"Last and First Men" Group Discussion

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"Last and First Men" Group Discussion

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mar 30, 2009, 7:30 pm

Post your thoughts and opinions on the book selected for the fourth group discussion, Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon.

mar 30, 2009, 9:05 pm

The copy I requested just came into my local library today, so I am ready to start.

apr 1, 2009, 1:50 pm

So far it reads like an older textbook from a pompous professor. I'm trying to justify the style to myself by saying the POV is someone from the far future giving a history lesson whilst looking down his nose at "earlier" inferior man.

I don't find the writing style particularly enjoyable to read, but I'm still having a (slow) go at it.

apr 1, 2009, 2:30 pm

well - if our local system's upgraded catalog is to be trusted, there are NO Stapledon books in our county system, which seems unlikely. Ah well, i'll go pay my fine @ UNC and check it out there this weekend.

Redigerat: apr 1, 2009, 9:23 pm


It wouldn't surprise me that your library doesn't have any Stapledon books. It's quite sad, considering the influence he has had on many other writers - Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Kim Stanley Robinson, and C. S. Lewis (in a negative manner).

Redigerat: apr 1, 2009, 11:42 pm

#5 re Clarke, just today I stumbled over this about LaFM:
"No book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination."
Arthur C Clarke

I completely believe it too, as one of the first things I thought when I started reading LaFM was Clarke's book The City and the Stars which I'd read last year. Different style and plot, but both books have the feel of vast expanses of time. I suspect Clarke is the more upbeat of the two....but I'll find out eventually.

apr 4, 2009, 3:17 pm

I got sidetracked by a couple other reads, so I'm only about 10 pages in, just wanted to mention how interesting it is as a reflection of the early-ish 20th century (and before), its language and beliefs. For instance, the casual racialism--"Latin race", "Nordic race" etc., the serious sociological use of what today we'd consider rank stereotyping and so on. (Oh, and sexism, of course. "Men, first and last" ;))

Also, it's funny how little the perception of Americans has changed in seventy years.

apr 4, 2009, 4:11 pm

#7 Funny wasn't the word I would have used, but it's definitely interesting. I lump the American bashing with the other unfair generalizations, i.e. the "casual racialism" and the sexism.

Sometimes these older books are interesting for what they say about the times they were written in rather the SF content. It's interesting that Arthur C. Clarke admits to being influenced by this book, and yet his The City and the Stars really seems devoid of this kind of stereotyping. Granted it was written 27 years later, but that was still mid-fifties, which wasn't exactly a hotbed of racial and gender enlightenment.

apr 4, 2009, 4:46 pm

Hi LolaWalser, I was also sidetracked and have only read the first chapter and the first thing I picked out was all the generalizations. But then I thought, maybe it was the intent of the author to have the history of the first men be generalized and prejudiced by the distance of time and culture of the last man who is "inspiring" this story. So many of our own history books seem to make assumptions on ancient civilizations based more on our own culture and prejudices. I guess I won't know if it is stapledon's style to generalize or if the narrator (last man) is responsible for these views until the end of the book!
Hi GwenH, it is so true what you had to say about books being a reflection of the time it was written. Is The City and the Stars a book worth picking up? I'm kinda new to sci-fi and I am looking to become more familiar with the genre

apr 4, 2009, 5:09 pm

#9 Welachild, ask for recommendations with this group and you will end up with plenty. The City and the Stars I mentioned because Clarke has been quoted as finding Last and First Men influential, and it covers the same vast time period of human civilization. It's one of the few books I managed to get a review posted for, so you see my opinion there under the book's review section!

apr 5, 2009, 9:27 pm

7/9 .. The flood of national stereotypes was, really, the only thing i've noticed so far, having just picked up my copy this afternoon. If I want to spend time in the rare books room I have the option of reading CS Lewis' annotated personal copy. We'll see; if the pace/my interest level picks up i might go take a look.

apr 5, 2009, 10:06 pm

#7, #9

To be fair, Stapledon is also quite critical of England -he wrote that the English had a timidity that often amounted to moral cowardice.

Oh, nearly forgot, for those whom can't find a copy, it's free at this link (providing the copyright has expired for where the poster is.)


