23 March 2007

"It Is Very Good to Have Been a Man"

British science-fiction author and philosopher Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950) was the king of the plotless polemics-driven SF novel, the Ayn Rand of his field. His most important philosophical work is Modern Theory of Ethics, but his legacy comes through his philosophical fiction. His novels are plotless not in that sense that nothing happens—plenty does—but plotless in that there are no characters to follow or to root for as they struggle to achieve definable goals. Stapledon instead views billions of years of events from the distance of an historian and social scientist. The main character of his most famous novel, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930) is . . . the human race itself.

Stapledon was a grandly humanistic and agnostic philosopher, which explains while C. S. Lewis got in such a twist over the “amorality” of Last and First Men and responded with his “Cosmic Trilogy.” I haven't enjoyed C. S. Lewis’s work since I was young child, and understandably find Stapledon’s science fiction panorama more moving and thought-provoking. Stapledon may not have been religious, but he perceived the effect of religious aspirations in human development, and he had the massive vision and intellect to see his ideas onto the page in sweeps of philosophy. Last and First Men is, more than anything else, a novel of Idea. It makes most novels, even the largest epics, seem small. Hell, books I love like Anna Karenina, Dune, and The Lord of the Rings look quite puny in scope beside Stapledon’s sprawling history of humanity over approximately two billion years. In terms of scale, you can’t top this fellow. Only the novel Star Maker has a grander scope, and that was written by . . . oh yeah, Olaf Stapledon.

Last and First Men is told from the view of the final historian of the last race of Men—the 18th race, as it turns out, with ours as the first. (At this point I must ask you to forgive Stapledon’s masculinist 1930s use of the word “Men” and “Mankind” to describe all of humanity.) Mankind has gone through many different versions in the billions of years since it first appeared, some which we as the first race would hardly regard as “human” in our estimation, and this fictional history traces the rises and falls, faults and virtues, and the cyclic patterns of the different races of Man. But the 18th race knows that it will be the last, and one of its members finds a way to communicate with a person of the twentieth century—implied to be Stapledon or some fictional secondary writer—to outline the future history of Man into the next two billion years. “Observe now your own epoch of history as it appears to the Last Men,” the nameless narrator begins. “Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help.”

The last paragraph of the book contains one of the most stirring statements of humanism I have come across, and I find it often running through my mind in my reflective moments:
But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accomplishments, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been a man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.
It is very good to have been a man. It was this phrase particularly that struck me when I finished Last and First Men. Amending it a bit, I would hope that when the end of my life comes, and I am about to conclude my time in this brief music on this amazing planet, that I can say bravely: It is very good to have been a human being.