The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Future Is Now

Just finished Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon. It’s a ‘SF Masterwork’. I can’t remember why I wanted to read it, I must’ve read about it on Wikipedia and been intrigued.

First published back in 1930, Last And First Men not only pre-empted HG Wells The Shape Of Things To Come but exceeds it vastly in terms of scope. It is based around a similar conceit; that the author is acting as a conduit for a telepathic broadcast sent back through time from the distant future, and that the resulting book is not so much a novel as a fictitious history of events yet to take place. It starts in the present-day (i.e. 1930) and proceeds to cover the events of the next 2,000,000,000 years. It starts off quite detailed and sedate, but accelerates exponentially until, by the end, it’s covering the events of millions of years in a couple of sentences.

The book’s modern introduction quite cheekily suggests that readers should skip the first five chapters as they are dated and repetitive, which is true, but I think dismissing these sort of novels because they didn’t get the immediate future exactly right is missing the point slightly. What matters is not so much how much they got wrong, but what they get right, and Last And First Men is actually quite on-the-ball in terms of the Americanisation of world culture, for instance. That said, there is an excruciating bit about two world leaders having sex with a young woman on a desert island which is not only absurdly wide of the mark in retrospect, it’s baffling in terms of a 1930’s perspective.

Once you’ve got past the first five chapters the book hits its stride, and concentrates on its main theme – the future evolution of the human race. The book covers eighteen different human species, of differing attitudes and mental capacity, including water-based variations, flying humans on Venus, and by the end, a telepathic gestalt human race which has the ability to see back through time into the life of every human who has ever existed. Along the way they have a war with the Martians – who are a sort of floating cloudy jelly – wipe out the Venerians and have god-knows how many fallings-out with each other. As it goes on, the novel is increasingly concerned with ideas of philosophy, and at points where it’s discussing intelligences beyond our understanding, it’s a bit hard-going. But on the whole the journey is thought-provoking and worthwhile.

The book’s big influence is that it’s one of the first novels to discuss ideas like terraforming, group consciousnesses, and the idea of humanity deliberately genetically re-engineering itself to become more intelligent or to be able to survive in a different environment. I would’ve borrowed some of the ideas for a thing I’m writing but, alas, I handed it in before I got to the useful bits. I wouldn’t be the first to expand upon ideas found in this novel; Stephen Baxter’s evolution and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation spring to mind.

But in some areas it’s quite at odds with accepted SF ideas; in Last And First Men, for instance, mankind discovers nuclear power and then destroys the secret (although later on it is rediscovered and causes a world-wide apocalypse). Most unusual of all, though, is that this future humanity is one which barely attempts interplanetary exploration, except when absolutely necessary, and even after two billion years it has still not moved beyond the solar system; presumably either Olaf Stapledon thought such an eventuality was impossible, or would get in the way of the story he wanted to tell.