Redigerat: apr 5, 2009, 11:19 pm

#12 Oh, he has things to say about the French as well. I haven't found Americans singled out yet in the novel. However, in his foreward to the American edition, he makes a point of warning the reader that he made the Americans the cause of a critical downfall and hoped we wouldn't mind since many of us admit to the flaws he presents in the story anyway.

Nothing in the book is an interest killer yet, though I have decided the book is more like a dry variety Port wine, rather than like my preferred Cabernet Sauvignon.

apr 6, 2009, 1:16 pm

reading the book is akin to sitting through a rather dull series of history lectures. Instead of being interested in the plot/characters/events, i find myself mildly interested in noting how his 1931 near future (next 70-80 yr) predictions panned out. He does better than many futurists might have but so what. The Patagonian hegemony might be humorous, but i don't think Olaf had a funny bone in his body. And then, and then, and THEN the "daughter of man" appears like Venus on a clamshell, just as China and America are divvying up the world between them.

Redigerat: apr 6, 2009, 2:02 pm

#14 "And then, and then, and THEN the "daughter of man" appears like Venus on a clamshell, just as China and America are divvying up the world between them."

Hehehe, a definite highlight....as an American, even I got a laugh out of that scene. :)

apr 8, 2009, 9:26 pm

Finished reading the book, posted my thoughts on the 42 Challenge.


(Wish I knew how to put in hyperlinks in a neater way).

I must admit, it is my favourite book, but it still stands up after yet another re-read. Yes, the first four chapters aren't the best writing, as many people have pointed out, but after the fall of the First Men, it becomes a far better book.

apr 9, 2009, 3:40 am

Use HTML tags, you know: (a href="link")link(/a).

Replace brackets with angle brackets.

apr 9, 2009, 11:03 am

If you add target=_blank it will open in a new tab.

(a href="url" target=_blank)text identifying url(/a).

replace ( with .

apr 9, 2009, 2:38 pm

Not sparkling in the prose department after two chapters, other books are more enticing so this could be a Pearl-Rule out after 50pp for me.

At least it's got the excuse of being 78 years old.

apr 9, 2009, 3:24 pm

the ONLY reason i'll finish this one is because it was the book of the month selection..Hell, i switched my vote to it as Stableford has all kinds of historical importance (i've heard..) in SF history. Ain't no HG Wells if you're looking for classic, historically imp. SF.

apr 11, 2009, 1:38 am

If you add target=_blank it will open in a new tab.

Please don't do that. It's really annoying to have new tab/window forced on a person. If I want to open something in a new tab/window I'll do it myself.

apr 11, 2009, 11:43 am

I'm working on the Fifth Men, only 75 more pages to go.

apr 12, 2009, 1:17 pm

I'm somewhere in the fifth chapter (about one fourth of the book), and utterly fascinated.

apr 12, 2009, 1:27 pm

I'm done, and ready to discuss when others are at that point.

apr 12, 2009, 3:08 pm

I cried "uncle" on p59 of Last and First Men; it was written in 1930 or so, it's true, but nothing as ephemeral as passing time can excuse the line, "A century after the founding of the first world state a rumour began to be heard in China about the supreme secret of scientific religion, the awful mystery of Gordelpus, by means of which it should be possible to utilize the energy locked up in the opposition of proton and electron."

*buzz* you're out, Dr. Stapledon, and thanks for playing our game!

apr 13, 2009, 7:42 pm


And what is wrong with that at all?

apr 13, 2009, 8:14 pm

>26 rojse:, this is a novel. That sentence is more akin to a textbook's tone. Constructions such as "began to be heard" leach all sense of momentum that an author could instil in the sentence to keep the reader interested..."Rumors abounded in China" or "there surfaced many rumors in China" would be more direct and, to my ear anyway, less droningly lecturing.

I offer these as my opinions, YMMV, of course.

apr 13, 2009, 10:56 pm

Well, I think we can all agree Stapledon wasn't much of a belle-lettrist, at least as shown in this book.

