Olaf Stapledon Last Men in London (1932)
About five years ago I bought a copy of the Penguin Books combined edition of Stapledon's Last and First Men and Last Men in London. I was interested mainly in the former title - it being widely regarded as a classic - but getting the follow-up thrown in for free seemed like a bargain. As it turned out, I found Last and First Men unusually chewy, and so it's taken me half a decade to brave its sequel. During that time my edition has crossed the Atlantic Ocean and been marked by my cat Fluffy, thus adding a potent and unwelcome olfactory dimension and further reducing its appeal. It had occurred to me that Fluffy's contribution might even be considered criticism, but it's actually more likely that he was simply a bit freaked out when we moved house, and there was my Olaf Stapledon sat at the top of the box just begging to serve as canvas for his territorial concerns. Anyway, having come to loath the idea that I might ever leave a book unfinished once purchased, I bought a fresh second-hand copy so as to be able to read without noseplugs.
Last and First Men describes many millions of years of future history as experienced by eighteen successive races of humanity, the last of these being the semi-telepathic inhabitants of Neptune of which the narrator is purportedly a representative. In places it's fascinating, in others, dryer than a mouthful of Jacob's crackers washed down with a pint of peanut butter whilst crossing the Nevada desert, or at least that's how I remember it. There's a strong possibility that my brain was smaller back then, and I was therefore more stupid and thus less able to appreciate its worth, but I suspect it may simply have been that Last and First Men is just a very long and somewhat uninviting narrative. Whilst its classic status is undeniable, sitting down and reading the thing is another matter entirely.
Last Men in London takes a different approach, examining Stapledon's present through the eyes of our Neptunian narrator which, possibly because it deals with a more familiar environment, I found significantly more engaging, so much so as to foster the false impression of it being the shorter novel which actually it isn't. Written in 1932 with the naked inhumanity of the great war haunting the collective human consciousness, Stapledon had a great deal to discuss - observations on militarism, pacifism, education, sexuality, culture and so on - and so it makes perfect sense to recall how he regarded both this novel and its predecessor as philosophical works rather than science-fiction in the sense of Wells or Verne. It's a valid proposition, for certainly they read as such, but all the same it's probably not philosophically profound compared to the writing of at least a few of his contemporaries; but perhaps that is an unfair assessment to make nearly eighty years after the fact.
Still, given Stapledon's interest in future human evolution, it's quite a pleasure to read as he pulls apart the superman archetypes of his era, and the myths which so fascinated writers like A.E. van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard; and for all that I've more enjoyed many other novels, Last Men in London is nevertheless eminently readable. I'm not sure if this means I'm less stupid than in 2008, but oddly I find myself tempted to give Last and First Men a second chance.