Thursday, March 24, 2016

Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker

I suspect Olaf Stapledon is one of those SF authors more celebrated than read.  His language is dense, and the vocabulary is considerably above the 10th grade level of most Americans.  His diction can be formal and imposing.  Reading his best known work, Last and First Men, is like reading an abridged historical account of the human race.  That being said, the sheer sweep of Stapledon's imagination is sufficient to overcome those difficulties.

However, I am not going to comment on Last and First Men but on a more accessible work, Star Maker.  In this work, Stapledon does provide us with characters and some dialogue.  It is much closer to a traditional novel than is Last and First Men. It is a quest novel, in which the major character journeys in search of the answer to the ultimate or perennial question--what is this all about?  After having read the work, or actually part way through it, I got the idea that Stapledon was strongly influenced by Dante's Divine Comedy when he wrote Star Maker.

The subject matter is essentially the same, and both narrators are undergoing a crisis which initiates their journeys.

Midway life's journey I was made aware
   That I had strayed into a dark forest,
   And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
   This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
   At thought of it strikes now into my beast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.

-- Dante --
Inferno, Canto 1, ll 1-7
The Portable Dante,  
Laurence Binyon, translator

Star Maker begins--

One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out onto the hill..  .    .

. . . there was bitterness.  And bitterness not only invaded us from the world;  it welled up also within our own magic circle.  For horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world's delirium, had driven me out onto the hill. 

-- Olaf Stapledon --
Star Maker.  page 1.

It is at this point that the voyage of discovery begins for both narrators.  Both find mentors or guides.  Dante is guided by Virgil, while the Canine species philosopher acts as companion and guide to the anonymous narrator.   While Dante experiences a wide variety of behaviors from various individuals, both wise and foolish, Stapledon's narrator visits a variety of species which exhibit, like individuals, cultural patterns that are wise or foolish or a mix.  And, at the end of their journeys, Dante and Stapledon's narrator meet the Creator. 

Both works provide the reader with three levels, explicitly in Dante's work, of course, and implied in Stapledon's novel.  The first level would include Dante's Inferno, whose inhabitants' behavior has condemned them to eternal torment, and in the Star Maker, the narrator visits those species that will never achieve contact with the Star Maker and are doomed to a miserable extinction.   The second level includes Purgatorio and those species that have survived their mistakes, and now the individuals in Purgatorio and those species in Star Maker are on their way to achieving contact with the Creator/Star Maker some time in the future. The third and desired level would be Paradiso and those species that have achieved the ultimate goal: direct contact with the Creator/Star Maker.

At the end, after finally meeting the Star Maker, Stapledon cleverly sidesteps the issue as to which of the various creation myths promulgated by religions is "true" by  showing that all are true, for the Englishman (as the anonymous narrator refers to himself) recounts many of the creations of the Star Maker that he experienced in the encounter. Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism show up in various guises throughout.

Stapledon also includes every scientific theory  promulgated (as well as a few he made up, I suspect) about the creation of the universe.   Some, I think, he made up were later seized upon by cosmologists.  To be sure of  this, I'd have to research just when these theories appeared. 

The novel is heavy going, not only because of the content--ideas, theories, philosophy, speculations--but also because of the style, which is mostly narrative and has very little dialogue throughout.

Again, I find the imaginative sweep of the novel to be worth the effort of working one's way through a work that is not an easy few hours' read.

Recommended for those looking for something radically different, unlike anything published today. In fact, I doubt it could be published today, unless it was self-published.


  1. i wouldn't say this is the best book i ever read, but it greatly influence me: i read it three times over twenty years about forty years ago and have carried it with me ever since. not necessarily a convincing plot, but the wide vision and cosmic pov were mainly what i found riveting. many thanks for the informative post: in spite of my familiarity with it, i never realized that it had such a close connection with dante; surprised doesn't begin to describe it! maybe i'll read it again; i still have a treasured copy of it...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      That sounds about right--this is my third reading over two or three decades. I get on a Stapledon trip and read everything I have by him: two short novels and three short stories. Of course, I also have a one volume edition that includes _Last and First Men_ and _Star Maker_.

      I may do future posts on some of the others, maybe.

  2. I listened to Last and First Men last year -- much easier than reading Stapledon. I hope to get to Star Maker soon. Audible also has Odd John and Sirius.

    1. Jim,

      Yes, Stapledon is not an easy read, and in my experience, _Last and First Men_ is probably the hardest to read. _Odd John_ and _Sirius_ are far more readable than _LaFM_.

      _Odd John_ and _Sirius_ make a great pair to read back-to-back, one being the story of a mutated superman and the other of a superdog whose intelligence has been experimentally augmented.

  3. "In fact, I doubt it could be published today, unless it was self-published."
    Why so?

    1. Di,

      Vocabulary and formal diction, long sentences--one of those "nothing happens but a lot of talk" stories.

  4. Fred, I have been looking for a copy in my libraries and used bookstores. You've persuaded me to intensify my search.

  5. R.T.,

    Try InterLibraryLoan, and abebooks has numerous low-cost copies available.