One of the most extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novels of the century: a history of the evolution of humankind over the next 2 billion years. Among all science fiction writers Olaf Stapledon stands alone for the sheer scope and ambition of his work. First published in 1930, Last and First Men is full of pioneering speculations about evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and many other subjects.
©1930 Olaf Stapledon (P)2012 Audible Ltd
Stapledon attempts to convey the evolution of humans over a 2 billion year epoch. The breadth and scope of concepts are extensive and even somewhat surprising given the extent of scientific thinking at that time. Interestingly, he also nails some geopolitical evolution in his near term in that the US and China end up vying for global supremacy as well as identifying Germany dominating Europe economically (interestingly due to their pacifist nature following their WWI defeat). What follows is a natural progression of stages with current day being the "first" men and ending with the last, or eighteenth iteration of "humans". The story is conveyed as a message from the last to first when the last anticipate their eventual destruction.
The sci-fi elements are varied and Stapledon covers the gamut (only missing computers). He brings in biological warfare and anticipates genetic manipulation, first on microorganisms and finally animals, plants and even humans (some of which serve to demarcate the 1 - 18 progression). He envisions nuclear fission (annihilation of matter which leads to disaster), loss of fossil fuels, geothermal and wind power, space exploration (etherships instead of spaceships), Martian and Venusian lifeforms, alien invasion of Earth, planet wide terraforming, contact with the past and much more.
One particular note - this is not a story with characters and a plot. The tale unfolds more along the lines of a history professor's class lectures with emphasis on the dominate themes driving each version of man along with the forces shaping their evolution and transitions. The narration is excellent and makes up for what would otherwise be a pedantic soliloquy.
A classic, written over 80 years ago, before the results of World War II were known, and before any of the current technology was conceived (the first binary digital computer and the Turing machine were both not developed until 1936). This is definitely a history, not a story, and there are no characters here. It spans billions of years of human evolution, includes genetic engineering (used to both improve the human species and to save it from extinction, which almost occurs a number of times).
The scope of this book is ambitious, and some of Stapledon's future predictions (of the near future) are, neccessarily, inaccurate. But the philosophical impact is, nevertheless, gratifyingly huge. I first read this book in 1970, and it left an impression on me for the rest of my life. I was pleased to find it in audio, and the reader is a good match. I will listen again, and will probably get the other book of his that I have read, "Starmaker".
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