Born into a moderately wealthy family, William Olaf Stapledon had sufficient private income to free him from any pressing need to work for a living, and he elected to become a philosopher. He never held a university post, although he did a good deal of teaching for the Workers Educational Association. He was a pacifist but served in World War I with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, and his worldview was permanently colored by his experiences at the front. His inability to believe in a god who was at all interested in the day-to-day affairs of humankind sent him forth in search of a humanistic basis for hope and charity, a preliminary sketch of which he presents in A Modern Theory of Ethics.
Stapledon attempted to extrapolate this search in an unprecedentedly ambitious way in Last and First Men. This speculative history follows eighteen descendant species of Homo sapiens over a period of two billion years. Although these beings remain bound to Earth’s solar system, they migrate to various other planets therein, eventually taking up residence on Neptune when the evolution of the Sun renders the inner planets uninhabitable. The book carries forward a tradition of “ecstatic visions” that began with Edgar Allan Poe’s 1848 prose poem Eureka and the fictional works of the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, but it is far more detailed than any of its predecessors. Its focus on the Socratic problem of how human beings should live is intensified in the sequel, Last Men in London, which attempts to incorporate its perspectives and moral lessons within the life of a contemporary man (whose biography borrows extensively from Stapledon’s own experiences). Odd John retains a similarly narrow focus in its examination of the career of a man born ahead of his time into the twentieth century, moving inexorably to a bleak conclusion that reflects little optimism about contemporary humanity’s...
(The entire section is 797 words.)