Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


DARKNESS AND THE LIGHT by Olaf Stapldon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/04/2018]

DARKNESS AND THE LIGHT by Olaf Stapledon (Methuen / S.J.R. Saunders): This is not one of Stapledon's "Big Four" (LAST AND FIRST MAN, STAR MAKER, ODD JOHN, SIRIUS). However, Stapledon is one of my favorite authors, so for me, even lesser Stapledon is a treat. This follows the tradition of LAST AND FIRST MEN of not having (major) individual characters, but rather of looking at the sweep of history. There are occasional individuals who are mentioned in passing, but Stapledon is clearly an adherent to the "Tide of History" theory rather than the "Great Man" theory. In spite of this, Stapledon postulates two futures, and describes this situation in what we now recognize as the "Many Worlds" hypothesis. One would think the lack of key individuals would mean that you could now have two diverging streams, but apparently random chance plays a role as well.

Just as LAST AND FIRST MEN, this book maps out a huge span of Earth's history (all of it actually, since it goes up to the point when the sun goes nova). (Actually, we now know that our sun is not of a type to go nova.) Unlike LAST AND FIRST MEN, though, it does not postulate a succession of intelligent species of humanity, nor does it give any sort of timeline. Some of the near-future events seem amazingly prescient; others are way off. (For example, he sees a totalitarian Europe which certainly has its parallels in the Soviet control of Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1989, but he also has a future for China that fails to take into account the Chinese Revolution of the late 1940s.)

He seems to have been somewhat influenced by James Hilton's LOST HORIZON, centering the refuge of human wisdom and sanity in Tibet. It is interesting also to compare Stapledon's view of the flow (and predictability) of history with Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory" in the "Foundation" series, the first episodes of which were also published in 1942. (See my reviews of "Foundation" and "Bridle and Saddle", to be published in the next few weeks.)

Stapledon does show many of the prejudices of his time, in his descriptions of what he sees as ingrained characteristics of various "races": kindness and mysticism in the Russians, fastidiousness and cruelty in the Chinese, a lower intelligence in "bushmen" (the San, I assume), and so on. He observes, correctly, that "non-resistance was doomed to fail against invaders schooled to despise gentleness." (Harry Turtledove wrote an alternate history story, "The Last Article", on just this idea.)

Stapledon's scientific inventions are often bizarre: a "land-battleship" with a crew of a thousand, a speed of a hundred miles an hour, and arms and legs for climbing mountains; a "legged aeroplane"; a virus that causes (temporary) infantilism which can be resisted with the proper mental training; and so on.

And I have to say that his description of "the future of light" assumes major changes in human nature, which Stapledon describes as being brough about by apparently perfect understanding of human psychology and how to apply it to education to make everyone into (basically) socialists, willing to make do with a middle-class existence for all without anyone accumulating extreme wealth, with everyone able to find jobs that they are content with (because evidently all menial and unpleasant jobs will be done by machines), and so on. The problem is that while in some ways it sounds delightful, in others it seems as though people are no less brain-washed than in the "future of darkness." For example, while the carrot rather than the stick was used, the "Ministry of Parenthood" did all it could to encourage parenthood, including ""heavy subsidies" (i.e., bribes)--but only for the intelligent; "defectives and certain types prone to criminality were sterilized." (And we know where that leads, which Stapledon should have recognized in 1942. But I am sure he would fall back on the superior psychology of that future society, just as he does for other problems.) And while "with the aid of communal meals, communal nurseries and labour-saving devices within the home the mothers were freed," still "all girls were trained in mothercraft." Apparently the notion of men actually doing half the parenting was not even considered.

Towards to end we get an almost Lovecraftian sequence, followed by something that harkens back to the sort of bridging episode one might find in LAST AND FIRST MEN. I have to say that the "future of darkness", with all the flaws one finds in its writing, is probably better than the "future of light."

To order Darkness and the Light from amazon.com, click here.


