Words: Charles Hay
A few months ago I started a series of articles on the greatest and most inspirational science fiction I have encountered. I began with The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke and work which blew my mind in my early twenties with its enormous concepts, transcendent visions of humanity and extreme, world shattering time-scale. It is set a billion years from now. That's pretty long. It's so long that, looking at time in the other direction, a billion years in the past, there are absolutely no forms of multi-cellular life existent on Earth. That's how long a billion years is.
Compared to Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Star Maker (they pretty much come as a duology*), however, a billion years is paltry; a drop in the water. This is because something was wrong with Olaf Stapledon's sense of perspective, in that it seemed to smeared across reality and infinity. This may have made him quiet, antisocial and, by all accounts bloody weird, but damn it made him a fascinating writer.
In these two novels, or... whatever they are, future histories perhaps, he explores all of the future and all of the past in all possible universes. And he somehow manages to do this in a book of finite length.
Stapledon's time-frames here are inhuman, quite literally. Last and First Men covers humanity's evolution and eventual extinction over the next two billion (eat your heart out, Clarke) years, and Star Maker effectively covers an infinite length of time in both directions, but mostly focuses on the lifespan of our own universe. So still a few trillion years in there.
His exploration of all the wonders of space and time is almost exclusively descriptive but deftly avoids becoming a boring info-dump by means of being an incredibly poetic, almost anti-individualist and reverential text.
|Last and First Men|
His descriptions of the advancing iterations of the future have the awed detachment of David Attenborough. The bizarre future of our intelligent form of life become increasingly alien, and with time, seemingly less substantially safe as a species than our perceptions of ourselves. It is a difficult feeling to describe, the precariousness felt about our future, and it is even more difficult to describe how this text reflects that feeling back on our own lives.
A miserablist would probably take something altogether misanthropic away, or something nihilistic, but that was not the pervading feeling for me. I developed an odd sort mix of existential connectedness and detachment simultaneously. The fact that that statement is clearly paradoxical should make it clear how difficult it is to articulate.
Regardless of deficiencies of perspicacity, Stapledon's imaginative, surprisingly finely drawn extrapolations into our future are mesmerising. From our current technological ape, to bizarre, gigantic mobile brains, to bat-like creatures, Martian-hybrid telepaths and Neptunians, his visions of the future are in equal measure transcendent and horrifying from our perspective, just as would be the case from any member of humanity at any point in this evolutionary continuum.
Star Maker goes even further, with Stapledon imagining current humanity not just as a link in a chain of some kind of meta-humanity, but as a tiny, infinitesimally tiny but arrestingly important cog in an infinite machine. The reader, given form within the text as a nameless narrator, is taken on a journey throughout increasingly alien worlds and increasingly alien frames of experience.
Starting with a journey to an Earth-like planet with human-like intelligence, Star Maker contains descriptions of time and space which, whilst uncommon now, were almost unheard of outside of religion at the time of writing. Billions upon billions of years are experienced, and intelligences borne of planetary nebulae, stars and immense technological species telepathically linked across space are discovered.
Intelligence and consciousness is shown to be an emergent property of reality, manifesting through almost everything it can, and by the standards of the wider universe, our own sapience appears amazingly transient and almost inconsequential.
Towards the end, the eponymous Star Maker enters the stage and the scope of reality available becomes even more dizzyingly enormous. Universes are described which defy logic or our internal laws of physics. Reality seems but an eternal whimsy created in points of mad inspiration by a mind infinitely removed from our own.
I found this enormity deeply affecting to the point of life-changing epiphany. I am aware that this sounds like hyperbole in the extreme, but it is not. On the surface of it, the over-arching "story" between these books is that we ourselves are part of a reality infinitely larger than ourselves, and that we are not existing in a time which defines humanity, or indeed life, more than any other time. With so many forms of our lineage to come, and so many other forms of life, and with us being so far from the full possible realisation of universal consciousness, what are we? What becomes of us, and what do we contribute?
I believe one of the main points of both Last and First Men and Star Maker is that to ask that is to ask the wrong question. "Me"; "I" is a cosmically unimportant concept. The universe does not assist the individual, and the individual cannot make a lasting change to the universe. Simply to be is important. Or more specifically, to be a part of the world, part of everything. We are all - humans, our descendents, nebula minds, thinking stars, dolphins, what have you - we are all parts of reality looking in at itself. We are the fragmented consciousness of eternity. We grant purpose to the universe from our very specific perspective, one only possible from our exact position. Along with the innumerable multitude of minds, we create for the universe a compound image of itself, and we give life to that image where there was none before.
To exist and to be, that is the purpose of the universe. To comprehend and to live and to imbue life and mind; that is our purpose.
This perspective has stayed with me the decade since reading these two novels. A feeling of that enormity and majesty in the face of minuscule individuality. It filled me with hope, and still does, that humanity will face up to the challenge of infinity not through egotistical conquest and self-propagation, but with the humility and the philosophy to accept their place amongst a reality beyond comprehension and, at its edges of its ability and the ends of its existence say merely, "it is very good to have been man."
* Apparently not a word, according to Blogger's built in spell-checker. Oh well.