But I must say I'm awed by the scale and incidental detail of his history--and I'm only as far as the Second Men. Sure, he didn't consider or care that we'll be running out of planet much, much before than his scenario allows, but, by gum. All those ups and downs--quite a roller coaster.

Besides, I'm curious about the pre-WWII intellectual milieu, and this gives almost an overview of the philosophical, biological and political trends of the times... with some startlingly prescient touches.

apr 14, 2009, 3:15 am

Ha. "Gordelpus"? I hadn't known Stapledon was a comedian. "Gordelpus" is obviously "God help us", a common oath in London in the first half of last century.

apr 14, 2009, 10:27 am

>28 LolaWalser: I must say I'm awed by the scale and incidental detail of his history I guess that's why it's considered a classic. It sure won't be making conquest sales by word of mouth from delighted young readers.

I'm curious about the pre-WWII intellectual milieu And this is an excellent way to indulge that curiosity, no question. In one neat, compact package, Stapledon addresses many issues of interest in his time; of interest in ours, too, and so the reason an intelligent reader would give this book house-room.

>29 iansales: Ha, indeed.

apr 14, 2009, 10:52 am

#30 " In one neat, compact package, Stapledon addresses many issues of interest in his time; of interest in ours, too,..."

I'd say even more than that. He presents one interpretation of those issues. In fact, the early chapters of the book almost seem written to present that interpretation under the guise of fiction without the need for any sort of proof or illustrating examples, just sweeping generalizations.

It's definitely a Eurocentric viewpoint, with England at the pinnacle of human enlightenment, an achievement reluctantly shared with France. However, the other flawed European countries still held sway over the lesser countries. Perhaps theres some basis for proclaiming that German mysticism influenced the direction of Indian culture, but I would have thought India had developed well enough on its own.

And of course we Americans are the brute force that bulldozed the best acheivement of mankind! At some point, writing style aside, the whole thing began to amuse and entertain me. I'm in need of a little of this goading to prepare for the next time my non-American friends start in on similar well-worn jibes.

apr 14, 2009, 10:57 am

>31 GwenH: Perhaps theres some basis for proclaiming that German mysticism influenced the direction of Indian culture, but I would have thought India had developed well enough on its own.

I am sooo glad I stopped when I did, based on that snippet alone. Hogwash! Indian mysticism predates European culture whole and entire.

apr 14, 2009, 11:10 am

#32 Exactly! :D

apr 14, 2009, 11:48 am

Gordelpus=God help us

Ian, that's great, thanks for pointing it out. I'm ashamed to say I didn't notice, just skated over the "nonsense" word.

#31, 32

Generalisations often contain a kernel of truth. But more to the point, Stapledon disposed of "our" world in about a blink, and he was no kinder to the Europeans than he was to Americans. Worse, in fact. Not that it matters the least, within the time-scale he's writing in.

Since the demise of "our" world (after the Euro-American war), he goes on to describe global history ten million years later--and that's only about the time of "Second Men", a humanoid species evolved from Homo sapiens.

And he keeps shifting the centres of new civilisations--so far, from South America to Antarctica to Siberia to Asia etc. following his scenarios of climate and human population changes.

apr 14, 2009, 11:57 am


The magic of Stapledon's writing style is that it doesn't feel like it's "in about a blink". I felt the weighty passage of time as I pushed my way down just one of his pages!

apr 14, 2009, 1:34 pm

Heh. I can see what you mean... although to me it's been positively zippy after the fall of the first global state.

My problem is that I can't hold the entire sequence of the migrations, catastrophes and reconvalescences for longer than a page.

apr 15, 2009, 12:04 pm

and just think of all he explicitly excluded. Surely a dozen pages were taken up w/ simply variants of "while fascinating, there's no time to go into that topic here."

"Last-first" reminds me far too much of the cultural geography lectures i inflected upon my classes @ UNC- i'd try to get all possible interrelationships between society/time/place/subject included in a 50 min. talk, and the sum total was both overwhelmingly dense and tediously didactic. There was some, hell, a lot of good information but my inept presentation made it awfully hard to dig out.

