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Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future is a "future history" science fiction novel written in 1930 by the British author Olaf Stapledon. A work of unprecedented scale in the genre, it describes the history of humanity from the present onwards across two billion years and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first. The book employs a narrative conceit that, under subtle inspiration, the novelist has unknowingly been dictated a channelled text from the last human species.
Stapledon's conception of history follows a repetitive cycle with many varied civilisations rising from and descending back into savagery over millions of years, as the later civilisations rise to far greater heights than the first. The book anticipates the science of genetic engineering, and is an early example of the fictional supermind; a consciousness composed of many telepathically linked individuals.
In 1932, Stapledon followed Last and First Men with the far less acclaimed Last Men in London. Another Stapledon novel, Star Maker (1937), could also be considered a sequel to Last and First Men (mentioning briefly man's evolution on Neptune), but is even more ambitious in scope, being a history of the entire universe.
It is the 11th title in the SF Masterworks series.
The novel appears in the computer game Deus Ex as a reference when a corporation in the game allegedly tries to develop the Second Men in the series, but also in a much broader aspect as the game deals with genetic engineering, the next phase of evolution and human augmentations. Also similar to the book are the options presented to the player as to where human kind will go next: a fall back into an almost savage state of humanity, a keeping of the status quo or an extreme progression with the danger of sacrificing basic rights.
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson directed and scored a multimedia Last and First Men, "combining a film narrated by actress Tilda Swinton and accompanying score played by the BBC Philharmonic" at the 2017 Manchester International Festival. The 16mm black-and-white film is predominantly of memorial sculptures erected in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Jóhann collaborated with José Enrique Macián on writing the narration adapted from Stapledon's novel. This was next performed at the Barbican Centre, London in December 2018, and later at Sydney Opera House as part of the Vivid Festival, on 2 June 2019. In 2020, a film of this work was released as Jóhann's debut and final directorial work, with sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman completing the work after Jóhann's death in February 2018. The film premiered at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, and later screened at other film festivals around the world and released on VOD.
Brian Aldiss, in his preface to the 1962 edition, acknowledges the deep impression on him—and considerable influence on his own later writing–of Stapledon's book, which he encountered in 1943 while a British soldier fighting the Japanese in Burma – "An appropriately unusual period of life at which to encounter a vision so far outside ordinary experience".
Aldiss also mentions James Blish as another writer deeply influenced by Stapledon.
C. S. Lewis in his own preface to That Hideous Strength, notes: "I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow".
The reference to "objecting to Stapledon's philosophy" was no accident. In particular, the Christian Lewis objected to Stapledon's idea, as expressed in the present book, that mankind could escape from an outworn planet and establish itself on another one; this Lewis regarded as no less than a Satanic idea – especially, but not only, because it involved genocide of the original inhabitants of the target planet. Professor Weston, the chief villain of Lewis's Space Trilogy, is an outspoken proponent of this idea, and in Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis opposes to it the depiction of the virtuous and stoic Martians/Malacandrians who choose to die with their dying planet, even though they possessed the technology to cross space and colonise Earth.
Arthur C. Clarke has said of Stapledon's 1930 book Last and First Men that "No other book had a greater influence on my life ... [It] and its successor Star Maker (1937) are the twin summits of [Stapledon's] literary career".
H. P. Lovecraft held the book in very high regard (though he did not say whether it influenced any of his own stories), saying in a 1936 letter to Fritz Leiber "no one ought to miss reading W. Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men ... Probably you have read it. If not, make a bee line for library or bookstall!", and in another 1936 letter to Leiber "I'm glad to hear of your perusal of Last and First Men—a volume which to my mind forms the greatest of all achievements in the field that Master Ackerman would denominate "scientifiction". Its scope is dizzying—and despite a somewhat disproportionate acceleration of the tempo toward the end, and a few scientific inferences which might legitimately be challenged, it remains a thing of unparalleled power. As you say, it has the truly basic quality of a myth, and some of the episodes are of matchless poignancy and dramatic intensity." Finally, in a 1937 letter to Arthur Widner he said "I don't care for science fiction of the sort published in cheap magazines. There's no vitality in it—merely dry theories tacked on to shallow, unreal, insincere juvenile adventure stories. But I do like the few real masterpieces in the field—certain of H. G. Wells's novels, S. Fowler Wright's The World Below, & that marvellous piece of imagination by W. Olaf Stapledon, Last & First Men."
John Maynard Smith has said "A man called Olaf Stapledon was a marvellous predictor who wrote science fiction books that I read when I was 16 and that completely blew my mind; and Arthur C. Clarke put his finger on quite a number of bright thoughts. He and I have something in common: we both took out of the public library the same science fiction book when we were boys of about 15 or 16, which was Stapledon's Last and First Men. We took it out of the same country library in Porlock in Somerset. Whoever put that book on the shelves had a lot to answer for!"