Authors: Olaf Stapledon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist and philosopher


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.{$I[AN]9810001583}{$I[A]Stapledon, Olaf}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Stapledon, Olaf}{$I[tim]1886;Stapledon, Olaf}

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 ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Stapledon’s ecstatic vision resumed its outward momentum in Star Maker, which expanded its scope to take in the entire universe. A crudely allegorical false start–published posthumously as Nebula Maker–was wisely forsaken, making way for a careful, hierarchical series of visions that constitutes one of the masterpieces of modern imaginative fiction. Last and First Men labors under the slight handicap of an unorthodox theory of evolution, but this becomes irrelevant in Star Maker, which attempts to set the everyday moral problems of human beings in their “true” context–in this case, the sublime but sobering discoveries of modern science. The protagonist, who experiences a vision after leaving his house because of a bitter argument with his wife, perceives the fundamental patterns of creation on a series of escalating scales, until at last he glimpses the intelligence seemingly at work in the business of creation: a “god” who, while not merely uncaring, is not yet fully practiced in his art. The novel concludes with a desperate but nevertheless hopeful prescription for psychological survival in the new world war that Stapledon could already see looming on the horizon.

Darkness and the Light is a scrupulous examination of two of the possible futures open to human civilization, one supposedly representing the best case and the other the worst. A deep pessimism is evident in Stapledon’s dour view of the possibility of progress. Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord is a powerful tale of a dog experimentally gifted with human intelligence, who serves as an objective observer of humankind’s failings. The love affair between Sirius and his creator’s daughter, Plaxy, constitutes an implicit criticism of almost all existing relationships between human beings. The visionary fantasy Death into Life tries hard to recover some uplifting lesson from the wreckage of World War II, but its failure is made acutely obvious by the bleak parable of The Flames, in which luminous refugees from the Sun are denied a home on Earth, banished instead to dark inertia.

Stapledon’s last novel, A Man Divided, returns to the intimate and highly personal perspective of Last Men in London. It portrays with painful intensity the plight of a man who alternates between superhuman wisdom and dull conformity, not merely in intellectual terms but in moral terms as well. Its hero tries to move as Stapledon did in his philosophical work–“beyond the ‘isms,’” but the task is continually confounded by his extreme emotional swings. Stapledon presumably experienced his own internal struggles with an unusual intensity and could never resolve them, but they were the spur that drove his vaulting imagination to limits no one else had reached. Although his work can be uncomfortable to read, the discomfort is of a kind that nourishes the intellect. His writing continually gravitates toward despair, yet it never ceases to rage against that end.

BibliographyCrossley, Robert. Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994. A detailed and scrupulously scholarly biography. Includes bibliography and index.Fiedler, Leslie A. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A rather combative commentary on the moral import of Stapledon’s novels.McCarthy, Patrick A., et al., eds. The Legacy of Olaf Stapledon: Critical Essays and an Unpublished Manuscript. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. A good collection of essays that includes several previously unpublished “Letters to the Future” by Stapledon.Satty, Harvey, and Curtis C. Smith. Olaf Stapledon: A Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Admirably comprehensive bibliography. Includes index.
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