Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker

Bvalltu and I, in company with the increasing band of our fellow explorers, visited many worlds of many strange kinds. In some we spent only a few weeks of the local time; in others we remained for centuries, or skimmed from point to point of history as our interest dictated…

This strange life turned me into a very different being from the Englishman who had at a certain date of human history walked at night upon a hill.

Just so you know what you’re getting in to

This is an unusual book, but I knew that before I began. You should, too.

I’d heard it said that reading Stapledon was a bit like reading a history textbook with an inconceivably vast scope. It’s true this book has a kind of heroic disregard for the usual niceties of noveldom. It’s so majestic and profound that there just doesn’t seem to be space for trivial things like dialogue or even proper nouns. Apart from co-traveler Bvalltu and a few mentions of Earth, Mars and Neptune, nothing else is given a name – neither the important ‘ichthyoid species’, nor the ‘echinoderm race’, nor even ‘she’, the narrator’s wife whose presence (though peripheral) pervades and anchors the story. Individuals, after all, are tiny compared to the multiverse, and the author has much bigger ichthyoids to fry.

So saying, I’d also heard that this was one of Stapledon’s more accessible works. It has also been raved about by Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Freeman Dyson and Kim Stanley Robinson. And it was lying around the house so I decided to read it.

What happens

A family man sits on a hill in the dark and ponders the significance of his life, his place in the universe, and whether it’s possible there can be a loving Creator or ‘Star Maker’. Somehow his point of view separates from his body and soars away, first in a breathtakingly-described Google-Earth-like zoom out from the planet, then a solar system fly-by, then a Doppler-shifting interstellar voyage that takes him to his first meeting with extraterrestrial intelligences. He meets (and describes) other worlds and species, first in great detail (clothing, vegetation, society, religion, tools, transportation) and then, as scope widens, in more general terms (history, conflict, development, ultimate fate). From there, his journeys only get vaster – in breadth more than the whole universe and in duration over one hundred billion years. And you used to think 2001: A Space Odyssey was grand.

Along the way, the narrator’s pan-galactic experiences reinforce his philosophy: that fate is fickle, the universe is an unfeeling machine, and the Star Maker is distant and uninvested in our struggles. But this doesn’t lead to despair and loneliness. Like Vonnegut* (and indeed Hugh Lofting, of previous review) and other wartime Humanists, Stapledon extracts the following firm truth from the meaninglessness: that our relationships with those closest to us are the most real things in the universe, and that the quest to live as best you can – and the endless search for ultimate meaning – is a holy and worthwhile pursuit, even if it may be ultimately rewardless.

The riches

Although this book is conceptually bigger than the bible and just as sparse in narrative style, it’s full of riches, both ideas-wise and descriptive. There are symbiotic species; beings whose religion has evolved from their reliance on the sense of taste; whole solar systems turned into space ships; forms of awareness remote from our own; species adaptable to extreme gravity; plant-beings who can detatch themselves from their roots at will; caste wars within a race of intelligent ships; beings with communal procreation; the many different ways a civilisation can end; entirely new senses; and much more – and each element is part of a logically constructed world inside a logically constructed cosmos.

Read Asimov before you grow up. Read Stapledon once you have.

There are some books you have to read while you’re still a teenager. This is because you’ll be young enough for their exciting new ideas to make a permanent mark on you, but not yet old enough to see the faults. As a teenager reading Isaac Asimov, for example, you get bowled over by the originality and grandness of his ideas: communal consciousness! Cities as big as planets! The possibilities unleashed by Laws of Robotics! Awesome. But as an adult, you discover it’s harder to get lost in the stories. First you have to get past Asimov’s vapid depictions of women, then you have to look past the errors of futurological extrapolation (city-sized computers still made of vacuum tubes, 120th century officials still using paper for interoffice memos), and then there’s the formulaic dialogue. But you first read him when you were young enough to love him fully, you can still work out how to see past these things.

Stapledon, though, is worth reading later. Why? Firstly because he’s so imaginative that the ideas in just one of his chapters can be spoilers for many other great works of sci-fi. A single paragraph of Star Maker can contain an idea so great it’s been the basis of a whole book (networked consciousnesses as per Asimov’s Nemesis) or pop culture icon (the Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey – a tool by which advanced civilisations seek to nurture developing life), or a science concept (the Dyson Sphere, inspiration for Ringworld by Larry Niven, various Star Trek episodes and more) or a Great Idea (Buckminster Fuller and his thesis that mechanisation is a tool to the ultimate goal of More Time For Art And Thinking) or the most surreal dreams (Luigi Serafini and the Codex Seraphinianus).

All these things were thought up first by Olaf Stapledon and presented in Star Maker in 1937, long before the so-called Golden Era of Sci-Fi. But I must admit it was nice to come across them one by one first in these other books, and be given the indulgence of thinking each was unique and original.

Secondly, Stapledon’s writing doesn’t really age. He writes in a formal kind of style that may have old-fashioned overtones, but apart from that he’s largely timeless. Because he deals in aeons and not decades, you won’t come across outdated technologies, and as a philosopher he deals in universal truths (respect, kindness, knowledge, the search for meaning) so you won’t catch him displaying any discrimination du jour.

This book was mostly read in the bath.

tl;dr – summary pls

It’s amazing and you should read it if you love science fiction. But be careful: read it carefully and with attention, as you would a letter sent back in time from your future self. It’s not a Dan Brown that can be skimmed and discarded. Stick with it through the slower star-and-nebula parts. And then, after you’re done, watch as you see his influence in things around you for the rest of your life.

ooh goodies

There’s a free download of this book available here. Vonnegut would approve of the ‘stars’ on the cover 🙂

* yes, another review containing multiple mentions of Vonnegut. For me, he is to humanist philosophy what Stapledon is to science fiction ideas.

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