I’ve always included Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker on my personal list of best sf books, though I hadn’t re-read it in years. I just re-read it, and it’s still up there, with quibbles. If you have a certain kind of mind, it’ll blow it.
Stapledon for some reason seems little talked about these days, and yet he’s held up very well. His first major sf work was Last and First Men (1930), which is about nothing less than the two billion years of humanity, starting from now. “Oh, he’s an optimist,” you’ll jest. Not at all. A lot of that two billion years is taken up with devastation and destruction, and the last of eighteen human species peter outs in a sad twilight on Neptune. (I read it, but long ago, so I don’t recall if he really thinks Neptune has a surface.) His keen sense of the possible destruction of civilization made him a strange outlier in the gung-ho stage of classic sf, but seems more relevant than ever today.
That two-billion chunk of human history is briefly retold in Star Maker (1937), in about a page and a half: by the standards of Star Maker, that timespan and that story are a trifle. I can’t think of any other book with the scope of this one. Its structure is reminiscent of that amazing film Powers of Ten, in that each chapter takes a wider viewpoint than the last.
A man runs out of his house and up the hill, apparently after a quarrel with his wife, and lies down on a hill looking up at the stars. He starts imagining the Earth in space, and then his imagination becomes real— he finds himself a disembodied viewpoint in space, with the ability to move around at vast speeds, but unable to return to Earth. He is a little alarmed at this— the quarrel wasn’t that serious— but decides he’d better keep going and see what there is to see.
The best scientific opinion of the 1930s was that planets were created when two stars approached each other, a rare event; thus it takes him a long time to find a star with planets. Fortunately he finds one that’s inhabited. Later he realizes that this is no coincidence: he was led psychically to a world much like his own. (I borrowed this idea in my meta-thinking about Almea.)
He sees an alien peasant working in a field, and eventually realizes that he can see through another mind’s senses, and even communicate telepathically. He explores the planet this way, but the aliens are troubled by his communications. One of them complains to a philosopher, whose name is Bvalltu. Bvalltu “cures” the man by inviting the alien visitor to come with him instead, and the narrator gratefully accepts. They get to know each other, become friends, and then learn to travel telepathically together.
But the characters of the book are not individual people; they’re species. Bvalltu’s planet gets a fairly thorough treatment, but the next planets they discover are covered more briefly. Stapledon has some fun imagining more and more unusual forms of sapients. There are avians, intelligent ships, a symbiosis between ichthyoids and arachnids, plant-men, and others. On each planet the group stays for awhile, studies and interacts, and then moves on, often joined by one of the locals.
At this point, they are attracted to planets at a certain stage of crisis. In Stapledon’s terms, the crisis is always whether the species will be destroyed by individualism, or push through to a new form of community. When and where he was writing, in 1937 Britain, the choices were stark and unappetizing: uncompromising communism, reactionary fascism, or a weak and muddled liberal democracy. After WWII, this seemed outdated for awhile; sf futures were almost all a benign future ’50s America. Today Stapledon (like Orwell) is looking better than ever. There’s no future in reactionary hatred and ecological destruction, and yet it seems to be terribly hard for our species to tear itself away from those paths.
Again, Stapledon is no optimist. His view is that most species don’t make it; they collapse back into barbarity or destroy themselves. But some figure it out, and create utopias. He posits that telepathy is used, or created, so that individuals can remain themselves, and yet contribute to a species-wide mind.
Ah, but we’re only halfway through; these are merely the players for later drama. A species that reaches this stage will spend some happy centuries reorganizing itself, rearranging its genome and its stellar system to its liking, and developing in culture. Eventually it turns to the larger galaxy, and here conflict reappears. Can it encounter other species as equals, or does it insist on absorbing them into its own system?
This leads to interstellar wars, and eventually the fighting empires merge into a galactic empire— still a utopia for its citizens, but intent on gobbling up every other entity in the galaxy. However, one of the Magellanic clouds has developed another way, advancing further on the way to community. They are dominated, as it happens, by that symbiotic culture of ichthyoids and arachnids. The symbionts intervene, telepathically undermining the imperials. This leads to the emergence of a galactic society and an incipient galactic mind.
