Last & First Men

William Olaf Stapledon — Photograph Howard Coster

In 1965 while a conscript in the Argentine Navy I was ignorant of Argentine literature. My reading habits had always steered in the direction of science fiction. I had read most of the available pulp editions.

It was in that year when reading the venerable Argentine newspaper La Nación that I found something that immediately made me curious. It was a review of an edition in Spanish of Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker. The speculative novel’s title was translated into Hacedor de Estrellas. The word “hacedor” as maker is little used in Spanish. I was instantly attracted to the beauty of the word.

I went and purchased the book even though I had no knowledge of who Olaf Stapeldon was. I was most surprised to find that the prologue to the book was by a famous Argentine writer (I had never read to that date) Jorge Luís Borges.

The novel written in 1937, when the world was plunging into a world war, was pure speculation of a man sitting under a tree and soaring with his imagination into the stars the future (and beyond) that he was gazing during a warm summer night.

Lauren at the Planetarium

There were no rockets or hyper drives in this novel.

I became curious about Stapledon so I read his lovely book of a human thinking dog Sirius and his first novel published in 1931 Last and First Men. Thanks to the Gutenberg Project I have been able to paste here the remarkable chapter that so describes our world of 2017. And of course Starmaker launched my interest into reading Jorge Luís Borges. I was not to read until the late 60s my fave Borges book called El Hacedor:



Over the heads of the European tribes two mightier peoples regarded each other with increasing dislike. Well might they; for the one cherished the most ancient and refined of all surviving cultures, while the other, youngest and most self-confident of the great nations, proclaimed her novel spirit as the spirit of the future.

In the Far East, China, already half American, though largely Russian and wholly Eastern, patiently improved her rice lands, pushed forward her railways, organized her industries, and spoke fair to all the world. Long ago, during her attainment of unity and independence, China had learnt much from militant Bolshevism. And after the collapse of the Russian state it was in the East that Russian culture continued to live. Its mysticism influenced India. Its social ideal influenced China. Not indeed that China took over the theory, still less the practice, of communism; but she learnt to entrust herself increasingly to a vigorous, devoted and despotic party, and to feel in terms of the social whole rather than individualistically. Yet she was honeycombed with individualism, and in spite of her rulers she had precipitated a submerged and desperate class of wage slaves.

In the Far West, the United States of America openly claimed to be custodians of the whole planet. Universally feared and envied, universally respected for their enterprise, yet for their complacency very widely despised, the Americans were rapidly changing the whole character of man’s existence. By this time every human being throughout the planet made use of American products, and there was no region where American capital did not support local labour. Moreover the American press, gramophone, radio, cinematograph and televisor ceaselessly drenched the planet with American thought. Year by year the aether reverberated with echoes of New York’s pleasures and the religious fervours of the Middle West. What wonder, then, that America, even while she was despised, irresistibly moulded the whole human race. This, perhaps, would not have mattered, had America been able to give of her very rare best. But inevitably only her worst could be propagated. Only the most vulgar traits of that potentially great people could get through into the minds of foreigners by means of these crude instruments. And so, by the floods of poison issuing from this people’s baser members, the whole world, and with it the nobler parts of America herself, were irrevocably corrupted.

For the best of America was too weak to withstand the worst. Americans had indeed contributed amply to human thought. They had helped to emancipate philosophy from ancient fetters. They had served science by lavish and rigorous research. In astronomy, favoured by their costly instruments and clear atmosphere, they had done much to reveal the dispositions of the stars and galaxies. In literature, though often they behaved as barbarians, they had also conceived new modes of expression, and moods of thought not easily appreciated in Europe. They had also created a new and brilliant architecture. And their genius for organization worked upon a scale that was scarcely conceivable, let alone practicable, to other peoples. In fact their best minds faced old problems of theory and of valuation with a fresh innocence and courage, so that fogs of superstition were cleared away wherever these choice Americans were present. But these best were after all a minority in a huge wilderness of opinionated self-deceivers, in whom, surprisingly, an outworn religious dogma was championed with the intolerant optimism of youth. For this was essentially a race of bright, but arrested, adolescents. Something lacked which should have enabled them to grow up. One who looks back across the aeons to this remote people can see their fate already woven of their circumstance and their disposition, and can appreciate the grim jest that these, who seemed to themselves gifted to rejuvenate the planet, should have plunged it, inevitably, through spiritual desolation into senility and age-long night.

