Olaf Stapledon: Of His Time, and Others

With the recent publication of William Gibson’s new book Spook Country, a furious debate has resumed on the internet of who precisely coined the term “cyberspace”, Gibson or the movie Tron? The discussion will probably go on indefinitely, but the argument does raise a more curious question: who coined the concept? That is, who came up with the idea of a series of information sources linking together to form one massive whole? The answer is a little known English philosopher and Science Fiction writer named Olaf Stapledon.

I first heard about Stapledon from, of all things, a video game. In Deus Ex an Australian non-player character will tell you how awesome his books are and suggest that you read Last and First Men. Given that most computer programmers and gamers see English Majors as a sort of half-breed nerd, having one recommend a book published in 1930 in their own game grabbed my attention. I have not, before or since, read anything that came even close to the depth, scope, and stunning imagination achieved in this one book in all of science fiction.

The book does not take place in any specific time or feature a particular main character except to focus on humankind itself, in all its evolutionary glory. Over the course of 2 billion years, Stapledon depicts the rise and fall of numerous civilizations and variations of our own species. Our own civilization occupies the first hundred pages before we finally blow ourselves up, making way for new mutations and the first variation of the species, the Second Men. This is followed by sixteen other mutations who behave and live in ways that are completely different from ourselves. My goal is to illustrate just a few of the concepts that Stapeldon conceived, with the idea of “cyberspace” being just one of many.

The idea of genetic engineering comes from Stapledon when he wrote about the Third species of Men trying to create a superior version of itself. Subsequently, it creates a giant brain that is housed in a huge tower and worshipped as a perfect “philosopher king”. Metroid fans owe a debt here for their nemesis Mother Brain. The giant brains eventually take over the human race by creating sleeper agents that look and act just like the Third Men, creating a paranoid war whose themes paved the way for the likes of Terminator and Blade Runner. Charlton Heston and the film Planet of the Apes drew from Stapledon’s idea of a race of monkeys developing alongside man, right down to the monkeys enslaving the humans for a brief period of time. H.G. Wells can and does give a great deal of credit for the ideas in The Time Machine to Stapledon. Arthur C. Clarke credits the book as being his original inspiration for writing science fiction at all. Although Frank Herbert’s books have more to do with evolution than genetic engineering, it was Olaf who first conceived of the idea of terraforming.

Still, the most currently significant (and borrowed) concept he conceived is the idea of the Hive mind, a side effect of when humanity achieves telepathy. Everything from Star Trek to Starcraft, to Star Wars owes Stapledon a footnote on that one. And it is on that principle that I stake the claim that he invented the idea of “cyberspace” and the internet, a hive mind of computers in its own right, well before anyone was thinking up hip ways to interact with it.

The book’s significance goes far beyond its tributes to science fiction. His predictions for our own civilization are both remarkably off and remarkably dead on at the same time. The farther he gets away from the topic of Europe, the more accurate he becomes as he depicts our civilization (and all subsequent ones) as steadily moving towards a global unity. Oil runs out fairly quickly (once you’re looking at the world in terms of thousands of years) and we all depend on coal power until that runs out as well. Heading off the atheists, he says our civilization will cast aside the moral teachings of The Bible for the immature reason of the tales not being factually true and instead begin to worship science. The motion of the atom becomes divine and scientists become religious icons, and all the while people continue to remain as ignorant of its actual functions as before. China and America will become the dominant global powers and eventually unite the world in peace because war is too expensive. Although his failure to envision the existence of video games is lamentable, he recognizes that something similar must exist by noting that any capitalistic society must inevitably devote itself to meaningless activities. Sports, casual sex, movies, and flying airplanes (instead of video games) steadily stupefy and render our race helpless so that when we finally consume all the natural resources on the planet, we do nothing except sit and complain about it. It’s an ominous warning that seems to have come too grandly, too early.

Even Wells’ Time Machine
owes a debt to Stapledon.

If such tidings for own our society seem pessimistic to you, you’re not alone. Most of the friends I’ve tried to force the book on have quit after a few dozen pages by saying it’s too depressing to read. After all, our own era and everything we recognize ages and fades away within the first chapter. The notion that even if we achieved a perfect world, it would still have to end eventually can be a bit unnerving. The Fifth race of Men achieves a perfect and peaceful global society, but when the Moon is knocked out of orbit and crashes into the Earth, the people of the Fifth race must watch it collapse and see themselves descend back into barbarism. C.S. Lewis supposedly became so upset at the depiction of such an indifferent and immoral universe that he wrote his Cosmic Trilogy as a response. Reading a book that depicts Christ figures and global religions coming and going, whose ending is the termination of our species as a whole, can make it a bit tough to think of a reason to get out of bed.

Yet to sit and complain about the lack of credit Stapledon receives is to undermine the very principle for which he was writing about: mankind’s yearning for community. When mankind genetically engineers a species of winged flying men, its downfall comes about when, millennia later, those incapable of flying bond together and create a new society. The Giant Brains, after killing off humanity, create a new race of men out of the simple hope that they will rekindle passion in their lives. Even the Last Man, as he speaks to a member of our species via a time crossing psychic link, does so out of a simple desire to spread his own beliefs about community before our species as a whole comes to an end. His universe may indeed be a Godless and even a cruelly indifferent one, but Stapledon simply comments:

Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is great than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual…when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.

There is a humility in those words and in the book as a whole that convinces you that maybe Stapledon saw things beyond the petty title of who conceived what — that on some levels, Stapledon believed that all good ideas achieve lives of servitude to humanity that well exceed their makers. It is for that reason that we and all fans of science fiction owe him our thanks.