Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Last and First Men

'Last and First Men' is a history of the human race, as told by somebody living billions of years from now.

Our future historian (speaking through the book's 'author', Olaf Stapledon) describes how Mankind has gone through numerous versions, each one rising or evolving from the ashes of the previous one and developing a sophisticated civilization before falling prey to catastrophe or terminal decline and making way for the next version.

It's a fantastic book, and those covers are lovely, but the main reason I'm posting about it here is the following passage, which should raise a smile, strike a chord or cause something to flicker in anyone with an interest in Hauntology, or who has read (or written) Simon Reynolds' book 'Retromania':

Background: the first four versions of Mankind have come and gone, and we are now with the Fifth Men.  They have developed a pseudo-time-travel technique, which enables them to experience the past by hitching a ride in the minds of people who lived hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago:


"The access to the past had, of course, far-reaching effects upon the culture of the Fifth Men. Not only did it give them an incomparably more accurate knowledge of past events, and insight into the motives of historical personages, and into large-scale cultural movements, but also it effected a subtle change in their estimate of the importance of things. Though intellectually they had, of course, realized both the vastness and the richness of the past, now they realized it with an overwhelming vividness. Matters that had been known hitherto only historically, schematically, were now available to be lived through by intimate acquaintance. The only limit to such acquaintance was set by the limitations of the explorer's own brain-capacity. Consequently the remote past came to enter into a man and shape his mind in a manner in which only the recent past, through memory, had shaped him hitherto. Even before the new kind of experience was first acquired, the race had been, as was said, peculiarly under the spell of the past; but now it was infinitely more so. Hitherto the Fifth Men had been like stay-at-home folk who had read minutely of foreign parts, but had never travelled; now they had become travellers experienced in all the continents of human time. The presences that had hitherto been ghostly were now presences of flesh and blood seen in broad daylight. And so the moving instant called the present appeared no longer as the only, and infinitesimal, real, but as the growing surface of an everlasting tree of existence. It was now the past that seemed most real, while the future still seemed void, and the present merely the impalpable becomingness of the indestructible past."

"At all times, in all pursuits, the presence of the tragic past haunted them, poisoning their lives, sapping their strength."


  1. I read this book over the summer. I found its inhumanity quite chilling. In the early chapters, billions upon billions of people are written off in a single sentence, without the narrator appearing to bat an eyelid (writing so far into the future, why would he? We're like ants to him). Then there's that later evolution which enacts a genocide upon a subaquatic species for its own good. Jesus. If ever there was a book to hammer home man's relentless inhumanity to man whilst making you feel absolutely insignificant in the process, this is it. And those giant brains are horrible.

    I just wish you hadn't linked it to Simon Reynolds, whose Retromania is surely just an attempt to profit from his midlife crisis. "THINGS AREN'T AS GOOD AS THEY USED TO BE AND BANDS ARE REFORMING! It CAN'T be me that's the problem! It must be ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE ELSE."

    Somehow I find that infinitely more depressing than Last & First Men.

    Ahem. Apologies for the rant, thanks for sharing, and you're right - that is a fascinating paragraph.

  2. I loved the giant brains! Well, they were complete bastards, but the idea and the description of them were both very pleasing. And what about the Martians? Fantastic!

    Stapledon said in his intro to the book that it would probably be criticised for being overly pessimistic, but he wanted to create something with the status of a "tragic myth" (something like that; I'll have to read it again). I thought the detachment of the narrator was a plus, really - his job is simply to describe the course of events. It's all about the ideas, the "what if"s. If there's one place we can be free to destroy entire civilizations just to see what happens next, then shirley it's sf? (Sci-fi, that is; not San Francisco)

    Re: Retromania - Reynolds is only a few years older than me, and therefore far too young for a mid-life crisis :) Honestly, it's a cracking read; more question and investigation than assertion.