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. Stapledon's conception of history is based on the Hegelian Dialectic, following a repetitive cycle with many varied civilisations rising from and descending back into savagery over millions of years, but it is also one of progress, 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. His other 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.
First Men. (Chapters 1–6) Our own species: the rivalry of America and China, the First World State, its destruction as a result of using up all natural resources, followed by the Patagonian Civilization 100,000 years hence, with the cult of Youth, and its destruction after the sabotage of a mine which leads to a colossal subterranean atomic explosion and the ensuing intercontinental nuclear holocaust, rendering most of the Earth's surface uninhabitable for millions of years save for the poles and the northern coast of Siberia. The only survivors are thirty-five humans stationed at the North Pole, who eventually split up into two separate species, the Second Men and some sub-humans.
Second Men. (Chapters 7– 9) "Their heads, indeed, were large even for their bodies, and their necks massive. Their hands were huge, but finely moulded...their legs were stouter...their feet had lost their separate toes...blonde hirsute appearance...Their eyes were large, and often jadegreen, their features firm as carved granite, yet mobile and lucent. ...not till they were fifty did they reach maturity. At about 190 their powers began to fail..." Unlike our species, egotism is virtually unknown to them. At the acme of their highly advanced civilisation, just as they are about to create a superior human species by genetic engineering, a protracted war with the Martians finally ends with the Martians extinct and the Second Men gone into eclipse.
Third Men. (Chapter 10) "Scarcely more than half the stature of their predecessors, these beings were proportionally slight and lithe. Their skin was of a sunny brown, covered with a luminous halo of red-gold hairs... golden eyes... faces were compact as a cat's muzzle, their lips full, but subtle at the corners. Their ears, objects of personal pride and of sexual admiration, were extremely variable both in individuals and in races. ... But the most distinctive feature of the Third Men was their great lean hands, on which were six versatile fingers, six antennae of living steel." Deeply interested in music and in the design of living organisms.
Fourth Men. (Chapter 11) Giant brains, built by the Third Men. For a long time they help govern their creators, but eventually come into conflict. After reducing the Third Men to the status of lab animals, they eventually reach the limits of their scientific abilities.
Fifth Men. (Chapters 11–12) An artificial human species designed by the brains. "On the average they were more than twice as tall as the First Men, and much taller than the Second Men... the delicate sixth finger had been induced to divide its tip into two Lilliputian fingers and a corresponding thumb. The contours of the limbs were sharply visible, for the body bore no hair, save for a close, thick skull-cap which, in the original stock, was of ruddy brown. The well-marked eyebrows, when drawn down, shaded the sensitive eyes from the sun." After clashing with and finally eliminating the Fourth Men, they develop a technology greater than Earth had ever known before. When Earth ceases to be habitable, they terraformVenus, committing genocide on its marine native race which tries to resist them – but do not cope well after the move.
Sixth Men. (Chapter 13) "Sadly reduced in stature and in brain, these abject beings... gained a precarious livelihood by grubbing roots upon the forest-clad islands, trapping the innumerable birds, and catching fish... Not infrequently they devoured, or were devoured by, their seal-like relatives." After tectonic changes provide them with a promising land mass, they fluctuate like the First Men and repeat all their mistakes.
Seventh Men. Flying humans, "scarcely heavier than the largest of terrestrial flying birds", are created by the Sixth Men. After 100 million years, a flightless pedestrian subspecies appears which re-develops technology.
Eighth Men. "These long-headed and substantial folk were designed to be strictly pedestrian, physically and mentally." When Venus becomes uninhabitable, about to be destroyed along with the entire inner solar system, they design the Ninth Men, who will live on Neptune.
Ninth Men. (Chapter 14) "Inevitably it was a dwarf type, limited in size by the necessity of resisting an excessive gravitation... too delicately organized to withstand the ferocity of natural forces on Neptune... civilization crumbled into savagery." From there, savagery sinks further into brutedom.
Tenth to Seventeenth Men. "Nowhere did the typical human form survive." Sentience re-emerges from animals on multiple occasions. The Fifteenth and Sixteenth achieve a great civilisation and learn to study past minds. (These species are essentially Neptunian versions of the Second and Fifth Men, respectively.) It is not until the Sixteenth Men, the first of the Neptunian artificial species, that the cycle of rise and collapse of civilisation is finally ended, and steady progress takes its place. The Sixteenth Men, frustrated by their inability to improve their civilisation, decide that their nature is insufficiently advanced to produce a truly perfect community, and create an artificial species, the Seventeenth Men, to succeed them; however, the Seventeenth Men are "flawed" in some unspecified way, unimagined by the 16th due to their lesser awareness, and last only a short period of time before being replaced by the Eighteenth Men, essentially a more perfect version of their own species.
Eighteenth Men. (Chapters 15–16) The most advanced humans of all. A race of philosophers and artists with a very liberal sexual morality. "Superficially we seem to be not one species but many." (One interesting aspect of the Eighteenth Men is that they have a number of different "sub-genders," variants on the basic male and female pattern, with distinctive temperaments. The Eighteenth Men's equivalent of the family unit includes one of each of these sub-genders and is the basis of their society. The units have the ability to act as a group mind, which eventually leads to the establishment of a single group mind uniting the entire species.). This species no longer died naturally, but only by accident, suicide or being killed. Despite their hyper-advanced civilisation, they practice ritual cannibalism. They are eventually extinguished on Neptune after a supernova infects the sun, causing it to grow so hot that it consumes the remains of the solar system, faster than any means of escape they can devise. Unable to escape, this last species of man devises a virus to spread life to other worlds and cause the evolution of new sentient species throughout the galaxy.
Baboon-like Submen. (Chapter 7) "Bent so that as often as not they used their arms as aids to locomotion, flat-headed and curiously long-snouted, these creatures were by now more baboon-like than human".
Seal-like Submen. (Chapter 13) "The whole body was moulded to stream-lines. The lung capacity was greatly developed. The spine had elongated, and increased in flexibility. The legs were shrunken, grown together, and flattened into a horizontal rudder. The arms also were diminutive and fin-like, though they still retained the manipulative forefinger and thumb. The head had shrunk into the body and looked forward in the direction of swimming. Strong carnivorous teeth, emphatic gregariousness, and a new, almost human, cunning in the chase, combined to make these seal-men lords of the ocean".
Period of Eclipse. (Chapter 14) "Man's consciousness was narrowed and coarsened into brute-consciousness. By good luck the brute precariously survived." Nature succeeds in colonising Neptune where sentient life fails. Human-derived mammals of all shapes come to dominate Neptune's ecosystem before adapting well enough for the vestiges of opposable thumbs and intelligence to become assets again.
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.
Influences on other writers
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' 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!"
Sir Patrick Moore has said "The science fiction novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon is immensely thought-provoking and I've read it time and time again."