HG Wells was far better at this sort of thing than Olaf or I.

apr 16, 2009, 9:43 am

I don't see Stapledon as offering "information"--the man is imagining a future of tens (or hundreds) of million years. His Second Men have fused bones in their feet, resulting in some kind of... hoof?--this is just an idea, you can't call it good or bad information.

Did Wells ever write a future this far and complex? I can't remember but I don't think so. All his books are rather short, and more novel-like, I think. As my blurb says, Stapledon's only "character" is humanity, and the "plot" is simply global history. And dense it certainly is...

Redigerat: apr 16, 2009, 11:21 am

Oh his imagination was superb - his style abysmal. I was using "information" in the sense that Stapledon was creating a purported history (w/in the format of a novel)- so, really, it was one huge info-dump.

A book's sweep and imaginative scope can't get much larger. But (imo) a VERY laboured and repetitious style just detracts immensely from a great imaginative effort. Hell, he even creates a wholly alien Martian life form to foment human evolution when required. Really, i think his martians are the best feature of the book.

the time machine goes to the end of human time/space. A more successful (and polemical) effort to meld Darwinism and class politics - esp. if readability(?) counts for something.

Neither L&F Men nor the Time Machine are v. long. L&F Men FEELS long to me as i persevere.

apr 16, 2009, 11:32 am

I finally got a copy of the book yesterday. I read the preface, and the prologue and the first 6 pages of the first chapter, than skipped from chapter to chapter reading first pages. What a bore! Vey turgid writing--as someone else said, like reading a textbook, and not a particularly well written one either. But I read fiction for pleasure and there is no pleasure in this book. I'm done with it. Too many books, too little time to waste anymore of it reading Stapledon.

apr 16, 2009, 8:42 pm

I can understand the trepidations about the writing style of the book. The discussion about the different characteristics of the First Men doesn't quite work in the first four chapters. However, it works far better in the latter chapters, when Stapledon attempts discusses the characteristics of future races of humanity.

And it does fit the conceit of the Eighteenth Men possessing a philosophy writer and lecturing to him about the future of humanity.

apr 18, 2009, 6:48 pm

That was grand. What a beautiful ending.

It's rare to come across a book that packs this many ideas per page (or paragraph). In this regard--and keeping in mind the unity and a certain heightened romanticism of tone--I can compare it only to Sagan's "Cosmos", perhaps. But it's not really like anything I can think of... an epic philosophical poem. In some places I could imagine Stapledon going into a trance as these monstrously long evolutionary sequences unrolled.

(Oh, and he certainly had his fun! "God's Big Noise"... Martians "liberating" diamonds... the almost-sexual rapport between the Fifth Men and their pets... lots of other details.)

Made me dream--the best any book can do.

apr 18, 2009, 9:07 pm


I'll have to have a look for "Cosmos".

Oh, if you enjoyed that, have a look for Star Maker, also by Stapledon.

apr 18, 2009, 9:38 pm

"Cosmos" is non-fiction, based on a TV series Sagan presented, popular cosmology at its best, lightly written, lavishly illustrated. I don't mean to say that the two are similar, only that reading Stapledon I was strongly reminded of the experience of reading Sagan, at 14 (probably half the reasons I became a scientist), the discovery of unimaginable expanses of time and space, the sense of history, human, terrestrial, cosmic, the thrill of the search for understanding, even what Stapledon calls by the end "the racial sense"--the strong identification with humanity, at any time and any place, transcending personal destiny.

I have "The star maker", I'll get to it soon.

apr 21, 2009, 4:29 am

I started Last and First Men a day or two ago and I've so far got to the end of the First Men. The book strikes me as a weird mix of insight and naivete. Admittedly, some of Stapledon's "predictions" are way off-base, and I think he's misinterpreted the national character of some of the countries he discusses - not least America. There's also an uncomfortable undercurrent of anti-semitism in one section.

But the over-riding impression is a sort of 1920s optimism in the science of the time. Not the science of the future, the science of the time. Oil, coal. Aeroplanes. There's not much invention evident* - but then I suppose it took American sf and Gernsback's Amazing Stories to add inventive extrapolation to the arsenal of "scientific romance"**. As it is, reading Stapledon's book I keep on flashing on the films "Metropolis", "Things to Come"*** and "Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow". It's the future vision of great buildings, and personal aeroplanes (which, of course, are propeller-driven).

