"Last and First Men" Group Discussion
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I don't find the writing style particularly enjoyable to read, but I'm still having a (slow) go at it.
It wouldn't surprise me that your library doesn't have any Stapledon books. It's quite sad, considering the influence he has had on many other writers - Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Kim Stanley Robinson, and C. S. Lewis (in a negative manner).
"No book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination."
Arthur C Clarke
I completely believe it too, as one of the first things I thought when I started reading LaFM was Clarke's book The City and the Stars which I'd read last year. Different style and plot, but both books have the feel of vast expanses of time. I suspect Clarke is the more upbeat of the two....but I'll find out eventually.
Also, it's funny how little the perception of Americans has changed in seventy years.
Sometimes these older books are interesting for what they say about the times they were written in rather the SF content. It's interesting that Arthur C. Clarke admits to being influenced by this book, and yet his The City and the Stars really seems devoid of this kind of stereotyping. Granted it was written 27 years later, but that was still mid-fifties, which wasn't exactly a hotbed of racial and gender enlightenment.
Hi LolaWalser, I was also sidetracked and have only read the first chapter and the first thing I picked out was all the generalizations. But then I thought, maybe it was the intent of the author to have the history of the first men be generalized and prejudiced by the distance of time and culture of the last man who is "inspiring" this story. So many of our own history books seem to make assumptions on ancient civilizations based more on our own culture and prejudices. I guess I won't know if it is stapledon's style to generalize or if the narrator (last man) is responsible for these views until the end of the book!
Hi GwenH, it is so true what you had to say about books being a reflection of the time it was written. Is The City and the Stars a book worth picking up? I'm kinda new to sci-fi and I am looking to become more familiar with the genre
To be fair, Stapledon is also quite critical of England -he wrote that the English had a timidity that often amounted to moral cowardice.
Oh, nearly forgot, for those whom can't find a copy, it's free at this link (providing the copyright has expired for where the poster is.)
Nothing in the book is an interest killer yet, though I have decided the book is more like a dry variety Port wine, rather than like my preferred Cabernet Sauvignon.
Hehehe, a definite highlight....as an American, even I got a laugh out of that scene. :)
(Wish I knew how to put in hyperlinks in a neater way).
I must admit, it is my favourite book, but it still stands up after yet another re-read. Yes, the first four chapters aren't the best writing, as many people have pointed out, but after the fall of the First Men, it becomes a far better book.
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At least it's got the excuse of being 78 years old.
Please don't do that. It's really annoying to have new tab/window forced on a person. If I want to open something in a new tab/window I'll do it myself.
*buzz* you're out, Dr. Stapledon, and thanks for playing our game!
I offer these as my opinions, YMMV, of course.
But I must say I'm awed by the scale and incidental detail of his history--and I'm only as far as the Second Men. Sure, he didn't consider or care that we'll be running out of planet much, much before than his scenario allows, but, by gum. All those ups and downs--quite a roller coaster.
Besides, I'm curious about the pre-WWII intellectual milieu, and this gives almost an overview of the philosophical, biological and political trends of the times... with some startlingly prescient touches.
I'm curious about the pre-WWII intellectual milieu And this is an excellent way to indulge that curiosity, no question. In one neat, compact package, Stapledon addresses many issues of interest in his time; of interest in ours, too, and so the reason an intelligent reader would give this book house-room.
>29 iansales: Ha, indeed.
I'd say even more than that. He presents one interpretation of those issues. In fact, the early chapters of the book almost seem written to present that interpretation under the guise of fiction without the need for any sort of proof or illustrating examples, just sweeping generalizations.
It's definitely a Eurocentric viewpoint, with England at the pinnacle of human enlightenment, an achievement reluctantly shared with France. However, the other flawed European countries still held sway over the lesser countries. Perhaps theres some basis for proclaiming that German mysticism influenced the direction of Indian culture, but I would have thought India had developed well enough on its own.
And of course we Americans are the brute force that bulldozed the best acheivement of mankind! At some point, writing style aside, the whole thing began to amuse and entertain me. I'm in need of a little of this goading to prepare for the next time my non-American friends start in on similar well-worn jibes.
I am sooo glad I stopped when I did, based on that snippet alone. Hogwash! Indian mysticism predates European culture whole and entire.
Ian, that's great, thanks for pointing it out. I'm ashamed to say I didn't notice, just skated over the "nonsense" word.
Generalisations often contain a kernel of truth. But more to the point, Stapledon disposed of "our" world in about a blink, and he was no kinder to the Europeans than he was to Americans. Worse, in fact. Not that it matters the least, within the time-scale he's writing in.
Since the demise of "our" world (after the Euro-American war), he goes on to describe global history ten million years later--and that's only about the time of "Second Men", a humanoid species evolved from Homo sapiens.
And he keeps shifting the centres of new civilisations--so far, from South America to Antarctica to Siberia to Asia etc. following his scenarios of climate and human population changes.
The magic of Stapledon's writing style is that it doesn't feel like it's "in about a blink". I felt the weighty passage of time as I pushed my way down just one of his pages!
My problem is that I can't hold the entire sequence of the migrations, catastrophes and reconvalescences for longer than a page.
"Last-first" reminds me far too much of the cultural geography lectures i inflected upon my classes @ UNC- i'd try to get all possible interrelationships between society/time/place/subject included in a 50 min. talk, and the sum total was both overwhelmingly dense and tediously didactic. There was some, hell, a lot of good information but my inept presentation made it awfully hard to dig out.