FAR FUTURE CALLING by Olaf Stapledon (Oswald Train, 1979, 267pp, hardback):

This volume will be much appreciated by the many admirers of Olaf Stapledon, and rightfully so. The contents give a broad overview of an author who has influenced countless who followed him, but who even today remains relatively unknown to the majority of science fiction readers.

While much of the science fiction of the 1930's and 1940's was the child of the adventure story and the dime novel (by way of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others), Stapledon's writing trace their ancestry to classical origins. His extensive use of similes, for example, shows the influence of Homeric verse on his writings. And while other authors dealt with solar systems (or perhaps galaxies), Stapledon ranged over the entire universe, from its beginnings to its final death. Indeed, one of the difficulties in reading some of Stapledon's works, such as Last and First Men, is that the sheer weight of ideas can overwhelm the reader.

This volume contains five short stories, a radio play (never produced), a speech given by Stapledon to the British Interplanetary Society, and two articles about Stapledon written by Sam Moskowitz. One is a biography of Stapledon which gives the reader a deeper understanding of Stapledon, both as an author and as a philosopher, than did Moskowitz's earlier article in Explorers of the Infinite. The other article deals with Stapledon's trip to the United States in 1949 to attend the ill-fated Cultural and Scientific Conference for Peace. (It is a measure of the respect accorded Stapledon that he was one of only five Britons invited to attend.) While much of the article does not deal with Stapledon directly, it contains useful background information for those who wish to place Stapledon's philosophy in an historical context. The speech is Stapledon's own summing up of his attitudes towards progress in general, and the exploration of space in particular. (A brief summary of an ensuing discussion between Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke is included following the speech.) The play is based on (a very small segment of) Last and First Men, and unfortunately fails to communicate the scope of that work. Three of the stories could almost be considered as introductions to Stapledon's longer works: in "A Modern Magician" Stapledon explores the concept of a man (or indeed, any being) with vastly greater powers than others of his species, much as he does in Sirius or Odd John. "A World of Sound" and "The Man Who became a Tree" examine the possibility of other forms of consciousness in much the same way that portions of Last and First Men and Star Maker do. "East Is West," while more a sermon on global conflicts than a true alternate universe story, still shows much of Stapledon's style--his use of dreams and trances to provide a bridge to the world he wishes to describe, whether distant in time or space, or even point of view. "Arms Out of Hand," originally published in 1946, seems to have been the inspiration for one of the better "Star Trek" episodes.

Although the cover painting shows a complete disregard for aerodynamics, the interior illustrations by Fabian are quite satisfactory. A necessary addition for any serious collection of science fiction.

To order Far Future Calling from amazon.com, click here.


LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2008]

One reason I never catch up on my reading list is that I keep adding to it in arguably insane ways. For example, each month I have three new reading group books, and each year I have five Hugo novels (and fifteen somewhat shorter pieces). And then there are the conventions.

You see, I am just conscientious (a.k.a. crazy) enough when assigned as moderator to a panel on Olaf Stapledon to decide I have to try to re-read every I have by (and about) him. (Thank God they did not put me on a panel about Robert Silverberg or Edgar Rice Burroughs!) In any case, I managed only Stapledon's four major novels, and three books of literary criticism of Stapledon.

[I say "four major novels", but LAST AND FIRST MEN and STAR MAKER are not really novels in any traditional sense. They did not have characters in the usual sense--even the few individuals discussed in them are most archetypes than characters. Someone described counterfactuals as "alternate history with characterization" and that seems a reasonable parallel. However, I will occasionally use the term "novel" in referring to Stapledon's major works; just translate that as "long work of fiction.")

Let me start by saying that re-reading the books that one enjoyed immensely years ago may be a depressing experience, especially when supplemented by reading critical commentary. For example, I recently re-read Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy" and Joseph F. Patrouch's comments on it. Patrouch observes that the Second Foundation says that the destruction of the planet Tazenda and its "many millions" was necessary because the ends justify the means: "The alternative would have been a much greater destruction generally throughout the Galaxy over a period of centuries." Patrouch points out that this sort of justification has been used by people of less than savory reputations, and he has definite moral problems with it. And in Stapledon's work, one also finds some supposedly good (or at worst, morally neutral) acts that we would similarly condemn. So, while I loved works such as LAST AND FIRST MEN years ago, the negative aspects are now much more obvious.

