on re-reading stapledon
a short reflection
I first read Olaf Stapledon's classic SF books, Last and First Men, Last Men in London, and Starmaker in my late teens, and thought they were wonderful. I have read and re-read them many times since, always with pleasure. But more recently that pleasure has been tinged somewhat with a kind of distrust.
Stapledon's book espouse a philosophy (using philosophy here in its popular meaning of an outlook on life). Indeed, much of the point of the books' existence is to explain and promote that philosophy. Exactly what that philosophy is, is a little hard to explain in a few words (which perhaps is part of the reason why Stapledon framed it in a work of fiction, rather than in an essay or a straightforward non-fiction book). Perhaps it is best summed up in a few extracts from the books:
...that detachment, that power of cold assessment, which is, after all, among the most valuable human capacities...
-- Preface, Starmaker
...This experience, I should say, involves detachment from all private, all social, all racial ends; not in the sense that it leads a man to reject them, but that it makes him prize them in a new way...
-- Preface, Starmaker
...And now the Second Men, even while they held their attention earnestly fixed upon the practical work of defence, were determined to absorb this tragedy into the very depths of their being, to scrutinise it fearlessly, savour it, digest it, so that its fierce potency should henceforth be added to them. Therefore they did not curse their gods, not supplicate them. They said to themselves, 'Thus, and thus, and thus, is the world. Seeing the depth we shall see also the height, and we shall praise both.'
-- Last and First Men, Chapter IX, Earth and Mars
Although there may be things here to criticise (Brian Aldiss, in his excellent overview of the history of science-fiction, The Billion Year Spree, comments that the celebration of detachment is more a reflection of Stapledon's own personality, and not necessarily the good thing that Stapledon thinks it is), nevertheless the overall impression is of an acceptable, and not too controversial, approach to life, the universe, and everything.
The problem comes when you turn to Stapledon's outworking of the consequences of this philosophy, and to his attitude towards some aspects of his fictional creation. Suddenly things are not so clear. Indeed, some episodes are apt to be decidedly off-putting to 21st century sensibilities.
To take some examples. The most obvious, and certainly the worst, is the genocide of the Venusians. Humanity is threatened with the destruction of the Earth through a natural catastrophe. Unable to find a way to avert this, they seek to leave the Earth and go elsewhere, in this case to Venus. The process of terraforming Venus begins. (Stapledon's inventiveness is at times astonishing -- who else was discussing terraforming in the 1930's?!) But then they discover that Venus is inhabited, and inhabited by potentially intelligent creatures, which humanity's actions are killing. Distinct shades here of very modern problems. So what do the humans do? They decide that they can't stop, so to prevent further suffering of the Venusians they slaughter them all. Stapledon describes their guilt at their actions, but at the same time implies that this guilt was somehow misplaced.
There is an episode in Last Men In London which although at first sight bears no resemblance to that episode of the Venusians nevertheless has the same denial of what most people would regard as common ethics. In it, Paul, the protagonist of the story, has an affair with Katherine, a childhood sweetheart of his, now married. With the help of his Neptunian 'observer' he manages to persuade her husband to allow Paul and Katherine to go away on what is, quite frankly, a dirty weekend. The complete selfishness and self-centredness of Paul and Katherine's actions is explained away by an invocation of the religious aura which Stapledon associated with sex. Curiously it is today's supposedly less 'moral' and less religious attitude that lets us see this episode in a considerably less flattering light than Stapledon intended.
So, am I going to throw the books away in disgust? Well, no. I am going to read them with a much more critical eye, and with much less automatic acceptance of Stapledon's philosophy, but much of what Stapledon has to say is still of importance and of significance. But to me the books now demonstrate very clearly how even the most enlightened of thinkers (and for his own time Stapledon certainly was) can be subtly corrupted in their thought by the attitudes and outlook of their own times. It makes me wonder how many of the attitudes and assumptions that we take for granted, and regard as perfectly moral and correct, will be looked back on by our descendants as repugnant and cruel.
And I wonder if in subsequent re-readings of the books I might find myself more and more at odds with them. We shall see.