Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future is a science fiction novel written in 1930 by the British author Olaf Stapledon. A work of unprecedented scale in the genre, it describes the history of humanity from the present onwards across two billion years and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first and most primitive. Stapledon's conception of history is based on the Hegelian Dialectic, following a repetitive cycle with many varied civilizations rising from and descending back into savagery over millions of years, but it is also one of progress, as the later civilizations rise to far greater heights than the first. The book anticipates genetic engineering, and the idea of superminds composed of many telepathically-linked individuals.
A controversial part of the book depicts humans, in the far-off future, escaping the dying Earth and settling on Venus—in the process totally exterminating its native inhabitants, a marine intelligent species. Stapledon's book has been interpreted by some as condoning such interplanetary genocide as a justified act if necessary for racial survival, though a number of Stapledon's partisans denied that such was his intention, arguing instead that Stapledon was merely showing that although mankind had advanced in a number of ways in the future, at bottom it still possessed the same capacity for savagery as it has always had.
The book had the distinction of being the only work of fiction published by Pelican Books.
In 1932, Stapledon followed Last and First Men with the far less acclaimed Last Men in London. His other great novel, Star Maker (1937), could also be considered a sequel to Last and First Men, but is even more ambitious in scope, being a history of the entire universe.
Also similar to the book are the options presented to the player as to where human kind will go next: a fall back into an almost savage state of humanity, or extreme progression with the danger of sacrificing basic rights.
Brian Aldiss, in his preface to the 1962 edition, acknowledges the deep impression on him -and considerable influence on his own later writing - of Stapledon's book, which he encountered in 1943 while a British soldier fighting the Japanese in Burma - "An appropriately unusual period of life at which to encounter a vision so far outside ordinary experience".
Aldiss also mentions James Blish as another writer deeply influenced by Stapledon.
C. S. Lewis in his own preface to "That Hideous Strength", notes:"I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow".
The reference to "objecting to Stapledon's philosophy" was no accident. In particular, the Christian Lewis objected to Stapledon's idea, as expressed in the present book, that mankind could escape from an outworn planet and establish itself on another one; this Lewis regarded as no less than a Satanic idea - especially, but not only, because it involved genocide of the original inhabitants of the target planet. Professor Weston, the chief villain of Lewis' Space Trilogy, is an outspoken proponent of this idea, and in "Out of the Silent Planet" Lewis opposes to it the depiction of the virtuous and stoic Martians/Malacandrians who choose to die with their dying planet, even though they possessed the technology to cross space and colonise Earth.
Arthur C. Clarke has said of Stapledon's 1930 book Last and First Men that "No other book had a greater influence on my life ... [It] and its successor Star Maker (1937) are the twin summits of [Stapledon's] literary career".
John Maynard Smith has said "A man called Olaf Stapledon was a marvellous predictor who wrote science fiction books that I read when I was 16 and that completely blew my mind; and Arthur C. Clarke put his finger on quite a number of bright thoughts. He and I have something in common: we both took out of the public library the same science fiction book when we were boys of about 15 or 16, which was Stapledon's Last and First Men. We took it out of the same country library in Porlock in Somerset. Whoever put that book on the shelves had a lot to answer for!" Adam Hart Davis (2004) talking science Wiley ISBN 0-470-09302-1
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