Profiled by Galen Strickland
William Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) - another writer with whom even long-time SF fans are probably not familiar. Born near Liverpool, England, his middle name does not signify Scandanavian ancestors, but rather that his parents were reading a history of the kings of Norway at the time. He was educated at the progressive public school of Abbotsholme and at Balliol College, Oxford. Following a brief stint with the family shipping business in Port Said he served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France during World War 1. In 1925 he received a doctorate in philosophy from Liverpool University.
Olaf Stapledon was the recipient of the
2001 Rediscovery Award
presented by the Cordwainer Smith Foundation
He began writing various essays as early as 1908, but it was not until 1930 that he published his first novel, Last and First Men. This novel, along with almost all of his other major works, is definitely SF, but OS can hardly be considered a genre writer. Relatively unknown to genre readers, he nevertheless can be seen to have influenced many SF writers, including Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Cordwainer Smith, and James Blish, to mention just a few.
Last and First Men, along with 1937's Star Maker, have to be viewed as examples of the most ambitious fiction ever attempted. The former employs a timescale of nearly two billion years in its description of the history of mankind through eighteen distinct stages of evolution on Earth and other planets. The story is told by one of the Last Men (of the 18th stage), working through the mind of a "docile but scarcely adequate brain" of one of the First Men (ourselves). Several concepts that OS would introduce here would later prove to be staples of many genre works, including genetic engineering and the terraforming of other planets to make them suitable for habitation by humans. Hailed by critics and other contemporary writers on its initial release, Last and First Men would later be nearly forgotten until the late '40s, when much to his surprise, OS was embraced by the SF community. It is perhaps this acceptance as an SF writer that explains his almost total neglect by historians of modern literature.
Star Maker can in some ways be considered a sequel to Last and First Men (or vice-versa), in that it takes the perspective of history away from the narrow scope of humanity and focuses it on the grander scale of the entire cosmos. The tale is related by an English gentleman who inexplicably begins an "astral" (out-of-body) journey which takes him high above the Earth's surface. At first fearful of his plight, he slowly becomes aware that he can will his movement through space by mere thought. After an immeasurable amount of time he encounters another spirit such as himself, and they discover they can combine the powers of their minds to travel faster through the infinities of space. Eventually they are joined by countless others as they observe many forms of civilizations on other planets in far-flung solar systems, some quite human-like, others so alien as to defy comprehension. Each of the travelers must also face the fact of their own race's pitifulness when they encounter the Star Maker itself, "the supreme moment of the cosmos."
OS introduced several themes in these novels which would preoccupy most of his other work, both fiction and non-fiction, particularly the concept of community as a necessity for individual achievement, and a general acknowledgement of the inadequacy of the human mind for the discovery of truth. His other notable SF work includes: Odd John, concerning a race of supermen, whose superiority is more of a spiritual and intellectual nature rather than one of "super-powers" familiar from comics and other fantastic tales; Sirius, a tale of a genetically-enhanced dog with intellectual prowess, considered by many to be the best SF tale with a non-human protagonist; and The Flames, which relates the plight of alien beings, once inhabitants of the sun, whose essence can be released on Earth by the super-heating of igneous rock. Death Into Life, while not science fiction by strict definition, has to be considered speculative fiction of the highest order. In it OS explored the after-life experienced by the crew of a World War 2 bomber, all killed instantly when their plane explodes in mid-air.
Stapledon was a 2014 inductee to
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame
"OS is...sometimes dimly perceived [to be] the Star Maker behind many subsequent stories of
the far future and galactic empires...his influence, both direct and indirect, on the development
of many concepts which now permeate genre sf is probably second only to H. G. Wells."
[Mark Adlard, from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]
Dani Zweig briefly reviews several Stapledon titles
Stapledon's page at cordwainer-smith.com - he won the first CS "Rediscovery" Award
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