Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

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Last and First Men Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Last and First Men is an imitation history of mankind written from the point of view of a new species of humanity two billion years in the future. Though Olaf Stapledon presents some episodes in detail, most of the novel is very general, showing the broad sweep of a possible human history without attention to particular characters. The narrator’s subject is human nature. The accounts of eighteen different human species add up to an exploration of potentials inherent in human nature and assertions about which of those potentials ought most to be valued. The eighteenth species exemplifies the fullest development that humanity achieves.

Contemporary humanity, the first species, is characterized by a childish individualism that repeatedly leads to self-destruction. During the centuries of this species’ domination, humanity repeatedly rises toward common ideals of civilization only to decay into savagery. The first men deplete their resources and health through religious warfare. This pattern continues to characterize the early developments of subsequent species.

The second men are nearly destroyed by Martian invaders, who are incapable of understanding human consciousness. Because the nonanimal Martians cohere and reason by means of forms of radiation, they are unable to recognize humans as sentient beings. They assume that radio stations are intelligences and humans their servants. The second men destroy the Martians with a biological weapon that also destroys human civilization. When the third men achieve high culture, they use genetic engineering to produce the fourth men.

The fourth men are giant brains with immobile, partly mechanical, vestigial bodies. After the fourth men virtually destroy the apparently useless third species, they come to see that the life of the intellect is not satisfactory. Without consciousness of physical existence, they are without passion or affection. They can neither know all that may be known nor sustain the desire to know when they encounter intellectually incomprehensible realities such as love and values. To escape despair, they create a fifth species that balances a maximum of intellect with the best of human passions.

As the fifth men approach a pinnacle of human culture, they are forced by cosmic disaster to move the race to Venus. The adjustments to a new planet involve creating the sixth men, who fare badly there until they develop the seventh men, a winged species which delights in the physical sensations of flight at the expense of intellectual pursuits. Without intellectual rigor, the flying race is happy and free but lacking in the tragic vision which derives from objectivity and a sweeping view of human history. When the more serious species that replaces the seventh men has achieved a high level of civilization, humanity is again forced by cosmic calamity to move, this...

(The entire section is 688 words.)