First, an overview of LAST AND FIRST MEN (1930) (ISBN-13 978-0-486-21962-2, ISBN-10 0-486-21962-3). In its Dover edition it is 246 pages, or about 130,000 words. (All page numbers given are for the two Dover omnibus editions of Stapledon works.) This is really the equivalent of a standard 500-page book. Pretty much everyone who reads this is fascinated by Stapledon's idea of "Deep Time". And it is Stapledon's idea. The only real predecessor that looked at the far future was H. G. Wells in THE TIME MACHINE, and he want only to A.D. 802,701 for the Eloi and 30,000,000, for the end of the world.

Stapledon, on the other hand, gives us five time scales. Time Scale 1 (page 56) goes to 4000 (that is, 2000 years forward as well as 2000 backward). Time Scale 2 (page 99) goes 200,000 years each way. Time Scale 3 (page 141) goes 20 million years each way. Time Scale 4 (page 213) goes 2 (American) billion years each way, and Time Scale 5 (also page 213) goes 10 trillion years each way. (On the final one a single entry on the timeline says, "Planets formed; end of Man"!) When I first read this, I fell in love with the timelines.

Of course, now I notice all sorts of problems. I must have noticed his description of the Jews (page 67) even then:

"One other race, the Jews, were treated with a similar combination of honour and contempt, but for very different reasons. In ancient days their general intelligence, and in particular their financial talent, and co-operated with their homelessness to make them outcasts; and now, in the decline of the First Men, they retained the fiction, if not strictly the fact of racial integrity. They were still outcasts, though indispensable and powerful. Almost the only kind of intelligent activity which the First Men could still respect was financial operation, whether private or cosmopolitan. The Jews had made themselves invaluable in the financial organization of the world state, having far outstripped the other races because they alone had preserved a furtive respect for pure intelligence. And so, long after intelligence had come to be regarded as disreputable in ordinary men and women, it was expected of the Jews. In them it was called satanic cunning, and they were held to be embodiments of the powers of evil, harnessed in the service of Gordelphus. Thus in time the Jews had made something like "a corner" in intelligence. This precious commodity they used largely for their own purposes; for two thousand years [sic] of persecution had long ago rendered them permanently tribalistic, subconsciously if not consciously. Thus when they had gained control of the few remaining operations which demanded originality rather than routine, they used this advantage chiefly to strengthen their own position in the world. For, though relatively bright, they had suffered much of the general coarsening and limitation which had beset the whole world. Though capable to some extent of criticizing the practical means by which ends should be realized, they were by now wholly incapable of criticizing the major ends which had dominated their race for thousands of years. In them intelligence had become utterly subservient to tribalism. There was thus some excuse for the universal hate and even physical repulsion with which they were regarded; for they alone had failed to make the one great advance, from tribalism to a cosmopolitanism which in other races was no longer merely theoretical. There was good reason also for the respect which they received, since they retained and used somewhat ruthlessly a certain degree of the most distinctively human attribute, intelligence."

[I realize that I spend a lot of time in my columns commenting on authors' attitudes towards Jews. For Stapledon, I could have pulled out passages showing his apparent prejudice against Africans, or Asians, or women. But I figure I should choose the category I know the best. There was, however, a certain irony in that all three panelists at Worldcon were Jewish.]

And Stapledon's notion of the effects of time does not seem to match our current knowledge. For example, he claims that the forms of buildings are still visible after 100,000 years (page 76). The recent documentary "Life After People" looked at the effects of time on untended building and materials. After only 10,000 years, they say, iron corrodes, concrete crumbles, and wood and paper decay. All that will remain (according to the documentary) would be the Great Wall, the Great Pyramid, Hoover Dam, and the most enduring of all, Mount Rushmore. Stapledon can be forgiven for not mentioning the last two--they were not completed until after LAST AND FIRST MEN was published. (I am surprised "Life After People" did not mention the Crazy Horse Monument, though.)

