Saturday 7 June 2014

Book Impression - Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

This book is considered by many to be a classic in the science-fiction genre and now that I've finally read it I can see why. It's an unusual read in that it isn't your typical story as it provides a history of mankind's evolution for the next two billion years. As such there are no characters to become invested in making it difficult to connect to the story.

However the sheer scope and staggering imagination of the story more than makes up for that. It starts off on shaky ground as the initial progression through our own times (it was written in 1930)  is very wrong. In fact the forward suggests that the modern reader skips the first few chapters. I didn't and while it gets many things wrong those early chapters expose some of the author's assumptions and prejudices.

As the story progresses further into the future the author's imagination really shines. This is a view of the potential of humanity as well as its flaws. It's also an interesting contrast to modern science-fiction where evolution takes a back stage to technology and trans-humanism. Here we see a varying blend of the possibilities and with it an exploration of what makes us human.

It's fair to say that it's not without its flaws. As already mentioned the early part doesn't correspond to reality very well, although I viewed it as a kind of alternative history. After all just because one path was followed doesn't mean that other paths didn't exist. The language can be a little dry at times and in some ways this is an interesting read rather than an entertaining one, although that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The two big flaws are that the scope and the science. The scope is so large that by the author's own admission much of the story is glossed over. I would have loved to see more detail on the different human species and cultures and in particular some of the individuals. That would have made this a huge book though, so the surface skim is a necessity, but a shame nonetheless. The issue of the science is that a lot of it doesn't stack up with modern knowledge. This is partly due to the limitations of knowledge at the time, but also in part because the author follows some interesting and quite far out threads.

Despite its flaws this book deserves its classic status. The sheer scope and imagination of it was enough to keep me enthralled throughout and I'd recommend it to fans of the genre.

Click on image to purchase from Amazon

One of the most extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novels of the century: a history of the evolution of humankind over the next 2 billion years.

Among all science fiction writers Olaf Stapledon stands alone for the sheer scope and ambition of his work. First published in 1930, Last and First Men is full of pioneering speculations about evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and many other subjects.

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