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    2015 Reading Journey: Last and First Men

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    Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930)

    This is not a novel. It’s not even really a story in the traditional sense. Last and First Men is a series of speculative future history essays. Now, the framework of the “story” is that these essays are written by a contemporary human (Stapledon) under the influence of one of the “last men”, telepathically pushing the words through his pen from a time billions of years in the future when the human race is about to be wiped from the face of the universe permanently. I knew this going in, but I thought it would be easier to get past.

    Early in the book, we occassionally get individual characters, but never for more than a moment or two. Instead, we get bland descriptions of often horrific future events. War after war. Relgious insanity. Violent societal crashes. The narrative, if I can even use the word, both reinforces and shatters stereotypes, though mostly the first of those, and, as one might expect in 1930, is tinged heavily with sexism. The sexism lasts throughout the book, even if the stereotypes disappear in the main after we’ve got a decent evolutionary distance from current humanity.

    The book is filled with ideas, ridiculous, incredible, and bizarre ideas. But the presentation doesn’t work very well for me.

    Ignoring the presentation, at least for the moment, it’s hard to synopsize without sounding flippant or sarcastic. However…

    We are the first men. The first six chapters of the book concern us as we walk though war after war, collapse after collapse, and setback after setback. Finally, achieving a global government, it’s brought down by stupid and short sighted religion, an interesting commentary even today. A mere thirty-five individuals survive the holocaust, somehow splitting into two species, one of which devolves into something sub-human.

    The second men take millions of years to arrive as a devastated planet recovers from our stupidity. They’re giant, hairy, without ego, and live for two centuries or so. They probably would have lasted a lot longer if the Martians hadn’t invaded. Twice.

    The third men hang around for millions of years but never really amount to anything except that they manage to create the Fourth men.

    And it’s about here I realize that each successive species seems to get less screen time.

    So the fourth men were designed – giant brains capable of great feats of intellect and cruelty, and they designed their successors, the fifth men. Not that they were intended to be successors but a giant science experiment.

    The fifth men kill off their progenitors, terraform Venus, and slaughter the native Venusians, and make a mess of Venus before collapsing in on themselves. When the sixth men arrive, they are basically a repeat of us (the first men), in different form but very similar attitudes. They don’t quite take the whole world with them when they go, but it isn’t pretty.

    Then we get bird men (and I forgot to mention the seal-men who lived at the same time as the sixth, but were exterminated by them) paranoid men, religious men, savage men, crazy men, and all sorts of varieties of men we’d recognize easily enough in ourselves, supplanted by their mutant, flightless offspring, the 8th men who engineer the dwarf men 9th to survive on a “terraformed” Neptune.

    Not engineered very well though, but evolution does what science can’t apparently, and then we’ll skip a few hundred million years, mentioning the 10th through 17th men in not much more than a few paragraphs each, before we get to the oh-so-important 18th men. The last men. These have 96 variations on gender (subgenders) and family units made up of one of each, the ability to function as a group mind, the ability to cruise through past minds (borrowed from the 15th and 16th men), an insanely advanced civilization, and are potentially immortal.

    They’re also wiped out because the sun catches a disease and roasts the solar system. But hey, let’s see if we can influence the past a little even as we create some kind of solar sailing panspermia to perpetuate something human-like on other planets in the future.

    So across billions of years of history, we’ve watched the rise and fall of a bewildering variety of empires and civilizations, and of 18 species. Humanity has moved to two other planets during that time and then been wiped out by its own sun, but with hope that human-derived intelligence will continue somewhere.

    Overall rating: 1 star. That deserves a little explanation.

    I’m awed by the imagination that produced the ideas contained in this book. I’m disappointed beyond measure at the presentation. Yes, this is not a really novel, but a series of speculative essays covering the future of the human species, and the next 17 species of humanity which follow it. Last and First Men tells a story, or tries to, but not a coherent one. It reaches almost for the stars but gets bogged down in obsessive navel gazing and irrelevant details while refusing to tell the actual story. While refusing to tell many actual stories.

    It’s a book that’s just this side of 100% info dump. A masterpiece of exposition, perhaps, but an incredibly difficult slog and, when all is said and done, possibly the most boring thing I’ve ever read.

    So yes, I have to go with 1 star.

    Be well, everyone.

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