If you’re a fan of science fiction and a voracious reader, as I am, you may have heard of Olaf Stapledon. You can locate his books on Amazon.com, if you want psychical copies, and I highly recommend buying them while they’re still available.
Stapledon was a pacifist who, during the First World War, drove an ambulance on the front lines ferrying wounded from the battlefields. In the interim between that and the Second World War, he wrote his first novel, Last and First Men, published in 1930. The book describes the evolution of the human race over two billion years, during the course of which Mankind enters into many different forms, alternately falling into savagery and then ascending back to intelligence, until, living on a moon of Neptune following the destruction of Terra by Sol’s expansion, it meets its inevitable end. In 1932 a direct sequel, Last Men In London, was published, further exploring the final human race and its efforts to communicate with a member of the first.
It wasn’t until 1937, however, that Stapledon’s greatest literary work, Star Maker, was published (Odd John, a story of the rise and fall of an evolved superman who attempts to create a utopian society, came out in 1935). Star Maker tells the story of a First human who finds himself flung out of his body, inexplicably traveling time and space joining with other minds he encounters. As he inhabits the bodies of successive beings, their minds are added to a growing collective consciousness that ultimately seeks out the Star Maker, the entity responsible for creating the Universe.
Stapledon explores repeated themes in his writings, which were heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s and J. D. Beresford’s notions of human evolution into supermen free from the faults and failings of present day Mankind. In Stapledon’s view, humanity is fated to descend into savagery, rise again to a higher state of intelligence than ever before, in repeating cycle, until it reaches its ultimate evolutionary form, with all the mental and spiritual powers that come with it. It is not until we achieve the highest mental state short of godhood that we can perceive our Creator, and finally learn the answer as to why we go through these cycles of devolution and evolution.
It is interesting to note that Stapledon, himself an agnostic, nevertheless infused his writing with spiritual yearnings. Far from denying even the possibility of God’s existence, as atheists do, he holds out a fervent belief that there is a guiding intelligence behind Creation, but that we mere mortals cannot perceive it with our current level of understanding. Further, the writer considers the very real likelihood that our Creator is indifferent to its own creations, being on such a level that it can no more perceive us than we can perceive the tiniest microbes with the naked eye. It knows we’re here, having made us, but until we grow into a form capable of seeing and knowing It, It likewise cannot see or even hear us. That, according to Stapledon’s philosophy, is why God gave us the capacity to grow spiritually and mentally. We must rise to a higher level, rather than try to force God to adapt Itself to ours.
Olaf Stapledon influenced many writers including Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis, and his writings inspired the likes of scientists such as Freeman Dyson, who developed the concept of the Dyson Sphere based on Star Maker. It’s safe to say that without Stapledon, we would not have nearly as rich a body of science fiction writing as we do today.