So far, it's not the most gripping of reads, but there's an appealling atmosphere to it. It's sort of like the literary equivalent of the external shots of the city in Lang's "Metropolis" - astonishingly large and detailed but, despite being futuristic, quite plainly a product of the 1920s.

* Stapledon does mention arcologies, albeit not by name. Which is the sort of invention I mean; but it's just about the only example. The Gordelpus energy-thing might as well be fantasy.
** um, there might be a theory worth exploring there...
*** that's the William Cameron Menzies adaptation of Well's novel; not the 1970s version starring Jack Palance, which actually bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book...

apr 22, 2009, 2:44 am

I finally finished the book today. I was having trouble reading it as a fiction novel, when my daughter suggested that I read it more as philosophy or maybe evolutionary speculation. That helped me quite a bit, and I do think that it became more interesting after the first men.

I found that OS focused more on life science and very little on physical science, which is surprising to me. I really liked the part about the Martians. Actually, I liked the parts after earth, too. One thing that I noticed was the emphasis on death. Often people would volunteer for suicide. On Venus, the offspring which were not fully developed with wings would be destroyed. And then the entire race of Venus fish beings were destoyed "lovingly." There was the race that was sadistic, finding pain the truest emotion, especially when others experienced it. These parts of the book I found somewhat disturbing because they were so frequent.

I liked the end as well.

apr 22, 2009, 8:17 pm


I always seen it as the future human races a different morality system to us, one that we can not comprehend in the same manner that the future races could not comprehend our moral systems.

I always thought the killing of the crippled Sixth Men was out of mercy, because those whom were winged could not envisage a being whom could not experience the joy of fly, and did not want to make any being suffer such a fate.

The Fifth Men is a lot less clear-cut, and as such, is more interesting to discuss. The Ventians could not coexist with the Fifth Men, so the Fifth Men could choose to embrace racial suicide, or inhabit Venus at the expense of it's native inhabitants. They justified their actions with the twin reasoning that the Venetians were dying out, requiring decreasing radioactive decay to continue their existence, and even if this were not so, that the Venetians were not as able or could not aspire as high as the Fifth Men had already achieved. Whether this logic was the reason behind their actions or if it was more simply a survival imperative is an interesting question, and I don't know the answer.

apr 29, 2009, 10:28 pm

I laughed when I read, "And this book, so admirable in our conception, has issued from the brain of the writer, your contemporary, in such disorder as to be mostly rubbish."
Having just finished the book, I think this line fits my own review perfectly. There were so many interesting philosophical discussions in this book and a lot of interesting tidbits of sci-fi that it would be hard to classify LandFM as rubbish. Stapledon had a great imagination but I felt teased by stories such as the brains (the fourth men) and felt a really great novel could have been created around this idea. I found so many interesting bits in this book that could have been the jumping off point to a really great story, but instead Stapledon changed subjects just as they were starting to get interesting. I am left with a disorderly feeling, I don't really know what to think of LandFM because I feel like I just sat down and read a history book that only alotted a couple of pages for the most interesting points in history. It left me frusturated.

Redigerat: maj 6, 2009, 7:53 am


The length that Stapledon sticks with ideas is quite an interesting criticism, and it's quite hard to fault. Stapledon did only roughly skim over his ideas, and if you think an idea is interesting, you only get to stay with it for a chapter at most. On the upside is that any idea that you do not appreciate (I wouldn't say bad, because most ideas were quite good, if unconventional) you only stay with it for that long, too.

I don't think that you really need to stick with a single idea for that long, though. Stapledon told us all we needed to know - a basic overview of the situation, some ethical or philosophical problems that would arise, and how the events conclude. In fact, I found that such a brief discussion actually benefited from the book. Imagine how easily dated a book about a single idea, as you mentioned, would become. The science might be disproven, the presumed social values would quickly change, presumed hurdles might become irrelevant within years due to unanticipated technological advances.

aug 23, 2013, 7:48 am

Detta konto har stängts av för spammande.