BOOK REVIEW: Last And First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

Rating: 2 out of 5.
  • A standalone novel
  • This Masterworks edition published by Gollancz
  • First published in 1930
  • An epoch-spanning social SF
  • 304 pages

What is the future of humankind? For as long as there have been minds, the future has proven the ultimate mystery. Now a mind of the far future sends a message back to the present. A message that is nothing less than the story of humanity . . .

There are very few books like Last and First Men. In scope alone it towers above its fellows, telling as it does of the rise and fall of civilisations over the course of two billion years. On the face of it, this book should be tailor-made for me. It’s got that long-term storytelling that I seek. It’s a novel driven by ideas, with only the thinnest and most linear of plots. There aren’t any characters in it. At least none that would pass muster with most modern readers. It’s pure speculative fiction, and held up as a classic of the genre. And you know what? For the first fifty pages or so I absolutely loved this book.

Those opening fifty pages tell the story of a century or so, which gives you some idea of the timescales involved. Written before the outbreak of the Second World War, Stapledon’s future history posits a series of conflicts across the European continent. France annexes part of Italy, before engaging in mutually assured destruction with the British. Germany and Russia wage a war that renders most of Europe uninhabitable. It’s gripping, it’s grim, and it’s worryingly plausible that we might just be a few decades behind schedule. It’s the same not-quite-but-close-enoughess to real history that made The Shape of Things to Come such a compelling story. But Stapledon pushes further, envisaging a world split between Chinese and American rule. And this where the novel started to lose me.

You see, the Anglo-French war was triggered by a false accusation of sexual assault. Fair enough, I thought at the time. It’s not what I’d have gone for, but we need our inciting incidents. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would not be the last time Stapledon brings sex into the equation. The most egregious example comes in his history of the American future, where he describes a holy ritual in which a man of African descent ceremonially forces himself upon a white woman and then murders her, before being either lynched, or worshipped as a living lucky charm. Read that again if you want, but that’s how it happens. I’m not going to kink-shame anyone, but Stapledon’s fixation on sex and sexual violence ruined the book. If you want to include these aspects, fine, but there’s an air of obsession that’s just unnecessary. And if you needed another example, how about that time the American and Chines ambassadors meet on a remote island and are persuaded to make peace by the naked woman who walks out of the sea sand seduces them both. I wish I was making this up.

From here things get weirder. Stapledon leaps across millennia, skipping entire eras and covering civilisations with barely a sentence. The reproductive thread continues until we are at last spared by a society consisting wholly of brains in jars. By this point, Stapeldon’s freewheeling idea-driven train of thought is all but impossible to follow. Some of the ideas are genuinely quite interesting, but there’s nothing to latch onto. And I’m not talking about a character to guide us through. Technically, we have a narrator, but there’s no central thread. It’s just a collection of narratives jammed together in too short a book. As a series of short stories it could have worked better, but as a whole this is more like a rambling tract of philosophy than a novel.

I can see why this book has a place in the history books. It’s certainly unique. But between Stapledon’s erratic writing and an overindulgence in sexual congress, this is not a book I’d recommend to anyone but the science fiction historian.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also enjoy:
The Redemption of Time, by Baoshu
Mutant! by Henry Kuttner
The Shape of Things to Come, by H.G. Wells

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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