Friday, December 13, 2013

the last book I read

Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon.

How do you like your novels' scope? A minute dissection of a single day? A decade-spanning love story? A family saga spanning centuries? Well, how about the freakin' entire two-billion year history of mankind in all its various forms? How do you like them apples? That ambitious enough for you?

So, the First Men. That's us, with all our digital watches and complex hire-purchase agreements, yet essentially still barely-domesticated shaven apes with unsavoury urges and unsatisfactory methods for conflict resolution. After a couple of thousand years of wary peace and occasional paroxysms of slaughter mankind eventually finds a way (via an uncontrollable runaway nuclear reaction) of all but wiping himself out and rendering most of the planet an uninhabitable blasted wasteland.

The few traumatised stragglers who do remain (mostly the crew of an Arctic exploration ship who happened to be at sea in a nice chilly remote polar region when the doomsday event occurred) find themselves having to repopulate the earth. The radically changed environment (and something of a genetic bottleneck) eventually results in a race of long-lived, big-brained giants: the Second Men.

These great lanky freaks bestride the earth for many millions of years until encountering an unexpected nemesis: Martians! Life on Mars takes a somewhat different form, however: a sort of sentient green cloud of micro-organisms that can harness radiation to have large-scale physical effects - knocking houses down, turning people inside-out, that sort of thing. The Martians' interest in Earth is due to the gradual drying-out of the Martian environment and the tempting lushness of the planet next door. The current inhabitants of Earth aren't giving the place up without a fight, though, and eventually annihilate the Martians with some sort of virus, which also has a devastating effect on Earth, so much so that the giant Second Men are gradually replaced by the smaller Third Men. These little guys aren't intellectual pygmies, though, far from it, and soon start doing some bizarre genetic engineering experiments culminating in the giant-brains-in-silos The Fourth Men.

The Fourth Men don't get out much, what with just being brains the size of a two-storey house, and soon use their fearsome mental powers to devise the Fifth Men, another more mobile race of twelve-foot colossi a bit like the Second Men. And, like the Second Men, it's an external threat that does for them, this time the rapid decay of the Moon's orbit which necessitates packing up and leaving earth. With Mars still a diseased wasteland Venus is pretty much the only option, but some pretty severe terraforming is required before it's habitable, not to mention the extermination of the indigenous life-forms who aren't too happy about the situation.

The radical changes in environment found on Venus trigger further changes including a regressive monkey-like phase (the Sixth Men) a brief foray into flying (the Seventh Men) and a progression back towards where they started (the Eighth Men). But then further cosmic upheaval: the sun enters an expansive phase of its lifecycle and threatens to engulf Venus. Honestly, it's just one thing after another. So a bit more genetic engineering produces the Ninth Men, pre-designed for life on their new home on....that's right, Neptune.

Living on Neptune, as you can imagine, poses a few challenges, and a rapid proliferation of human forms ensues, some more successful than others, culminating in the Eighteenth Men, the apex of the species, who live in happiness, harmony, unlimited energy and leisure for many tens of millions of years before the sun enters another phase of its lifecycle. This time, though, there's nowhere else to go, and the whole species is obliged to contemplate its own demise. A few speculative vials of genetic material are fired into the vast wastes of interstellar space in the hope that they might land somewhere hospitable and start the whole cycle again, but essentially the Eighteenth Men have to come to terms with being the Last Men. Well, we've had a good innings.

Last And First Men was published in 1930, and is cited as an influence by many subsequent science fiction writers, notably Arthur C Clarke. Coincidentally, given her recent demise, my Gollancz SF Masterworks edition features an afterword by Doris Lessing, whose own novel Shikasta was pretty clearly influenced by it. It's probably a book more talked about and cited as an influence than actually read these days, which is a pity, as its scope and ambition are unusual if not unique. There can't be many books which don't even dwell long enough on anything resembling a human life-span to bother giving a single character a name. Ideas featured in countless other subsequent works fly by at bewildering speed: terraforming, ethical issues of the Star Trek Prime Directive variety but also the ethics of wiping out whole species, even when they're trying to do the same to us, post-scarcity society, genetic engineering and increased lifespan and what do do with all those years given that you haven't got to work (this last topic is very reminiscent of Iain M Banks' Culture series as featured multiply here).

It's certainly true that the impersonal nature of the storytelling (an inevitable consequence of the timescale Stapledon chose to grapple with) won't be for everyone, and the book is a bit slow to really get off the runway - there's perhaps a bit too much imaginary future history on Earth before the nuclear conflagration, although the criticisms that (given that a lot of it supposedly occurs on dates which are now in the past) it's "inaccurate" or "silly" seem a bit nonsensical, seeing as they're criticisms I've never seen levelled at, say, Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, which operates along similar lines. It's only once contemporary Man has eliminated himself that the story really starts to kick along, though, so having that happen on (roughly) page 100 of a 300-page book is probably pushing it a bit. And, it hardly needs to be said, although Stapledon's grasp of the (at the time) youthful sciences of quantum physics and genetics is remarkably good, there are numerous inaccuracies - Stapledon's estimate of the age of the universe is too large by a factor of about 1000, and given what we now know of its structure there's no way anyone could live on Neptune, however highly evolved and/or engineered they were.

But there's lots to admire here, much of it surprisingly modern-feeling for 1930, notably Stapledon's scorn for religion and wholehearted enthusiasm for a post-religion world, largely because it enables lots of guilt-free sex. I very much like that he didn't cop out at the end and give man some sort of get-out of casting aside physical existence and ascending to some purely spiritual/mental realm, as that would have been bollocks - nope, the sun's going to explode, you're all going to die, deal with it. Stapledon's other great work (also in the SF Masterworks series), 1937's Star Maker, scoffs at Last And First Men's pitiful lack of ambition and offers a history of the entire freakin' universe.

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