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Stapledon, Olaf

Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1886-1950) UK author and philosopher, born in the Wirral peninsula near Liverpool, where he spent the greater part of his life. In Waking World (1934) he admitted that he lived "chiefly on dividends and other ill-gotten gains". The name Olaf does not indicate foreign antecedents: his parents had been reading Carlyle's The Early Kings of Norway (coll 1875) when he was born. After studying at Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for a short period without enthusiasm in the family shipping office in Port Said, an experience he used in his highly autobiographical last novel, A Man Divided (1950). There is scattered evidence that the international flavour of Port Said influenced his complex ideas about "true community". His service with the Quaker-funded Friends' Ambulance Unit in World War One, for which he received the Croix de Guerre, helped him formulate his pacifism and also provided material for Last Men in London (1932). He took a doctorate in philosophy at Liverpool University in 1925.

Stapledon began publishing essays as early as 1908, though his first book was Latter-Day Psalms (coll 1914 chap), a small volume of privately printed verse remarkable only for showing a preoccupation at the outset with one of the themes that would engage him for the rest of his life: the irrelevance of a Religion based on hopes of Immortality and the hypothesis of an evolving god. There was a gap of fifteen years before his next book, A Modern Theory of Ethics: A Study of the Relations of Ethics and Psychology (1929), articulated the philosophical underpinnings for all the major ideas that would appear repeatedly in the fiction: moral obligation as a teleological requirement; ecstasy as a cognitive intuition of cosmic excellence (see Transcendence); personal fulfilment of individual capacities as an intrinsic good; community as a necessary prerequisite for individual fulfilment; and the hopeless inadequacy of human faculties for the discovery of truth. It was this last conviction which provided the springboard for the writing of his fiction; all of it, by some speculative device or other, strives to overcome the congenital deficiencies of the ordinary human being.

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930), Stapledon's first novel – which initiates the Future History/Last Men sequence of daunting Scientific Romances – caused something of a sensation. Contemporary writers and critics acclaimed it, though later it would for a time be nearly forgotten; a voiceover rendering of the final chapters was much later filmed as Last and First Men (2017) directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The book employs a timescale of two billion years, during which eighteen races of humanity rise and fall. The story is told by one of the Last (Eighteenth) Men working through the "docile but scarcely adequate brain" of one of the First Men (ourselves). The civilization of the First Men (he explains) reached its highest points in Socrates (in the search for truth) and Jesus (in self-oblivious worship). The Second, Third, Fifth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Eighteenth Men represent higher orders of wisdom. The emigration of the Fifth Men to Venus provides an early example of Terraforming, and the construction of the Ninth Men for life on Neptune (see Outer Planets) similarly prefigures the later sf focus on modifying humans via Genetic Engineering to suit conditions on other planets (see Pantropy). The upward spiral of Evolution depicted through the book results in a description of the later races of humanity as becoming Posthuman; though in the end the transfigured species dies off. In the intimate and less expansive Last Men in London, one of the Last Men returns to the time of World War One, a significant danger point for the First Men, and enters into profound symbiosis with a young human, during which he attempts to arouse the Race Mind.

Star Maker (1937), often regarded as Stapledon's greatest work, climaxes the sequence. Its cosmic range, fecundity of invention, precision and grandeur of language, structural logic, and above all its attempt to create a universal system of philosophy by which modern human beings might live, permit cautious comparison with Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. The narrator is rapt from a suburban hilltop and becomes a "disembodied, wandering viewpoint", rather like Dante's own protagonist. Over a timespan which extends to 100 billion years, he first observes "Other Men", whose extraordinary development of scent and taste should remind us of the relative nature of our own perceived values; his purview then extends to the imaginatively couched Xenobiology of "strange mankinds" including the Human Echinoderms – whose communal method of reproduction provides an ingenious metaphor for the ideal of true community – and to a wide range of species far removed from mankind. Of these Aliens, among the most interesting are the "ichthyoids" and "arachnoids", two species that over a long period of time have come together in a symbiosis; the ichthyoids are artistic and mystical, while the arachnoids are dexterous and practical. The development of the relationship provides Stapledon's most extended and detailed metaphor for the ideal of true community, which has its microcosm in a pair of human lovers and its macrocosm in a Universe of "minded" Living Worlds. The narrator proceeds to the "supreme moment of the cosmos" (see Omega Point) in which he faces the Star Maker and discovers something of his pitiless nature. The posthumously discovered "Nebula Maker" (1976), apparently written in the mid-1930s as part of an early draft for Star Maker and then put aside, sketches the history of the nebulae and shows how their striving is brought to nothing by an uncaring God. For various omnis that resort Future History/Last Men sequence, see Checklist.

In Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) the individual Superman appears, although his attributes are spiritual and intellectual, quite divorced from the supermen of the Comics and Pulp magazines. John recapitulates in his own Evolution some of the characteristics of the Second, Third and Fifth Men. After founding an Island community purged of normal humans, and creating a Utopia there, he and his fellow "supernormals", who comprise an early version of the Pariah Elite, finally achieve something akin to the wisdom of the Eighteenth Men; a spiritual gain which costs them their lives: when normal humans threaten to destroy their island – understandably, given the proto-Nazi experiments in Eugenics, committed upon normals, that deface any "supernormal" claim to have achieved a higher state – they destroy themselves rather than fight back. Even more focused on the nature of contemporary life is Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944), the story of an Uplifted Dog with enhanced Intelligence, consciousness and sensibility. The dog, with its natural limitations, is a paradigm of our own limited capacity; but at the same time the dog's superior gifts – e.g., in the faculty of scent – are another reminder of human inadequacy. As in Odd John, the Mutant being, when faced with the violence of normals and their incomprehension, dies – this time directly at the hands of humans.

These five works of sf constitute the living core of Stapledon's fiction, Darkness and the Light (1942) being a less sustained exercise in Future History, depicting two great domains, one numbingly Dystopian, the other a high-minded Utopia dominated by Tibetans. Both Last and First Men and Star Maker have their advocates as the finest sf ever written; some critics argue that Odd John is the best novel about a Superman, and that Sirius is the best book with a nonhuman protagonist. Each sets up a speculative device to leap over the plodding faculties of Homo sapiens: the supernormal intelligence of Homo superior in Last and First Men and Odd John, and the alternative intelligence of alien creatures in Star Maker and Sirius. Along with the quest for truth, and as a necessary accompaniment to it, there is a search for the gateways to a "way of the spirit". Nowhere, however, does Stapledon suggest that our species will fully achieve its goals. All show Stapledon's unwavering concern with the pursuit of truth through an immense sophistication and expansion of early-1900s visions of creative evolution in which tough-love Social Darwinism was idealized, as in some of H G Wells's fiction and nonfiction, and more tellingly in minor works like Ralph Straus's The Dust which Is God: An Undimensional Adventure (1907 chap), where God is created by us as we evolve. These constant preoccupations give to all Stapledon's work a striking consistency, and it is possible to place everything he did within a highly original scheme of Metaphysics. Everything has its place in the same cosmic history that the Star Maker coldly regards. In his avatar of Jahweh, the Star Maker was invoked at the beginning in Latter-Day Psalms; and as the "mind's star" and "phantom deity" he will be there at the end in the posthumous The Opening of the Eyes (1954).

Of Stapledon's remaining fiction, Old Man in New World (1944 chap) advocates the dismissal of Religion as the opium of the people; cosmic history is again sketched in Death into Life (1946); perhaps The Flames (1947 chap) deserves most attention. The "flames" are members of an alien race, originally natives of the Sun, who can be released when igneous rock is heated; they have affinities with the "supernormals" who occur on Stapledon's other worlds. His scrupulous considering of opposed points of view, and his sceptical intelligence, found an admirable vehicle in the imaginary conversations of Four Encounters (coll 1976), probably written in the later 1940s.

Stapledon was writing in an ancient tradition of European speculative fiction. He called his stories "fantastic fiction of a semi-philosophical kind". He was – at least initially – unaware of Genre SF and was somewhat taken aback when in the 1940s he was acclaimed by sf fans; he was even more startled when shown the contemporary magazines which provided their staple fodder. Ironically, the acclamation he received late in life as an sf writer may partially account for his total neglect by historians of modern literature. At the same time he was sometimes ignored by sf commentators – e.g., Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell (1960) – presumably partly because he did not write for the sf magazines that Amis and his generation thought central, and partly because his work is difficult to anthologize. When he is heeded, it may be that a pyrrhic victory has been gained, as in The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989) by Alexei Panshin and Cory Panshin, where he is described, in contrast to E E Smith, as lacking "the depth of vision and sheer power of imagination necessary to alter [his] attitudes". Stapledon is, however, though sometimes dimly perceived, the Star Maker behind many subsequent stories of the Far Future and Galactic Empires. He did much original and seminal thinking about such matters as Parallel Worlds, Colonization of Other Worlds, Cosmology, Cyborgs, ESP, Hive Minds, Immortality, Monsters, Mutants and Time Travel, and was perhaps the first author to introduce the concept of the Prime Directive. Arthur C Clarke, James Blish – the latter being among the few Americans inclined to the Scientific Romance – Stephen Baxter and Bruce Sterling are among the sf writers who have shown an indebtedness to him, though his influence, both direct and indirect, on the development of many concepts which now permeate genre sf is probably second only to that of H G Wells. In recognition of his importance, Stapledon was elected to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2014. [MA/JC]

see also: Anthropology; Apes as Human; Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award; Devolution; End of the World; France; Gods and Demons; History in SF; History of SF; Invasion; Life on Other Worlds; Mainstream Writers of SF; Music; Optimism and Pessimism; Physics; Sociology; World Ships.

William Olaf Stapledon

born Wallasey, Cheshire: 10 May 1886

died Caldy Wirral, Cheshire: 6 September 1950



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