Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

A Must-Read Classic … But Maybe a Hard Reading Experience …

Self Portrait 2010
Self Portrait 2010

For those who enjoy sci-fi, and visionary literature of the 20/21 centuries that wants to set us outside humdrum “everyday” life, this is an essential book to have read. It is an important element in the backstory of those two rivers of writing about worlds, and thus about our own, human race, consciousness.

It might be a plodding, grinding of teeth experience for you. So … if you end up buying this unique and remarkable story … and … if you are not on enthusiastic fire as you turn every page … read on in this review and get a sense of how to survive the reading journey to get to the reader’s reward at the end.

The potential plodding? Olaf Stapledon, like most story-tellers, writes in the style of his time and age. So we have the style of early 1930s English; likely a bit plodding to our minds now. He is also very professorial and dry in his writing. Not much (indeed any) sparkling polishing of the diamonds of words into jewels of paragraphs here. Oh no. There are no charcters as such – a very small number of individuals are named, but it is irrelevant to the story that they are named. There is pretty much no dialogue between characters. So it reads like a history book. And that is what it is; a fictional history. That is a hard storyline, from an author’s point of view, to bring off at the best of times.

However … and this is a huge however … the sweep of the story is so uniquely breathtaking that some impact might happen in mind when you get to the end. I see the word “sweeping” on the dustjackets and back covers of books often. Last and First Men is real sweeping; taking us on a journey across hundreds of millions of years to the end of the human race.

The story begins by taking us to the early 1930s in England. We are in the writer’s world of the First Men – the first wave/race of humans. And we have to travel across these hundreds of millions of years to reach the 18th wave/race of humanity. The 18th is the last. The middle of the story might be hard going, because in a strange way most of the actual story facts of the intervening human races are irrelevant, but a story journey of sorts has to be made. Because we need the journey to have the experience of reaching the end.

How to bear with the middle of the book to get to the end? Simply stated, much of the middle can be skimmed. I did, though this is not the first time I have read this book, so it is a different reading experience for me compared to first timers. Honestly, there are no pertinent facts or characterizations that are vital to know of and remember when you reach the ending. Additionally, bear constantly in mind, that the scope of the endeavour that Stapledon embarked upon is magnificent – to tell the story of a race. Ours. That kind of story is worth telling. Although technically difficult because of the sheer reach involved.

The end is worth while getting to. Not so much for the factual end itself but for the fact that … well … once I had “finished” with the story, it had not quite finished with me (as happens with some stories and their remaining around in resonance), and there was a sense of the numinous within me. What a journey to think of and what an ending to think of.

My suggestion? If you fancy reading it, and have doubts less weighty than curiosity, take the risk and … read it. You may still not like it. We will have both tried, though and then, you and I. But then … there are several books a year I cannot stand to finish; including ones by famous contemporary authors.


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