Last and First Men has been the toughest challenge to my resolve to only read one book at a time. That's not to say it's by any means a bad book; it's part of the SF Masterworks Collection* for very good reasons. It's just that, well, gripping storytelling it ain't.
Penned in 1930 by a philosophy professor, Last and First Men is heavy on exposition and all but devoid of character, dialogue or even plot beyond "exploring the nature of the 18 races of man from First (20th Century earthbound Homo sapiens sapiens) to Last (Neptunian superbeings who live for thousands of years) and how their society kept on evolving and devolving and evolving again." The text is presented as a sort of lecture series on the history of humanity, delivered by a Last Men scholar who doesn't quite sneer at his predecessors and their flaws but doesn't exactly hold them in reverence, either. Indeed, often the prose reads like that of a 19th century natural history text on, say, social insects, albeit very sophisticated ones.
The early chapters of the novel are best read, by a 21st century sci-fi fan, as a strange form of alternate history a la, say, Harry Turtledove; in this case, our point of departure is not long after Last and First Men's original publication date, for nothing like World War II and the Holocaust even remotely figures in this extrapolation. Stapledon possessed an acute talent for that, but humanity has always been full of surprises! One can smile indulgently at how off base he was, but to do so is to completely miss why this book is a classic of the genre; after all, the rest of the 20th century is not even the first tenth of this book, and the First Men's story covers thousands of years of struggle (sometimes genocidal) to form a world government, the creation of a scientific religion in which "divine energy" is the object of worship and the purview of a rigid guild of scientists, and the development of a culture of abundance (no disease, no want, a flying car for everybody) that values strenuous physicality (and flight) above all else, to the detriment of human intelligence. With predictable results.**
But wait! Like I said, that's not even 25% of the book. I've never read any fiction so ambitious in scope, folks. The closest I can think of is maybe Stephen Baxter's Evolution, but even it just took on the life-span of life on planet Earth. Last and First Men covers "about two thousand million years", takes us, or a future version or 18 of us to the outer solar system, and teems with phrases like "Not till many hundred thousand years had passed did..." It's truly stupefying. It's also very, very clever; to encompass so much time in just 300 pages or so, it has to be. There's a mathematical progression governing the level of detail and verbiage devoted to each iteration of humanity; I suspect, though am not really a rigorous enough person to be sure of this, that this is an instance of exponential decay. At any rate, the narrative speeds up considerably once Stapledon has dispensed with our own species, the First Men***, and keeps on speeding up until eventually a million years can pass in a sentence fragment. At one point, ten million years pass because it's a time of barbarism and stasis. Well, okay, Mr. Stapledon; it's your Memorable Fancy.
For a giant William Blakean Memorable Fancy is what this book is, a visionary and somewhat allegorical tale spun out to illustrate the writer's philosophy, hopes and fears. I would love to see an edition of this book illuminated in the way that Blake did his works. It would be an eminently lovely thing.
Along the way, we get to watch Stapledon toss off a stunning array of concepts and ideas that were quite ahead of his time and the influences of which we can find throughout science fiction: the perils of genetic engineering, Peak Oil and its aftermath, the cyclical natures of high civilization and barbarism, aliens that are genuinely and profoundly alien (i.e. not Star Trek humanoids with extra nobbly bits on their faces), the fragility of knowledge, the notion that humans can easily evolve back into animals if care is not taken...
It's easy, in short, to see how Last and First Men came to be such a very influential book. People talk about how Heinlein originally dashed off all of the sci-fi tropes with which we have become so familiar, but for a lot of them, Stapledon was there first.
I wonder what his other novels are like.
*I didn't use that edition's cover to decorate this post because I liked this cover so very, very much better! I mean, look at it!
**Think Idiocracy meets Otto from A Fish Called Wanda.
***In his forward to SF Masterworks edition, the great Gregory Benford advises readers to consider skipping the "badly dated" first 20-25% of this novel, partly for reasons I've already observed (in addition to the wrong guesses at history, this first narrative teems with racial and national stereotypes, and of course gives women the shortest possible shrift) but also to spare American readers some tart observations from a British philosopher who was no great fan of capitalism and American cultural hegemony. But to skip these chapters would deprive the reader of the sensation of being swept along through time at an ever-accelerating rate that is one of this novel's unique and most exceptional offerings. If you're going to read it, read it.