Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Last Men in London

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.


  1. Last men and First Men is one of my favorite books and I've read it a few times but I read Last Men in London last year and thought it was fascinating for completely different reasons.

    It's got all the human stuff that's completely absent from the other book and as deeply pessimistic as other writer from the 30s, (Celine, Orwell, etc...) but it seemed painfully autobiographical and I couldn't work out if Stapledon meant the book to be interpreted that way. What did you reckon? The 'victim' has so many life experiences that resemble the author's that it's hard not to take the book as a bit of an extended moan about why he was too good and noble for this world and how unfair it all is. Which is completely fair enough, given his courage and sacrifice during the Great war but not what I was expecting from someone who's greatest books were so unsentimental and unflinching about how tiny and meaningless our lives our within the very big picture!

    You might also want to check out his book Sirius, about a very intelligent dog. It's a more minor work, but there are some nice touches and there's one bit that's so odd that you'll find it hard to believe he actually wrote it.
    He also did Odd John, which I'm not so keen on because it's full of all that 30s eugenics stuff that leaves a bit of a bad taste in the light of WW2, but it's fairly safe to assume that it directly or indirectly provided the entire template for the X Men

  2. Now I'm embarrassed at how much more perceptive your reading seems to have been, Tam. The autobiographical element seems obvious, but unfortunately only with hindsight in my case. I have as it happens been wondering about reading another Stapledon (quite aside from having another go at Last and First Men) so may try both Sirius and Odd John - the latter mainly out of curiosity - I've read some fairly unpalatable eugenics SF (Naomi Mitchison) from that era or thereabouts so would be interested to see how it compares (as in I'd be surprised if Stapledon was worse in this respect).

  3. I've probably made Odd John sound much worse than it is. His stance on eugenics isn't too bad, and it's very typical of its times. It's just a bit uncomfortable reading stuff about how the stronger races will inevitably overcome the weaker ones, with the hindsight of knowing how such attitudes played a large part in making the second world war as nasty as it was. It's easy to mock the Nazis for such thinking, but as I suspect you probably know, eugenics was also equally popular in Britain and the US during the 30s although this seems to have vanished down the collective memory hole. Obviously it's not really fair to blame Stapledon for any of this although it probably IS fair to at least partly blame him for the fucking X Men.

    In a similar vein, another curious thing to mention about Sirius is that it's one of the few British novels I've read which was published during world war 2. I suspect this may account for the novel's very British, calm, bucolic atmosphere which must have seemed like heavenly escapism at the time, I really don't think I've read anything like it.