20070328

Last and First Men

Olaf Stapledon - Last and First Men

3/5

It's certainly impressive - both in concept and in execution: the history of mankind - or rather mankindS, as evolution doesn't stop with us inventing the propeller - from 1930 and over the next 2,000 million years. I can't really say I've read anything like it; I'm reminded of Asimov's Foundation "trilogy", only with a scope much grander, or of... some book I read back in my SF days... something by Aldiss, perhaps? Something about mankind millions of years into the future, living in space stations underground... it's fuzzy. Also of Swedish sf/non-fiction astronomy writer Peter Nilson, whom I absolutely adore, but who is mostly untranslated AFAIK.

Anyway. This might be the first novel I've ever read where the foreword urged me to skip the first few chapters - and it's easy to see why, even if I wouldn't recommend it. Because even if he gets some guesses about the 20th-21st centuries VERY wrong (and bases it almost entirely on national stereotyping which I hope is supposed to be satirical) he actually gets a few things right - if not in detail. The dominance of an increasingly nationalistic and religious America, for instance, or the rise of a China which adopts capitalism but not democracy...

But it's after all that that things get really interesting. One thing that strikes me is how far we've come since 1930; Stapledon is a pessimist when it comes to humanity's (or if that should be humanities') ability to live in peace with each other or others, but when it comes to technology he's already been overrun - his mankinds need millions of years to develop things such as space flight, nuclear power or genetics, but Stapledon's own contemporaries needed less than 20 years. If I had any main problem with the story, it's exactly this; things take TOO long, as if he needed to find some way to stretch it to 2,000 million years - and so we have species-wide civilizations lasting millions of years with no great changes, we have evolution simply "taking a break" from time to time, etc.

But the main story here, of course, is the development of Man. Or Men. And even if I think it suffers from hardly having any characters whatsoever - it does get a bit same-same-but-different after a while when all numbers are counted in millions - and even if Stapledon goes on to apply the same national stereotyping he uses on The First Men to...um... species-related stereotyping later on, it's a fascinating, if rarely thrilling, read. The sheer imagination it takes to pull something like this off; the plausibility he, despite some romantic naivite both when it comes to society and biology, manages to add to his broad strokes of the brush... Plus, he's occasionally VERY funny. I'm not sure if some bits are intended as satire on the First Men or if he's writing it all as straight-faced as he can, but since they are all to some extent human - and we are all too human - it certainly works as such from time to time.

As someone who always prefers character to plot, I was surprised at how much I liked this. It has its faults, and it rarely kept me turning pages breathlessly, but... I've never read anything with the same approach, and I find myself wishing there were more books like it.

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