Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men
Olaf Stapledon's reputation is something of an anomaly. Stapledon was a philosophical writer who did not think of himself essentially as a writer of science fiction. Yet serious writers and readers of science fiction regard him with awe. Basil Davenport says typically that he is "one of the few creative intelligences that have ever tried the medium."1 Writers and thinkers of the distinction of Bertrand Russell, C. S. Lewis and H. G. Wells wrote of Stapledon with admiration. Arthur C. Clarke speaks of his influence on his own work. And Davenport provides us with a catalogue of Stapledonian themes that have entered the mainstream of science fiction: "the mutant who is both a prodigy and a monster; the superman who is not the oppressor of Homo Sapiens but his potential savior and actual victim; alien intelligences which are not even animal; controlled evolution and artificial brains." And yet (to complete the anomaly) Stapledon is virtually unknown outside the field of science fiction. I do not intend here to solve the mystery of Stapledon's reputation, though in the course of a consideration of his masterwork Last and First Men ( 1930) I hope to shed some light upon it.
We might begin with the preface to Last and First Men.
Yet our aim is not merely to create aesthetically admirable fiction. We must achieve neither mere history, nor mere fiction, but myth. A true myth is one which, within the universe of a certain culture (living or dead), expresses richly, and often perhaps tragically, the highest admirations possible within that culture. A false myth is one which either violently transgresses the limits of credibility set by its own cultural matrix, or expresses admirations less developed than those of its culture's best vision. This book can no more claim to be true myth than true prophecy. But it is an essay in myth creation.2
The imaginative freedom taken by Stapledon in Last and First Men make one wonder what "the limits of credibility" are. If Stapledon's