A lot of people have criticized Stapledon's "Last and First Men" for having no characters, but that doesn't mean it has no characterization, because his characterization is of entire races and peoples. That's the ambitious sweep of Last and First Men, which gives us the entirety of human history, over 2 billion years worth.
Robert Bloch once described horror as a kind of mystery story where God is the detective. If that's true, then "Last and First Men" is a tragedy where the main character is the entire human race. Not just one human race, but several: in the enormous span of time the book glibly and speedily covers, the human race assumes many weird forms, some naturally evolved, but others as the products of genetic engineering (though that term is never used) by the previous race.
Here's my favorite part of the story, and it is not only one of the high points of the book but also typical of its storytelling, and based on this you can determine for yourself if the book is for you.
After the destruction of the earth and mankind moves to Venus, the Seventh Men develop, a carefree, child-like race of graceful fliers with arms that have batlike wings. Of all the races of humans, the Seventh Men emerge as the most sympathetic: the most content, pleasant-spirited…no matter what terror happened, the sheer exultation of flight made them forget their troubles.
After thousands of years, because of an environmental problem, many Seventh Men are born without wings. This crippled race are sent to do hard work, but as they're of a race psychologically made for flight, the flightless crippled race were bitter, angry sorts cooped in labs incapable of happiness, a race of miserly industrialists who clutter up every inch of watery Venus's land space with their factories, who over time vow to eliminate flight as a pointless, dead-end future.
The final conflict is an awful genocide, with the carefree flying men mowed down as they futiley attempt to escape enemies in speedier airplanes with machine guns. The last of the Flying Men were a slave race to jealous masters who ordered all winged infants destroyed.
The defiant rebellion of the last Flying Men ended in tragedy, as related here:
Their leaders, conferring together, saw clearly that the day of Flying Man was done, and that it would be more fitting for a high-souled race to die at once than to drag on in subjection to contemptuous masters. They therefore ordered the population to take part in an act of racial suicide that should at least make death a noble gesture of freedom. The people received the message while they were resting on the stony moorland. A wail of sorrow broke from them. It was checked by the speaker, who bade them strive to see, even on the ground, the beauty of the thing that was to be done. They could not see it; but they knew that if they had the strength to take wing again they would see it clearly, almost as soon as their tired muscles bore them aloft. There was no time to waste, for many were already faint with hunger, and anxious lest they should fail to rise. At the appointed signal the whole population rose into the air with a deep roar of wings. Sorrow was left behind. Even the children, when their mothers explained what was to be done, accepted their fate with zest; though, had they learned of it on the ground, they would have been terror-stricken. The company now flew steadily west, forming themselves into a double file many miles long. The cone of a volcano appeared over the horizon, and rose as they approached. The leaders pressed on towards its ruddy smoke plume; and unflinchingly, couple by couple, the whole multitude darted into its fiery breath and vanished. So ended the career of Flying Man.
In the middle of all this there are some outright fantastic bits of imagery, like for instance, an era when a subspecies of man devolve into baboons, or a weird speciation on the high-gravity of Neptune which forces men to all fours, one primitive race of quadrupedal men who have tusks and another quadruped human race hunts them to extinction for their ivory. The most nightmarish were the Fourth Men, a race of superintelligent, immortal and terrifyingly unsentimental, coldblooded and casually genocidal brains the size of Volkswagens.
Because there are different human species, and the book takes a lengthy "God's-Eye-View," the book does not concern itself with even the character of individual civilizations, but rather the character of entire races.
For instance, the God's Eye View reduces the history of our own race, the First Men, into a story about the conflict between our brutal, animal nature and our better and more civilized instincts. Just when one is about to be prominent, some accident of history results in the other side of our nature taking over.
The person giving us this story is a being of tremendous intellect billions of years in the future. I was absolutely dreading this, because an author's true philosophical and personal views are ironically, never more on display when they try to write a person above human understanding giving a comment on modern times – these beings may be above human limits in thinking, but their writers sure aren't. That is, 19th Century novels with characters of this type always come off laughable because their "like unto an amoeba" beings are still tight-assed 19th Century people to the eyes of modern readers.
In fact, it's often difficult to read for this reason, of all things…the Bible…and not come away with the idea that God is a cruel and vindictive bully. But then, what do you expect from Bronze Age nomadic cultures?
In "Last and First Men," sometimes this perspective works and sometimes it doesn't. It was written at an interesting time in history, when the Western neurosis about sex was obvious for what it was and actually could be talked about. A gigantic world war between France and Britain for instance, began again when a beautiful young Princess was the victim of an airplane accident, which brought from the British a cry for revenge against the totally innocent French. In essence, the sensationalist press used sexual imagery to create fear and a desire for aggression and revenge, in much the same way "missing white women" are overhyped in Fox News and other media.
The idea this kind of primitive sexual fascination is a really a primeval rage trigger-instinct would never have occurred to a Victorian mind, and is often invisible to easily provoked people today; it does sound like an observation a more intelligent being from the distant future would make.