Stapledon does predict a lot of current and predicted future problems: atomic energy, oil and coal shortages, metal shortages, and so on (page 73). He even has Arctic islands and Antarctica melting, though with no comments on rising ocean levels (page 62).

In OLAF STAPLEDON (Starmont Reader's Guide 21), John Kinnaird says that Stapledon's publishers pressed him for a sequel to LAST AND FIRST MEN (page 51), proof that sequelitis is not new. I find it ironic that Stapledon wrote the entire future history of humanity/mankind all the way to its end with the destruction of the Solar System--and his publisher wanted a sequel! (Perhaps even more ironic is that Stapledon produced one.)

(Kinnaird lists Stapledon's "principal heirs" as Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, Stanislaw Lem, Clifford D. Simak, and Cordwainer Smith. Many would also include Poul Anderson, even if only for TAU ZERO.)

Sir Arthur C. Clarke [on LAST AND FIRST MEN]: "With its multimillion year vistas, and its roll call of great but doomed civilizations, the book produced an overwhelming impact on me."

Stanislaw Lem [on LAST AND FIRST MEN and ODD JOHN]: "[These] opened new endless perspectives, gigantic possibilities for an ongoing construction of hitherto unarticulated hypotheses."

To order LAST ANF FIRST MEN from amazon.com, click here.


NEBULA MAKER by Olaf Stapledon (Sphere, 1979, trade paperback):

This is one of Stapledon's minor works, which is to say, it is probably only twice as good as anything else to be published this year. This novel appears to be a much shorter version of the type of writing found in Star Maker. The main character is taken, by metaphysical means unspecified, through a tour of the history of the cosmos. He sees the chaos before the beginning of the universe, the birth of the universe, the formation of the giant nebulae, their evolution, and their eventual decay and death. In particular, he tells the story of two nebulae: Bright Heart, who preaches love and cooperation to the imperialistic nebulae, and Fire Bolt, who claims that revolution is the only way to overcome oppression. The parallels between Christ and Bright Heart, and between Marx and Fire Bolt, are perhaps over-emphasized, but Stapledon may be allowed this one flaw.

Stapledon's descriptive passages are exquisite. For example, in describing the birth of the universe he says, "As flax, issuing from between the fingers of a woman spinning, comes forth as thread, so from God's countless fingers chaos issued as fine threads of smoke." Later, when talking about the giant nebulae, he describes them as "small soft globes or flecks of light, snow-flakes whirling in the huge gulf of space." Stapledon's explanation of the consciousness and life of the giant nebulae may not be scientifically convincing, but it is none the less awe-inspiring. Stapledon's poetic style and immense scope combine in this to make it one of the best books published this year.

To order Nebula Maker from amazon.com, click here.


ODD JOHN by Olaf Stapledon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2008]

Last week I discussed LAST AND FIRST MEN at great length. This week I will cover Stapledon's three other major works of fiction. (Remember that I said that several of Stapledon's works of fiction are not novels in the traditional sense, but I may still occasionally use that word as a shorthand.)

Stapledon's third novel, ODD JOHN (1935), is a superman story. If LAST AND FIRST MEN was inspired by H. G. Wells's THE TIME MACHINE, then ODD JOHN may have owed something to Philip Wylie's GLADIATOR (which preceded it by five years). I cannot say for sure my reaction to John the first time I read it, but this time around he seemed a thoroughly reprehensible sort, willing to commit murder, human experimentation, and even genocide without any compunction, because he is, after all, a superior being. Once again, we have Stapledon presenting a very fascist, racialist view of the world, and we have the distressing feeling that he endorses it rather than shows it as a warning. The narrator is called "Fido" by John, and a fair name it is, as "Fido" shows a ridiculously high level of devotion to John--and a low level of moral concern.