Inevitably. Yet here was a people of unique promise, gifted innately beyond all other peoples. Here was a race brewed of all the races, and mentally more effervescent than any. Here were intermingled Anglo-Saxon stubbornness, Teutonic genius for detail and systematization, Italian gaiety, the intense fire of Spain, and the more mobile Celtic flame. Here also was the sensitive and stormy Slav, a youth-giving Negroid infusion, a faint but subtly stimulating trace of the Red Man, and in the West a sprinkling of the Mongol. Mutual intolerance no doubt isolated these diverse stocks to some degree; yet the whole was increasingly one people, proud of its individuality, of its success, of its idealistic mission in the world, proud also of its optimistic and anthropocentric view of the universe. What might not this energy have achieved, had it been more critically controlled, had it been forced to attend to life’s more forbidding aspects! Direct tragic experience might perhaps have opened the hearts of this people. Intercourse with a more mature culture might have refined their intelligence. But the very success which had intoxicated them rendered them also too complacent to learn from less prosperous competitors.

Yet there was a moment when this insularity promised to wane. So long as England was a serious economic rival, America inevitably regarded her with suspicion. But when England was seen to be definitely in economic decline, yet culturally still at her zenith, America conceived a more generous interest in the last and severest phase of English thought. Eminent Americans themselves began to whisper that perhaps their unrivalled prosperity was not after all good evidence either of their own spiritual greatness or of the moral rectitude of the universe. A minute but persistent school of writers began to affirm that America lacked self-criticism, was incapable of seeing the joke against herself, was in fact wholly devoid of that detachment and resignation which was the finest, though of course the rarest, mood of latter-day England. This movement might well have infused throughout the American people that which was needed to temper their barbarian egotism, and open their ears once more to the silence beyond man’s strident sphere. Once more, for only latterly had they been seriously deafened by the din of their own material success. And indeed, scattered over the continent throughout this whole period, many shrinking islands of true culture contrived to keep their heads above the rising tide of vulgarity and superstition. These it was that had looked to Europe for help, and were attempting a rally when England and France blundered into that orgy of emotionalism and murder which exterminated so many of their best minds and permanently weakened their cultural influence.

Subsequently it was Germany that spoke for Europe. And Germany was too serious an economic rival for America to be open to her influence. Moreover German criticism, though often emphatic, was too heavily pedantic, too little ironical, to pierce the hide of American complacency. Thus it was that America sank further and further into Americanism. Vast wealth and industry, and also brilliant invention, were concentrated upon puerile ends. In particular the whole of American life was organized around the cult of the powerful individual, that phantom ideal which Europe herself had only begun to outgrow in her last phase. Those Americans who wholly failed to realize this ideal, who remained at the bottom of the social ladder, either consoled themselves with hopes for the future, or stole symbolical satisfaction by identifying themselves with some popular star, or gloated upon their American citizenship, and applauded the arrogant foreign policy of their government. Those who achieved power were satisfied so long as they could merely retain it, and advertise it uncritically in the conventionally self-assertive manners.

It was almost inevitable that when Europe had recovered from the Russo-German disaster she should come to blows with America; for she had long chafed under the saddle of American finance, and the daily life of Europeans had become more and more cramped by the presence of a widespread and contemptuous foreign “aristocracy” of American business men. Germany alone was comparatively free from this domination, for Germany was herself still a great economic power. But in Germany, no less than elsewhere, there was constant friction with the Americans.

Of course neither Europe nor America desired war. Each was well aware that war would mean the end of business prosperity, and for Europe very possibly the end of all things; for it was known that man’s power of destruction had recently increased, and that if war were waged relentlessly, the stronger side might exterminate the other. But inevitably an “incident” at last occurred which roused blind rage on each side of the Atlantic. A murder in South Italy, a few ill-considered remarks in the European Press, offensive retaliation in the American Press accompanied by the lynching of an Italian in the Middle West, an uncontrollable massacre of American citizens in Rome, the dispatch of an American air fleet to occupy Italy, interception by the European air fleet, and war was in existence before ever it had been declared. This aerial action resulted, perhaps unfortunately for Europe, in a momentary check to the American advance. The enemy was put on his mettle, and prepared a crushing blow.

Link to: Last & First Men

Originally published at