A mere side point in Stapledon: this is the first book to mention what were later called Dyson spheres, structures which capture all the output of a star for sapients’ use. (They do not have to be solid spheres.)
The galaxy now begins exploring the rest of the universe, but runs into a serious problem: the stars themselves are alive, and start roasting planets. The world-minds, you see, had the idea of sending entire star-systems to other galaxies. Being moved about by their own planets seems baffling and wrong to the sentient stars, who react with confused violence. By the time this is sorted out, time is running out— the cosmos is growing old, and there is limited time left. Still, it’s possible to proceed to the next stage, a cosmic soul.
There have been references throughout to the Star Maker, the ultimate creator; the narrator and his companions half expect that once the cosmic soul awakens, it will be able to perceive and respond to the creator, and be accepted as its companion. That would be a little too dreamy: the cosmic soul does reach out to the Star Maker— but is rebuffed. The Star Maker, in effect, perceives the soul of the cosmos, analyzes it and appreciates it… then puts it aside. The cosmic soul persists as long as it can (the suns are going out, but fusion is prolonged in artificial stars; the typical surviving species are now intelligent swarms of worms or bugs living on the surface of these structures).
Finally Stapledon considers the Star Maker itself, from an extra-cosmic perspective, creating one universe after another, moving from simple to more complex creations. Our cosmos is neither early nor late, but is considered the first work of the creator’s mature period.
After all that, the narrator’s vision breaks off, and he finds himself back on the hill looking at the stars.
Whew. You can probably see why this book has influenced most of the classic sf writers, but not been imitated. It’s not a book you could turn into a blockbuster movie, with a part for Harrison Ford and quips by Joss Whedon. Stapledon by no means forgets about individuals; he is always emphasizing that his world-minds are composed of individuals going about their daily lives, and concerned with their maximum happiness. But his focus is on entire worlds, and on ascending the dizzying scale of astronomical time and space.
On a re-reading, I think that Stapledon’s prose works, but is sometimes too academic. He can write passionately, and insert vivid details, but he doesn’t have the precision of Borges or the wit of Stanisław Lem (perhaps his closest peers). He spends a little too much time talking about how he can hardly describe the concerns of lofty super-intelligences or the cosmic soul… well, sure, who could? Fortunately he goes ahead and does it anyway, and it’s fine. You have to be bold with this sort of thing.
From Wikipedia, I learn that C.S. Lewis didn’t like Stapledon’s philosophy (though he admired his inventiveness), and partly wrote his Space Trilogy in response. More than half a century on, their quarrel seems slim. Lewis of course preferred the personal god of Christianity, who may be awe-inspiring but is still fuzzy and loving. If Lewis was here, however, I’d remind him that he’d written A Grief Observed and wondered if God was “a cosmic sadist”. Stapledon wonders the same thing. They would disagree on whether “God is Love”, but Stapledon sees the attractiveness of the idea, and Lewis well understood why someone would be troubled by the suffering God permits in the world.
(If you can’t stand the idea of a god at all… well, just take it as a possible advanced cosmology. The cosmic soul has to have something to think about.)
Stapledon tries to stay true to astronomy (e.g., he does not posit faster-than-light travel, though he does allow telepathy); but of course astronomy has changed since he wrote. His account of the stellar life cycle is wrong, for instance— he thinks that our star started as a “red giant” and cooled into a dwarf, whereas today’s prediction is that the sun will become a red giant in about 8 billion years.
He also places the formation of the universe 200 billion years ago, though he acknowledges that this might be an overestimate. It is; the current estimate is that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old. On the other side, modern science allows far grander expanses of future time than Stapledon: he expects the stars to last for about 75 billion more years, while we now expect star formation to continue for between 1 and 100 trillion years. It’s interesting to speculate what Stapledon would have made of black holes, dark matter, and the possibility that our universe could generate new universes via quantum tunneling.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is. It’s sf for geeks who like their sense of wonder expertly, scientifically frobbed. And these days it’s refreshing to find a classic sf work which veers purposefully away from Imperialism or Capitalism In Space.