Stapledon is sometimes considered to be H. G. Wells’s successor in the British science-fiction tradition. When Last and First Men appeared, science fiction as a formal genre was only a few years old. Stapledon was unfamiliar with it and was not interested in writing a science-fiction novel. Last and First Men is an extended philosophical meditation combined with wild and entertaining flights of the imagination.

Stapledon is not concerned with technological advance, a point that may seem odd in the context of a century fixated on technology and within a novel projecting the future for billions of years. As far as Stapledon is concerned, technology and civilization are only marginally connected. Each civilization Stapledon describes is fundamentally concerned with spiritual or philosophical values, and their supreme crises are those of the spirit.

The book’s emphasis on spiritual growth focuses on detachment, learning to appreciate one’s place against the immensity of space and time, and coming to accept that place rather than railing against it. For example, there is the speech of the Divine Boy, the last great prophet of the First Men, who tells his listeners to see life as a game, an aesthetic experience. Games, he says, are played to win, but players come to care more for the game itself than for victory in it.

Making the same point and drawing out the philosophic thread that binds the book, the final pages are devoted to the words of the last-born of the Eighteenth Men. A nearby sun is becoming a nova, dooming the human race, but the youngest living human, like the Divine Boy, achieves full awareness of the spirit, the end to which all of human history has been directed. He does not curse his fate. The forces of nature and fate that are consuming the human race will somehow make use of humanity’s destruction.

Entire species of humanity have struggled to compass these insights throughout the book, but none, not even the Eighteenth Men, completely succeeds. Their race mind sees the universe full of “extreme subtlety and extreme beauty. At the same time we often have of it an impression of unspeakable horror.” The attempt to affirm both aspects is the book’s ultimate theme.