Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon, was first published in 1931. It’s science fiction, and it’s unlike any science fiction I have ever read. There is no protagonist. Or, perhaps, as the back cover says, the protagonist is humanity itself.
I don’t know how to accurately describe the “plot” of this book in just a couple of paragraphs, so please bear with me.
Last and First Men is a history book – written by someone over a billion years from now.
“This book has two authors,” begins the introduction, “one contemporary with its readers, the other an inhabitant of a age they would call the distant future.”
“Observe now your own epoch of history as it appears to the Last Men,” begins Chapter I.
England and France are at war. Both sides are suffering heavy losses. England sends out an unprecedented message: We are ceasing hostilities. We are not surrendering. We are not admitting defeat. We are merely tired of the fighting.
A single airplane appears in the sky above England. It is flying so low that it’s seen as a message of peace. Something falls out of the airplane and destroys a boys’ school, full of students. A popular English princess is killed. The plane crashes, killing its pilot.
Some in England see this as a horrible accident. Many more see it as an act of aggression. The war resumes, escalates, and spreads. The Anglo-French War leads to the Russo-German War, which leads to the Euro-American War. The wars last hundreds of years.
With most of Europe and half of Russia destroyed, Communist China and Capitalist America both become stronger. This leads to the Sino-American War, until a secret meeting on an island in the Pacific Ocean creates the First World State – a single worldwide government – with an American president and a Chinese vice-president.
The First World State lasts many thousands of years. Eventually, this world civilization collapses, leading to the First Dark Age, followed by the formation of a new civilization in South America, known as Patagonia.
115,000 years after the fall of The First World State, a mining incident sets off a nuclear chain reaction which scorches nearly the entire Earth. The only surviving humans are 35 men and women in a research ship near the North Pole. Eventually they find some habitable land on the northern coast of Siberia. They contemplate suicide, but decide to keep surviving.
Fighting breaks out among the survivors, and their descendants. Half the group leaves Siberia and settles in barely-habitable Labrador. The Second Dark Age Begins.
10 million years go by. The Earth recovers and reshapes. Arctic animals evolve and spread over the Earth. Humans, too, have evolved. The First Men are in decline and the Second Men (larger, smarter, with a longer lifespan) emerge.
All this is being observed by the Martians, who didn’t understand what they were observing.
That’s the first 100 pages of this book. It continues in this way through the remaining 146 pages, following the evolution of the Second Men, the Third Men, the Fourth Men – all the way to the Eighteenth Men. There are sub-humans along the way – a baboon-like species, a seal-like species, and several somewhat human species adapted for life on Neptune.
Human evolution becomes more artificial than natural.
The Fourth Men – the Great Brains – are literally brains in a jar, created by the Third Men. The Fifth Men are created by the Great Brains, from the Third Men.
The Fifth Men leave Earth and colonize Venus.
The Seventh Men, created by the Sixth Men, have the ability to fly. They are the only “Flying Men”.
The Ninth Men leave Venus and colonize Neptune. (The solar system is vastly different than it was in the time of the First Men.)
The Eighteenth Men – the Last Men – would be recognizable as human by the First Men, but are the size of giants, have various skin colors the First Men don’t, and a pair of occipital eyes, a central upward-looking astronomical eye, and various sub-sexes. They have an average lifespan of a quarter of a million terrestrial years, and the ability to look into minds across vast distances of space and time. They know their sun is coming to an end.
There are five Time Scale illustrations throughout the book. In each one, “Today”, 2000 A.D., is the mid-point. Time Scale 1 starts at 2,000 years ago and ends at 2,000 years hence. Time Scale 2 is one hundred times the span of the preceding scale. (“Doubtless extremely inaccurate”, it says.) Time Scale 3 is one hundred times Scale 2, and Time Scale 4 is one hundred times Scale 3. Each one is less accurate than the last. Time Scale 5 is ten thousand times Scale 4, starting at 10 trillion years ago and ending at 5 trillion years hence.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this book. Is there a message in this continuing cycle of evolution, war, destruction, rebirth, and evolution? Or is it just a story?
My reaction to Last and First Men is a gray area between “like” and “dislike”. I suppose I was fascinated, more than anything else. I enjoyed the uniqueness, the imagination, and the thought that went into this book. (The Martians, for instance, having evolved separately, are nothing like Humans. They’re described a “cloudlets of ultra-microscopic units”. When they invaded the Earth, looking for water, they didn’t recognize the Second Men as conscious, intelligent beings, and the Second Men thought, at first, that the Martians were a weather phenomenon.) I didn’t enjoy the impersonal nature of this book. I especially didn’t enjoy the racial stereotypes that pop up during the time of the First Men.
I’ve realized that I’ve written this post without telling you which category Last and First Men fulfills.
- A book from the library