Olaf Stapledon: The Star Maker
November 27, 2005 11:51 PM   Subscribe

Olaf Stapledon was a man ahead of his time. His epic 'novel' Star Maker (1937) considered the emergence of genetic engineering, the outcome of the many worlds interpretation and delved deeper than any book before or since into the consequences of evolution on the cosmos. His fans have included the likes of Arthur C Clarke, Jorge Luis Borges and Virginia Woolf. Even his greatest detractor, C.S.Lewis, wrote an entire Cosmic Trilogy in response to his imaginings. Yet despite Stapledon's magnetic prose and extraordinary influence on speculative fiction his name remains largely forgotten by the world. Yet his words still resonate with insight: "Did not our life issue daily as more or less firm threads of active living, and mesh itself into the growing web, the intricate, ever-proliferating pattern of mankind?"
posted by 0bvious (24 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My Dad told me that he wrote a book report on Stapledon's Odd John, only to have a teacher reject it for being about a made-up book by a made-up author.

That's why I picked it up, anyway. Olaf rocks.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 12:04 AM on November 28, 2005

Consider me enlightened. You'd think I'm nerdy enough to know about stuff like this, but evidently I'm not. This guy sounds fascinating. Thanks for the heads up!
posted by brundlefly at 2:44 AM on November 28, 2005

I recall a SciFi Survey class wherein we plowed through a ton of significant representative works. Just like clockwork, at each work the instructor would say: "Of course, this theme was originally explored by Olaf Stapledon." It got to the point that's we'd finish the sentence for him.
posted by RavinDave at 3:15 AM on November 28, 2005

The late John Lilly claimed that STar Maker was a book that helped change his life. On that recommendation i bought it and read and would recommend it to everyone.
posted by donfactor at 3:26 AM on November 28, 2005

I came across Last and First Men in a used book store when I was maybe ten years old. I plowed through it, knowing intuitively that I wasn't getting it all, but also knowing that it was really, really cool.

Come to think of it, that's probably why I never got into ordinary science fiction after that.
posted by mkhall at 3:59 AM on November 28, 2005

Yeah, reading Stapledon, Lem, Herbert, Dick and their ilk as a kid will really kill your appreciation of soap-opera TV sci-fi later on.
posted by snoktruix at 4:07 AM on November 28, 2005

Huge Stapledon fan here; thanks for the post!

I have to say, though, I personally would have left off the "magnetic prose" bit. Pre-1950s sf wasn't exactly famous for its prose style, and Papa Olaf was no exception. Here's an example, chosen entirely at random by clicking through that link:
TEN thousand boys in the upper air. Squadron upon squadron, their intricate machines thundered toward the target, heavy with death. Darkness below; and above, the stars. Below, the invisible carpet of the fields and little homes; above, and very far beyond those flashing stars, the invisible galaxies, gliding through the immense dark, squadron upon squadron of universes, deploying in the boundless and yet measured space.

In one of the bombers, seven boys. Seven young minds in patterned unity; each self-cherishing, but all knit inwardly together by fibres of steel-tempered comradeship. And all equally imprisoned, body and mind, in their intricate machinery.
Serviceable, yes. Thought-provoking, sure. But to praise his prose style as such seems to me... excessive.

posted by languagehat at 5:27 AM on November 28, 2005

Yeasss, you found a bit of a stinker there. Star Maker and Last and First men were not about characters though, not about individuals. This quote is an exception, a point in the narrative where Olaf has chosen to zoom in from a thousand light year distance to focus on the moment, to make such a moment seem as if in eternal suspension. I forgive him for these little escapades. When he thinks big NO ONE or NO THING can touch his majestic style
posted by 0bvious at 5:57 AM on November 28, 2005

both first and last men and star maker are novels with exceptional reach ... i'm not sure anything else like them have been written
posted by pyramid termite at 5:57 AM on November 28, 2005

I forgive him for these little escapades.

Oh, me too, me too; like I say, I'm a big fan. It's just that is prose is pretty far down on the list of things I'd recommend him for. His storytelling is superb.
posted by languagehat at 6:55 AM on November 28, 2005

I think you hit the nail on the head, languagehat. Stapledon was a truly exceptional storyteller, but not so much a master of evocative prose.

That said, 0bvious- thanks for the post! I'm gonna go dig up my copy of Last and First Men.
posted by signalnine at 8:20 AM on November 28, 2005

Thanks for the link. I've been trying to recall his name for a while. I'd read First and Last Men years ago and I still remember the telepathic collective sparrow species in it.

Great stuff.
posted by clockworkjoe at 8:53 AM on November 28, 2005

Great stuff. My dad was always trying to get my nose out of the Henlein and Clarke as a kid, but I just wasn't feeling it. Now that I like some Pynchon and Vidal in the mix, Olaf is a favorite. The links look rewarding as all get out.

