1962 edition, acknowledges the deep impression on him -and considerable influence on his own later writing - of Stapledon's book, which he encountered in 1943 while a British soldier fighting the Japanese in Burmamarker - "An appropriately unusual period of life at which to encounter a vision so far outside ordinary experience".

Aldiss also mentions James Blish as another writer deeply influenced by Stapledon.

C. S. Lewis in his own preface to "That Hideous Strength", notes:"I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow".

The reference to "objecting to Stapledon's philosophy" was no accident. In particular, the Christian Lewis objected to Stapledon's idea, as expressed in the present book, that mankind could escape from an outworn planet and establish itself on another one; this Lewis regarded as no less than a Satanic idea - especially, but not only, because it involved genocide of the original inhabitants of the target planet. Professor Weston, the chief villain of Lewis' Space Trilogy, is an outspoken proponent of this idea, and in "Out of the Silent Planet" Lewis opposes to it the depiction of the virtuous and stoic Martians/Malacandrians who choose to die with their dying planet, even though they possessed the technology to cross space and colonise Earth.

Arthur C. Clarke has said of Stapledon's 1930 book Last and First Men that "No other book had a greater influence on my life ... [It] and its successor Star Maker (1937) are the twin summits of [Stapledon's] literary career".

John Maynard Smith has said "A man called Olaf Stapledon was a marvellous predictor who wrote science fiction books that I read when I was 16 and that completely blew my mind; and Arthur C. Clarke put his finger on quite a number of bright thoughts. He and I have something in common: we both took out of the public library the same science fiction book when we were boys of about 15 or 16, which was Stapledon's Last and First Men. We took it out of the same country library in Porlockmarker in Somersetmarker. Whoever put that book on the shelves had a lot to answer for!" Adam Hart Davis (2004) talking science Wiley ISBN 0-470-09302-1

Sir Patrick Moore has said "The science fiction novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon is immensely thought-provoking and I've read it time and time again."

References



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