[On the Stapledon panel at Denvention 3, Robert Silverberg pointed out that liking the main character was not necessary for a book to be great, or even good, e.g., CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, or LOLITA. In fact, there was a long digression into LOLITA and whether Humbert Humbert was not indeed the victim and Lolita the most negative character. Also presented was the notion of Odd John as a superior character with a tragic flaw, a la classic Greek drama. All this is true, and the parallel to Greek drama is the most convincing argument to me. I guess it was the feeling that I was supposed to sympathize at least somewhat that bothered me, and when people say they like this book because they read it when they were young and felt that they were outsiders the way John was, that just reinforces my feeling.]

Stanislaw Lem [on LAST AND FIRST MEN and ODD JOHN]: "[These] opened new endless perspectives, gigantic possibilities for an ongoing construction of hitherto unarticulated hypotheses."

To order Odd John from amazon.com, click here.


SIRIUS by Olaf Stapledon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2008]

The last of Stapledon's major novels is SIRIUS (1944), about a dog brought up to human intelligence. This may be the most accessible of Stapledon's fiction. Just as Stapledon's other works seemed to have been inspired or influenced by earlier writers, SIRIUS seems to be a descendent of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN (perhaps by way of Wells's THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU). The Frankenstein connection is most obvious when Sirius bemoans his isolation, saying, "Why did you make me without a world for me to live in. It's as though God made Adam and not bothered to make Eden, nor Eve...."

On the other hand, some of the old attitudes are still there. The mother of Sirius's human companion, Plaxy, has been convinced to raise Plaxy and Sirius together equally, and when Sirius is injured, feels the same love toward him she feels toward Plaxy. Now, I am not a mother, but I can't help but feel that a human mother would feel more love and attachment to a human child than to a dog, no matter how much the two were raised together. This makes Elizabeth another in the line of women that Stapledon seems to get wrong--mostly by making them almost sub-human.

To order Sirius from amazon.com, click here.


STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2008]

STAR MAKER (1937) (ISBN-13 978-0-486-21962-2, ISBN-10 0-486-21962-3) is the most poetical of the four major novels. It is also the least science fictional, in the sense of being more a work of fantasy, or even of theosophy, than of science fiction. While Stapledon discusses planets, stars, galaxies, and so on, his basis is not science. Indeed, his notion of the mechanics of planetary formation is very outdated: "I knew well that the birth of planets was due to the close approach of two or more stars, and that such accidents must be very uncommon." (page 266)

He also misunderstands evolution, saying, "Presently the stage was clear for some worm or amoeba to reinaugurate the great adventure of biological evolution toward the human plane." (page 331) Stapledon assumes that evolution has an ultimate goal and that that goal is humanity (or intelligence, if you prefer). But this is not true--the "goal" of evolution (or rather, its effect) is creating organisms best suited for their environment.

In STAR MAKER, Stapledon again describes most (if not all) the advanced world orders as communistic, but in a very Stalinist way: "Indeed, a highly specialized bureaucracy, or even a world-dictator, might carry out the business of organizing the world's activity with legally absolute power, but under constant supervision by popular will expressed through the radio. We were amazed to find that in a truly awakened world even a dictatorship could be in essence democratic." (page 348) Stapledon seems either amazingly obtuse, or amazingly optimistic, in 1937 to still expect that a dictatorship could be so benign and so easily controlled. (Isn't the very essence of absolute power the ability to silence one's opponents?)

But as Leslie Fiedler says in OLAF STAPLEDON: A MAN DIVIDED, Stapledon's goal was not scientific (or economic), and later science fiction writers "are responding to the challenge which Stapledon made clear constituted a chief raison d'etre for the genre: to replace traditional mythologies of a universe tailored to the human scale with one which--without falsifying the findings of modern science or denying the terror they have stirred in all our hearts--can redeem them for the imagination." (page 348)

STAR MAKER is in many ways primarily a book of poetry. In Stapledon's "On every side was confusion, a rising storm, great waves already drenching our rock. And all around, in the dark welter, faces and appealing hands, half-seen and vanishing" (page 431), for example, I hear the influence of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":

And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Freeman Dyson [on STAR MAKER]: "It seemed to me perfectly obvious that this was the way to think about space and about the future--that kind of broad scope, that kind of scale."

To order Star Maker from amazon.com, click here.


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