01/06/2009. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: Gollancz. 297 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08256-4.
check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk
If Olaf Stapledon hadn't written 'Last And First Men' someone else would have done sooner or later. Actually, it was somewhat early back in 1930 in the middle of the depression between the two wars and Stapledon needed to cover the events in this century before going over the fall and rise of eighteen different developments of mankind in some five billion years. You can almost imagine epic-loving director Cecile de Mille being asked to consider this as a screenplay.
If anything 'Last And First Men' is less an up-close story but an examination of how mankind as a whole survived various holocausts and genocides with no real significant characters other than the future last man telling how things were. Not a pretty sight.
As a historian of modern day, all right, twentieth century, Stapledon got it hopelessly wrong. The second world war did not involve Germany but France and America bombing Great Britain out of existence being very noticeable different forecast to what actually happened. If that was what the man in the street perceived then its no wonder the allies were so far off in assessing the dangers the Nazis posed. Then again, with Science Fiction, we can make allowances for what any SF author will make or perceive of reality to make it their own.
Neither should this book be considered anything like Stapledon's other books. 'Odd John' was distinctively humorous compared to this tome for instance and much more a people book. 'Last And First Men' is more like a historical travelogue and mankind didn't do much more than hang around in the Solar System even if he had to move to the outer planets.
With what we know about the sun now, Stapledon wasn't that far off. If anything, the future versions of Man seem to have forgotten that it might be worthwhile getting beyond out local space and seeing what else is out there though. From that perspective, the future would look bleak.
I think the reason this book has had various people recommend it over the years is because of the sheer breadth of the vision more than any accuracy associated with it. At least no one has given it the Nostradamus treatment for any interpretation it might be seen as for the future. Then again, for the mankind of today, Stapledon's first men, is definitely at the start of this book.
With 'Last And First Men' being on the shelves again there isn't any excuse to say you haven't been able to read a copy any more. It's certainly thought provoking and after reading it, you'll understand why no one has been this way since.
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