Last and First Men Essay - Critical Context

Olaf Stapledon

Critical Context

Though Stapledon is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of modern science fiction, his first novel, Last and First Men, has never been popular. Lacking characters and adventure, it does not recommend itself to casual readers. Nevertheless, it is widely admired by students and writers of science fiction. Eric S. Rabkin argues that Stapledon was one of the first to see the genre as useful for philosophic inquiry and fostering moral growth. Such well-known writers as C. S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, and H. G. Wells, who also influenced Stapledon, have acknowledged debts to him. For example, Lessing’s “Canopus in Argos Archives” series (1979-1983) uses ideas of the group mind similar to those of Stapledon. While it is difficult to be sure of direct influence in every case, there are suggestive connections between Stapledon and several more recent writers. For example, the views of human nature and its relations to the future in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series (1965-1985) may owe a debt to Stapledon. When reading Last and First Men, one repeatedly recognizes devices and ideas that are encountered in other science fiction from Ray Bradbury to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Even though the book was not very popular, it was successful enough to encourage Stapledon to continue writing science fiction as a part of his life’s work of studying and teaching philosophy. His more important novels include Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935), Star Maker (1937), and Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944). In those books, he continued to explore and elaborate his ideas about human nature and the destiny of humanity.