Why is Metafilter conspiring to keep me from finishing NaNoWriMo!?! What did I ever do to you?
posted by freebird at 9:47 AM on November 28, 2005

er, out of the aforementioned books and into Stapleton, not out of books period. Although, that too, thankfully.
posted by freebird at 9:48 AM on November 28, 2005

Another huge fan here... about the storytelling and how good it is: think about the concept behind Star Maker and then think about the zillion ways in which this could have been a very boring book. Instead it is completely, magically, engrossing.

languagehat: I think that this particular (naive?) prose style is exquisitely fitted to the narration. If it were "better" said it might collapse under the weight of the story's ambition!

I also remember OS's note, an apology and a defense of sorts for writing of such matters, as war and Hitler was about to engulf Europe, which was quite moving.
posted by talos at 10:38 AM on November 28, 2005

eh ..."were about to engulf Europe...". Prose-style indeed.
posted by talos at 10:39 AM on November 28, 2005

I'd be interested in more info about Lewis's opinion of Stapledon. I've read some of Lewis's general critiques of the Science Fiction of his day, and mostly he complains that it's all just Cowboys in Space or Romantic Comedy in Space and that if you're going to bother setting a story on another planet, then it should be so you could do something really different. But that critique doesn't sound like it applies to Olaf at all.
posted by straight at 10:48 AM on November 28, 2005

RavinDave: I too learned of Stapledon from a SciFi Survey class (Gene Wolfe was another gem discovered therein). With Olaf S. I felt that, now here, FINALLY, was the original scifi writer (although I believe Edgar Allen Poe is credited with inventing the genre) who delivered on the gigantic themes, grand visions and awe inspiring conceptions of time that should be the mainstays of the genre. His thoughts in First and Last Men. have stayed with me and inspired me to this day and his ultimate vision of man's evolution in Starmaker is deeply moving and sublime. Hopeful too. I'm sure it was an influence on Clarke's and Kubrick's vision in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Languagehat. While I agree the prose excerpt above is a bit on the purple side and overdone, I loved reading it. So I'm not sure what your problem with it is. I've always thought the prose style should not only match the ideas and aesthetic of a work but speak the "dialect" of that work and provide the atmosphere of it, and it works perfectly for me. Half the fun of Stapledon I think is that you're reading classic sci fi novels from another time (1930's) with all the cultural elements that inform it. You know, like watching a great old B&W movie like The Grapes of Wrath or a screwball comedy like It Happened One Night.
posted by Skygazer at 11:16 AM on November 28, 2005

BTW thanks for the fantastic post Obvious.
posted by Skygazer at 11:23 AM on November 28, 2005

my pleasure. great to think i got a handful of people passionate about Stapledon, even if for just one metafilter post
posted by 0bvious at 5:34 PM on November 28, 2005

Cool. I picked up a split copy of Last and First Men/Last Men in London (which are apparently his first two novels?) for $3 in a used bookstore about a year ago, but I haven't been able to get into it, partly for fear that it wouldn't be any good.

You all have bolstered my faith. I shall try again.
posted by mrgrimm at 6:12 PM on November 28, 2005

with last men and first men i'd definitely recommend missing out some of the beginning. his vision of the future from about 1930 - 2000 was woefully inacurate and as such rather tedius to read. get to the bit where man starts flying around amongst sky tall towers os splendour and it gets interesting...

his views of the eternal entity some might call 'jesus' is also worth following from the very beginning
posted by 0bvious at 7:44 PM on November 28, 2005

Right, 0bvious. I tuned out early in Last and First Men because the first "prediction" in the book was for a global-scale war to take place in Europe in the 1940's between the two age-old enemies... England and France. He wrote the book in the mid-1930's, pretending to be prescient about the whole future of humanity, and he couldn't even see the problems on the rise in Germany? Give me a break.

That said, he did apologize for his lack of foresight in his introduction to Star Maker, which I went on to read. That is a fascinating book; I've never read such a vivid and compelling depiction of truly alien life as Olaf depicts. The encounter with the Star Maker itself is thought-provoking enough to change your religious outlook entirely, even if it is a bit heavy-handed. I don't think anyone has since attempted writing SF on such an epic, universal, historical scale.

BTW, clockworkjoe, I think the telepathic networked sparrows were from Star Maker... though they might be in LAFM too, since I didn't read it all the way through...
posted by purple_frogs at 1:19 PM on November 29, 2005

if you check out the wikipedia entry on star maker i think it mentions the swarm consciousness, a precurser to modern day swarm intelligence perhaps?

in my opinion Stapledon's imagination is unsurpassed, even to this day
posted by 0bvious at 6:09 PM on November 29, 2005

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