Surely you knew that mention of Olaf Stapledon was going to start another series.
We start with one of Stapledon’s most obscure science fiction works.
I read this one out of the 1976 Gregg Press. They never seem to have come with dust jackets, so you get no cover picture for this one.
This one definitely needs a re-read for the World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.
Raw Feed (1996): Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon, 1932.
My reactions to reading this novel in 1996. Spoilers follow.
“Introduction”, Curtis C. Smith and Harvey J. Satty — Introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel. It talks of Stapledon’s vision that inspired his Last and First Men and Last Men in London. It also speaks of the generally harsh criticism of this sequel to Last and First Men and this novel’s obscurity. The authors also note many similarities between character Paul and Stapledon.
Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon — In many ways, this sequel to Stapledon’s Last and First Men is very different. It is much lacking in the speculative wonders of natural and social evolution of the latter novel. The only new things in that regard are the society of philosophical lemurs which predate man. Their territory is invaded by primitive man who wipes the lemurs out because, though they are philosophically and morally advanced, they’re lacking in practical knowledge, skill, and curiosity. This notion that man must have intellectual curiosity, scientific learning, dispassion and detachment, a comfortable sensuality, a morality that emphasizes community, and a sense of cosmic purpose is emphasized again and again. Every species before the near-perfect 18th Man is lacking at least one of these virtues, and, therefore, doomed. Of course, even the 18th men are doomed and revert to primitive, near-animals.
This novel starts before the epilogue in Last and First Men and concludes after the events of that novel. Essentially, this novel uses that old technique of a stranger/traveler commenting on contemporary politics, society, and mores. Here the traveler is a Neptunian inhabiting the body of Paul. The narrator observes – and manipulates – Paul’s life to cultivate an 18th man perspective in his mind. Paul is also something of a Stapledon stand-in since both served as ambulance corpsman in WWI and both cultivate an outsider prospective of various groups and both are devoted Marxists. Thus the narrator observes Paul’s first sexual longings and experimentations and eventual consummation in a sort of casual menage á trois with an old and married lover.
Of course, Marxist Stapledon has plenty to say of the individualistic competition for riches and glory in a capitalist society. Lenin, to Stapledon, is a near-saint though he seems somewhat disappointed the Soviet Union hadn’t advanced further in creating a better order. Most interesting is the stuff on WWI not only as a partial glimpse into Stapledon’s life in the ambulance corps, but the import the war is afforded. The Neptunian narrator marks the fall of 1st Man with WWI. Paul is troubled by the horrible sights, and the Neptunian narrator talks about the various motives of the Europeans who go to war; though most have reservations, few are conscientious objectors like Paul. Even his fellow objectors don’t have unsullied ideals of pacifism and internationalism. Stapledon talks about the pervasive guilt in Europe after the war.
All this makes the novel an interesting historical document on European psychic reactions to the Great War. (It makes me wonder how horrified Stapledon was at World War Two.) [He seems to have modified his pacifist stance in World War Two.] I have no idea, given my ignorance of WWI inspired fiction, how it stacks up to other fictional accounts of WWI by veterans. The narrator mentions that WWI showed that man’s command of nature and technology had not been matched by moral progress. I doubt that Stapledon was the first to utter this truism.
[Edward James Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War has more details on Stapledon’s war experience.]
It strikes me that this novel echoes themes of H. G. Wells’ sf in two ways. First, there is the revulsion of the intellect for the body. This is most blatant for Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau. 18th Man is held out as the ideal reconciliation between sensuality and intellect. Paul’s vision of Neptunian sex helps him view sex in a detached way – accepting sexual longings and not ascetically denying them but not being ruled by them anymore than hunger and its satiation should rule life.
Both Stapledon and Wells view man as living in a flawed society, both accept a sort of collectivism (either economic or, in Stapledon’s Spirit of Man, psychological) as a solution, and both view man burdened by his bestial mind and potentially saved by one of his numerous World States. Stapledon doesn’t inherently deride the bestial side – after all, his philosophic lemurs lack it and die – of man. He wants to add other qualities to it.
Stapledon seeks a more radical physical evolution of man as the key to his survival. (Another aspect of this novel is the detailed explanation of mental time travel used by the Neptunians.) Wells’ vision of a new society in The Food of the Gods is also echoed here. Wells sees a new breed of physically different children as the creators of a new order. Stapledon’s mutants are both idiots and geniuses in relation to other humans. However, they are unable to work together to create a new order. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction makes the remark that Stapledon’s works show the inability of man to fully know the cosmos and his purpose (assuming there is one) in it. Like Last and First Men, Stapledon frequently uses the metaphor of music to describe the strivings and shameful betrayals of man adding to the symphony of life and the universe.
In one chapter, Paul makes friends with a variety of people. Each profession has some special virtue in the way they approach life but many deficiencies. The narrator sees man’s duty as twofold: to constantly move himself and his society to a more perfect state and to dispassionately view himself and his life – even tragedies of an individual or racial nature are but tones in a great symphony being played. However, the hopeful preaching of the Neptunian narrator takes a dark tone as humanity reverts to brutish savagery and degenerate mentalities dimly aware of their past glory. The attempt to spread human seed elsewhere seems to have failed. Whereas the narrator of Last and First Men valiantly says the 18th Man will put “a fair end to the brief music that is man.”, the last messages from the end of man seem to be music “screaming out of tune”. Stapledon also includes some of his early poetry.
All in all, I find this novel richer in philosophical implications and social satire than Last and First Men. However, the latter novel is richer in pure sf speculative ideas.