Olaf Stapledon

By: Joshua Glenn
May 10, 2011

During World War I, would-be writer OLAF STAPLEDON (1886-1950) served as a conscientious objector with an ambulance unit; upon returning home to Liverpool, he earned a doctorate in philosophy. In 1929, Stapledon was 43 years old, unread and unemployed. Then he published Last and First Men (1930), a sweeping history of the future (apocalypse after apocalypse) and meditation on modernity, a tragic era during which only a few sensitive, doomed individuals glimpse the possibility of (non-religious, but spiritual) cosmic consciousness, and (quasi-Nietzschean) self-overcoming; it is narrated telepathically by one of the Last Men (Neptunian descendants of ours, two billion years hence).

Was this philosophical romancer a “science fiction” author? Stapledon wasn’t familiar with the genre, yet he was hailed as one of its brightest lights by Borges, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, even H.G. Wells. Stapledon’s next two novels, Last Men in London (1932) and Odd John (1935), and also Waking World (1934), a Wellsian stab at social prophecy, are written about and for teenage mutant “supernormals” or “wide-awakes” — misfits who don’t want to get ahead, despise athletics, find religion and nationalism boring, don’t regard sex as shameful, and remain idealistic and utopian long after adolescence. Sirius (1944), a witty and moving shaggy-dog story about a canine genius, is also worth mentioning.

In the last decade of his life, Stapledon published frequently and lectured widely on philosophical topics and remained a committed activist; for example, he was the only British delegate to the Conference for World Peace in New York. Today, he is mostly remembered for Star Maker (1937), a Dantean quest for the origin of the universe which influenced Arthur C. Clarke’s notion of the Overmind — plus, it gave Freeman Dyson the idea for orbiting solar-power satellites.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Sid Vicious, Fred Astaire, Marcel Mauss, and Donovan.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist generation (1884-93).

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