When the Classic SF discussion group chose Stapledon's second novel, Star Maker, as a book of the month, I decided to warm up by tackling his first one, Last and First Men. This title has been familiar to me for as long as I can remember and the book is acknowledged as one of the classics of SF, but for some reason I'd never read it (or about it) so at the start I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be not so much a warm-up as a full-on marathon.
The story is effectively a future history of mankind on Earth, as told by one of the Last Men from billions of years in the future, who is able to relay the story to a present-day man (one of the First Men, naturally). And it reads like a history book, of the summary overview type – as it has to be considering the scope of the work. Barring one scene, there is nothing in the way of dialogue, no characters and no plot: just a massive, three-hundred page infodump. Nonetheless, there was enough of interest in it for me to finish, albeit somewhat exhausted and in need of a lie-down with a damp towel on my forehead. The description which follows includes some spoilers.
The most important point about this book is the date of publication: 1930. For the time, the themes covered in the book were radical and it caused something of a sensation, as did the scope of the work, with civilisation after civilisation rising and falling over billions of years. Some of the elements he includes are relevant today: an example from the early part of the book is the growth in power of transnational commercial organisations at the expense of national governments (a popular theme in SF ever since). Later on, with the Third Men, a philosophy which reverences all life becomes popular. In contrast with this, a major theme in the latter part of the book becomes the genetic engineering (not that it's called that, of course) not just of plants and animals but of humans too. At first the purpose is to eliminate genetic ailments and extend life, but subsequently this switches to improving the stock (something taken to extremes with the Fourth Men) or even to convert humanity to different environments such as living in the sea or the air. The ultimate developments are mental rather than physical, with the creation of "group minds" through telepathy.
The author deserves credit for his detailed description of an alien life form which is radically different not just from humans but from the kind of animal life we are familiar with. I was also pleased to see that he identified a significant problem with rebuilding civilisation after its first great collapse: that all of the readily available minerals which made the first Industrial Revolution possible were worked out, so humanity had to find other routes to developing civilisation. In this story these were overcome, humanity ultimately terraforming other planets in the Solar System after life on Earth becomes untenable. One social development he mentions is that of group marriage, subsequently developed by Heinlein.
This does not mean that the author was some kind of prophet; his history of the rest of the 20th century is wildly, almost comically, inaccurate. Nothing dates the book so much as its reference to the Swastika along with the Cross as being a sacred religious emblem; well, so it was – for another couple of years or so after the book's publication (the fact that the Nazi version was orientated the other way doesn't blunt the point).
The story is a straight-faced account, with the exception of the only scene with dialogue (which includes some wry humour) and one joke which runs through the early part of the book. Stapledon was English, and he includes a dialect saying which can still be heard today: "God help us", used to express ironic exasperation at a turn of events and always said with a broad accent as "Gawd 'elp us" to emphasise the comic intent. In the story, this saying is misunderstood by non-English listeners, with the result that for generations to come the Supreme Being is called "Gordelpus".
Was it worth the time and effort to read? Yes, I suppose so, for its historic relevance to SF, and for the grand scope and ambition of the work. But I don't expect to read it ever again!