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 STAPLEDON, (WILLIAM) OLAF

 (1886-1950) UK writer and philosopher, born of well-to-do parents in the
Wirral peninsula near Liverpool, where he spent the greater part of his
life. In Waking World (1934) he admitted that he lived "chiefly on
dividends and other ill-gotten gains". The name Olaf does not indicate
foreign antecedents: his parents happened to be reading Carlyle's The
Early Kings of Norway (coll 1875) at the time. Memories of childhood in
Suez and a cultivated family background are recaptured in Youth and
Tomorrow (1946). He was educated at Abbotsholme, a progressive public
school, and at Balliol College, Oxford. For a short period he worked
without enthusiasm in the family shipping office in Port Said, an
experience he used in his highly autobiographical last novel, A Man
Divided (1950). There is scattered evidence that the international flavour
of Port Said influenced his complex ideas about "true community". His
service with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in WWI helped him formulate his
pacifism, and provided material for Last Men in London (1932). He took a
doctorate in philosophy at Liverpool University in 1925.OS began
publishing essays as early as 1908; his first book was Latter-Day Psalms
(coll 1914 chap), a small volume of privately printed verse. It is
remarkable only for showing a preoccupation at the outset with one of the
themes that would engage him for the rest of his life: the irrelevance of
a RELIGION based on hopes of IMMORTALITY and the hypothesis of an evolving
god. There was a gap of 15 years before his next book, A Modern Theory of
Ethics (1929), written when OS was 43. Here is the philosophical
underpinning for all the major ideas that would appear repeatedly in the
fiction: moral obligation as a teleological requirement; ecstasy as a
cognitive intuition of cosmic excellence; personal fulfilment of
individual capacities as an intrinsic good; community as a necessary
prerequisite for individual fulfilment; and the hopeless inadequacy of
human faculties for the discovery of truth. It was this last conviction
which provided the springboard for the writing of his fiction; all of it,
by some speculative device or other, strives to overcome the congenital
deficiencies of the ordinary human being.LAST AND FIRST MEN (1930), OS's
first novel, caused something of a sensation. Contemporary writers and
critics acclaimed it, though later it would for a time be nearly
forgotten. The book employs a timescale of 2 billion years, during which
18 races of humanity rise and fall. The story is told by one of the Last
(18th) Men working through the "docile but scarcely adequate brain" of one
of the 1st Men (ourselves). The civilization of the 1st Men (he explains)
reached its highest points in Socrates (in the search for truth) and Jesus
(in self-oblivious worship). The 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 15th, 16th and 18th Men
represent higher orders of wisdom. The emigration of the 5th Men to VENUS
is an early example of TERRAFORMING, and the construction of the 9th Men
to adapt them for Neptune ( OUTER PLANETS) is likewise for GENETIC
ENGINEERING. In the intimate and less expansive Last Men in London, one of
the Last Men returns to the time of WWI, enters into profound symbiosis
with a young human, and attempts to arouse the Race Mind.In Odd John: A
Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) the individual SUPERMAN appears,
although his attributes are spiritual and intellectual, quite divorced
from the supermen of the COMICS and PULP MAGAZINES. John recapitulates in
his own evolution some of the characteristics of the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Men.
He and his fellow "supernormals" finally achieve something akin to the
wisdom of the 18th Men; a spiritual gain which costs them their lives:
when normal humans threaten to destroy their island, they destroy
themselves rather than fight back.STAR MAKER (1937) is often regarded as
OS's greatest work. Its cosmic range, fecundity of invention, precision
and grandeur of language, structural logic, and above all its attempt to
create a universal system of philosophy by which modern human beings might
live, permit comparison with DANTE ALIGHIERI's Divine Comedy. The narrator
is rapt from a suburban hilltop and becomes a "disembodied, wandering
viewpoint", rather like Dante's own protagonist. Over a timespan which
extends to 100 billion years, he first observes "Other Men", whose
extraordinary development of scent and taste should remind us of the
relative nature of our own perceived values; his purview then extends to
"strange mankinds", including the Human Echinoderms - whose communal
method of reproduction provides an ingenious metaphor for the ideal of
true community - and to a wide range of species far removed from mankind.
