Last and First Men (1930)

MOBI for Kindle (based on the text from Project Gutenberg Australia)

I was tempted to categorize Last and First Men under non-fiction, since this is how it reads. It’s a speculative history of the future of mankind, and reads like a history book, with the difference that the arrow of time goes forward from the present, not forward from some point in our past. Reading Stapledon’s masterwork is both extremely exhausting and exhilarating. It’s not an easy read, information is densely packed into every page, yet somehow the writing still reads very poetic and lyrical. Some people suggest to skip the first chapters, since their speculations about the near future is so obviously wrong.

I advise not to do this. Not only seem the speculations about the near future wrong, most of the long future projections are equally quaint. And yet, despite how far Stapledon’s future history has diverged from the real history, and how much has changed in recent cosmology, I’m in awe at the deepness and richness of Stapledon’s vision. Exactly those events where his future diverged from our own created a strange and weird and fascinating near future. And while the far future has no technology comparable to computers and computer networks, his telepathy seems to works, at least on the social level, in a similar manner.

Unlike in recent SF, inspired by Vinge’s singularity concept, change and progress takes eons in Stapledon’s future. And it does not always go forward, not every new order of mankind is more enlightened than the previous. Men and with it civilizations strifes for great heights, only to be pulled down again and again, with civilization and even history completely lost. Sometimes even with men degraded to beings more like animals than men. All these seemingly endless cycles of strife and fall are told by one of the last men, the 18th order of beings that trace their lineage back to us, over a time span of 400 million years.

But Last and First Men isn’t just a future history, it was a way for Stapledon to contemplate or philosophize about the destiny of mankind and about our place in the universe, about the endless pain and misery, and also joy, created in the long history of mankind. Why does it matter being here, when in the end everything will die and disappear? And while Stapledon himself called his book a tragedy, the way he tackled and thought about and gave answer to these questions transcended the tragic nature of his book and made it something more. A thing of rare beauty, of rich imagination and deep thought.