Then again, there was the usual Brit science fiction stuff about how a world dominated by Americans (by 1932 a foregone conclusion) would be awful, cultureless and money-mad. This is a British Isles prejudice as petty as their nursery-hatred of Catholics, which I can't imagine any superior mind from the future ever subscribing to – it's bleed over into the character from the author, the literary equivalent of spotting a zipper in a monster movie.
Judging by the writings of their intellectual class across the political spectrum from Tory V.S. Naipaul or liberal Roy Arundhati to C.S. Lewis (whose petty fixations and snipings at the American education system prove what I've always thought: he was an innovative storyteller but a very limited mind), no other nation hates America more, and yet no other nation is considered a close American bosom buddy despite the fact the Brits had one of the evilest empires in history, invented the concentration camp (what, you think it was the Germans?), and in their front and center writings available in public for anyone to read, hate us like poison actively to this day in a way that makes the endearingly contrarian French mind's prejudices look downright innocent in comparison. Maybe those limey bastards are right: Americans don't really read much, or else we'd know how much they loathe us.
On the other hand, a few other details are so forward thinking it's almost shocking to imagine this book was written in 1932. For instance, the ultimate disaster that destroys our technical civilization is the end of fossil fuels. Also, he laughed at the idea World War I would be the "war to end all wars," and even called it one of the least destructive of the later conflicts, put forth a scenario where Americans and Chinese dueled over world influence, and in the days before the atomic bomb, put forth the idea of a superweapon that would destroy all mankind. And all that's in the early chapters dealing with us, the First Men.
Some of the alien-minded human races in the distant future had incredibly inhuman cultures and thought-processes. For instance, the Second Men were doomed by a sort of existential crisis and lack of confidence that honestly, I actually don't even understand.
The most fascinating of the human species - other than the childlike Flying Men and their tragic final fate at the hands of their more pragmatic, industrialist-minded yet bitter and envious brethren – was possibly the Eighteenth Men, or the Last Men, who look not like one race, but many, and have an incredible diversity of appearance.
We are both more human and more animal. The primitive explorer might be more readily impressed by our animality than our humanity, so much of our humanity would lie beyond his grasp. He would perhaps at first regard us as a degraded type. He would call us faun-like, and in particular cases, ape-like, bear-like, ox-like, marsupial, or elephantine.
Moreover, if our observer were himself at all sensitive to facial expression, he would come to recognize in every one of our innumerable physiognomic types an indescribable but distinctively human look, the visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace which is not wholly absent from his own species. He would perhaps say, "These men that are beasts are surely gods also." He would be reminded of those old Egyptian deities with animal heads.
I wonder if the idea of the Last Men possibly inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's the Inhumans from Fantastic Four. After all, both read widely and it is possible to see a lot of early 20th Century science fiction influences in them.
Like John Carter of Mars, this 1932 novel is a book of incredible influence to early generations of science fiction writers and is due anyday to be rediscovered. Though some could be accused of missing the point, like C.S. Lewis, who loved this book but felt the need to talk back to it with "Out of the Silent Planet." Lewis even called the book Satanic – a laughably embarrassing insult for a 20th Century person to slug, right up there with accusing someone of being a witch.
In a part of the book that Lewis did not like, the Fifth Men – a race of moral and intellectual supermen – discover the earth will be rendered uninhabitable, and so they construct a plan to move to Venus. The trouble is that Venus already has an aquatic intelligent inhabited race who fight against the human attempt to make it habitable, as that would be the death of them. Therefore, in a choice prompted by survival, the extremely moral Fifth Men are responsible for the crime of exterminating an entire intelligent race, a black deed that weighs on their guilty consciences.
It was an awful situation – extermination or survival - especially for a race as enlightened as the Fifth Men, and a crime that Stapledon presents without judgment or comment. It was far from presented to the audience as a "correct" course of action, but a bad situation. Nowhere in the book was it presented as a "good" thing to do.
This is a common mistake made by people that choose to police our culture who have no understanding of how art works. They're so used to moral judgment they assume that merely by having something in a story the creators must be in favor of it. A story with violence? They must be gorehounds. A story with rape? The creators must be sickos that like violence against women!
I'm looking squarely at you, Gail Simone. You have great storytelling gifts and your comics are a delight, but your "Women in Refrigerators" site (to which I am not linking because that site does not deserve even any miniscule traffic I can create) is pointlessly incendiary, and presented out of context, all this so-called violence is as meaningless as mentioning the existence of violence or sex in movies. Context tells us whether sex is drama or pornography.
C.S. Lewis was against genocide motivated by greed, eh? Well, I'm sure he had plenty to say, then, about the artificial famines created in India which killed millions in times of plenty to drive up the cost of British grain, or the entire history of abused Ireland, or the hundreds of thousands of Dinka killed to clear settler rights in Kenya, right? No? Didn't say a peep? Well, that's the Brits for you – buttinsky critics of every empire except their own, which ironically (or perhaps predictably) is the worst one of all.
In Out of the Silent Planet, an overly ambitious scientist wants to save the human race by killing all the Martians and settling humans on Mars. The book portrays him as not a very nice person and tries to condemn this viewpoint – except it's not one that Stapledon had!
Sheesh, Lou. You gotta read what the guy says. And that's advice for everybody else. This book is definitely worth reading.