HG Wells was far better at this sort of thing than Olaf or I.
Did Wells ever write a future this far and complex? I can't remember but I don't think so. All his books are rather short, and more novel-like, I think. As my blurb says, Stapledon's only "character" is humanity, and the "plot" is simply global history. And dense it certainly is...
A book's sweep and imaginative scope can't get much larger. But (imo) a VERY laboured and repetitious style just detracts immensely from a great imaginative effort. Hell, he even creates a wholly alien Martian life form to foment human evolution when required. Really, i think his martians are the best feature of the book.
the time machine goes to the end of human time/space. A more successful (and polemical) effort to meld Darwinism and class politics - esp. if readability(?) counts for something.
Neither L&F Men nor the Time Machine are v. long. L&F Men FEELS long to me as i persevere.
And it does fit the conceit of the Eighteenth Men possessing a philosophy writer and lecturing to him about the future of humanity.
It's rare to come across a book that packs this many ideas per page (or paragraph). In this regard--and keeping in mind the unity and a certain heightened romanticism of tone--I can compare it only to Sagan's "Cosmos", perhaps. But it's not really like anything I can think of... an epic philosophical poem. In some places I could imagine Stapledon going into a trance as these monstrously long evolutionary sequences unrolled.
(Oh, and he certainly had his fun! "God's Big Noise"... Martians "liberating" diamonds... the almost-sexual rapport between the Fifth Men and their pets... lots of other details.)
Made me dream--the best any book can do.
I'll have to have a look for "Cosmos".
Oh, if you enjoyed that, have a look for Star Maker, also by Stapledon.
I have "The star maker", I'll get to it soon.
But the over-riding impression is a sort of 1920s optimism in the science of the time. Not the science of the future, the science of the time. Oil, coal. Aeroplanes. There's not much invention evident* - but then I suppose it took American sf and Gernsback's Amazing Stories to add inventive extrapolation to the arsenal of "scientific romance"**. As it is, reading Stapledon's book I keep on flashing on the films "Metropolis", "Things to Come"*** and "Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow". It's the future vision of great buildings, and personal aeroplanes (which, of course, are propeller-driven).
So far, it's not the most gripping of reads, but there's an appealling atmosphere to it. It's sort of like the literary equivalent of the external shots of the city in Lang's "Metropolis" - astonishingly large and detailed but, despite being futuristic, quite plainly a product of the 1920s.
* Stapledon does mention arcologies, albeit not by name. Which is the sort of invention I mean; but it's just about the only example. The Gordelpus energy-thing might as well be fantasy.
** um, there might be a theory worth exploring there...
*** that's the William Cameron Menzies adaptation of Well's novel; not the 1970s version starring Jack Palance, which actually bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book...
I found that OS focused more on life science and very little on physical science, which is surprising to me. I really liked the part about the Martians. Actually, I liked the parts after earth, too. One thing that I noticed was the emphasis on death. Often people would volunteer for suicide. On Venus, the offspring which were not fully developed with wings would be destroyed. And then the entire race of Venus fish beings were destoyed "lovingly." There was the race that was sadistic, finding pain the truest emotion, especially when others experienced it. These parts of the book I found somewhat disturbing because they were so frequent.
I liked the end as well.
I always seen it as the future human races a different morality system to us, one that we can not comprehend in the same manner that the future races could not comprehend our moral systems.
I always thought the killing of the crippled Sixth Men was out of mercy, because those whom were winged could not envisage a being whom could not experience the joy of fly, and did not want to make any being suffer such a fate.
The Fifth Men is a lot less clear-cut, and as such, is more interesting to discuss. The Ventians could not coexist with the Fifth Men, so the Fifth Men could choose to embrace racial suicide, or inhabit Venus at the expense of it's native inhabitants. They justified their actions with the twin reasoning that the Venetians were dying out, requiring decreasing radioactive decay to continue their existence, and even if this were not so, that the Venetians were not as able or could not aspire as high as the Fifth Men had already achieved. Whether this logic was the reason behind their actions or if it was more simply a survival imperative is an interesting question, and I don't know the answer.
Having just finished the book, I think this line fits my own review perfectly. There were so many interesting philosophical discussions in this book and a lot of interesting tidbits of sci-fi that it would be hard to classify LandFM as rubbish. Stapledon had a great imagination but I felt teased by stories such as the brains (the fourth men) and felt a really great novel could have been created around this idea. I found so many interesting bits in this book that could have been the jumping off point to a really great story, but instead Stapledon changed subjects just as they were starting to get interesting. I am left with a disorderly feeling, I don't really know what to think of LandFM because I feel like I just sat down and read a history book that only alotted a couple of pages for the most interesting points in history. It left me frusturated.
The length that Stapledon sticks with ideas is quite an interesting criticism, and it's quite hard to fault. Stapledon did only roughly skim over his ideas, and if you think an idea is interesting, you only get to stay with it for a chapter at most. On the upside is that any idea that you do not appreciate (I wouldn't say bad, because most ideas were quite good, if unconventional) you only stay with it for that long, too.
I don't think that you really need to stick with a single idea for that long, though. Stapledon told us all we needed to know - a basic overview of the situation, some ethical or philosophical problems that would arise, and how the events conclude. In fact, I found that such a brief discussion actually benefited from the book. Imagine how easily dated a book about a single idea, as you mentioned, would become. The science might be disproven, the presumed social values would quickly change, presumed hurdles might become irrelevant within years due to unanticipated technological advances.