Of these ALIENS, among the most interesting are the "ichthyoids" and
"arachnoids". Over a long period of time these 2 species come together in
a symbiosis; the ichthyoids are artistic and mystical, while the
arachnoids are dexterous and practical. The development of the
relationship provides OS's most extended and detailed metaphor for the
ideal of true community, which has its microcosm in a pair of human lovers
and its macrocosm in a Universe of "minded" LIVING WORLDS. The narrator
proceeds to the "supreme moment of the cosmos" in which he faces the Star
Maker and discovers something of his pitiless nature.Paradoxically, the
book with the greatest human interest is sometimes said to be Sirius: A
Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944), the story of a dog with enhanced
INTELLIGENCE, consciousness and sensibility. The dog, with its natural
limitations, is a paradigm of our own limited capacity; but at the same
time the dog's superior gifts - e.g., in the faculty of scent - are
another reminder of human inadequacy. As in Odd John, the MUTANT being,
when faced with the violence of normals and their incomprehension, dies -
this time directly at their hands.The four works of sf described
constitute the living core of OS's fiction. Both LAST AND FIRST MEN and
STAR MAKER have their advocates as the finest sf ever written; many
critics argue that Odd John is the best novel about a superman, and that
Sirius is the best book with a nonhuman protagonist. All 4 show OS's
unwavering concern with the pursuit of truth and with the impossibility of
our species ever finding it. Each sets up a speculative device to leap
over the plodding faculties of Homo sapiens: the supernormal intelligence
of Homo superior in LAST AND FIRST MEN and Odd John, and the alternative
intelligence of alien creatures in STAR MAKER and Sirius. Along with the
quest for truth, and as a necessary accompaniment to it, there is a search
for the gateways to a "way of the spirit". These constant preoccupations
give to all OS's work a striking consistency, and it is possible to place
everything he did within a highly original scheme of METAPHYSICS.
Everything has its place in the same cosmic history that the Star Maker
coldly regards. In his avatar of Jahweh, the Star Maker was invoked at the
beginning in Latter-Day Psalms; and as the "mind's star" and "phantom
deity" he will be there at the end in the posthumous The Opening of the
Eyes (1954).Of OS's remaining fiction, perhaps The Flames (1947 chap)
deserves most attention. The "flames" are members of an alien race,
originally natives of the Sun, who can be released when igneous rock is
heated; they have affinities with the "supernormals" who occur on OS's
other worlds. There are similarities with the later-discovered Nebula
Maker (1976), apparently written in the mid-1930s as part of an early
draft for STAR MAKER and then put aside. It relates the history of the
nebulae and shows how their striving is brought to nothing by an uncaring
God. Religion is dismissed as the opium of the people in Old Man in New
World (1944 chap). Supermen reappear in Darkness and the Light (1942) and
cosmic history is recapitulated in Death into Life (1946). OS's insistence
on scrupulously considering opposed points of view, and his sceptical
intelligence, found an admirable vehicle in the imaginary conversations of
Four Encounters (1976), probably written in the later 1940s. Of OS's
remaining nonfiction, Philosophy and Living (1939), written after the best
of his fiction, is the most comprehensive work. The best introduction for
the general reader is Beyond the "Isms" (1942), whose last chapter, under
the characteristic heading "The Upshot", provides an admirable summary of
his philosophy and a clear exposition of what he means by the "way of the
spirit".OS was writing in an ancient tradition of European speculative
fiction. He called his stories "fantastic fiction of a semi-philosophical
kind". He was - at least initially - unaware of GENRE SF and was somewhat
taken aback when in the 1940s he was acclaimed by sf fans; he was even
more startled when shown the contemporary magazines which provided their
staple fodder. Ironically, the acclamation he received as an sf writer may
partially account for his total neglect by historians of modern
literature. At the same time he is sometimes ignored by sf commentators -
e.g., Kingsley AMIS in New Maps of Hell (1960 US) - presumably partly
because he did not write for the sf magazines and partly because his work
is difficult to anthologize. OS is, however, though sometimes dimly
perceived, the Star Maker behind many subsequent stories of the FAR FUTURE
and GALACTIC EMPIRES. He did much original and seminal thinking about such
matters as ALTERNATE WORLDS, COLONIZATION OF OTHER WORLDS, COSMOLOGY,
CYBORGS, ESP, HIVE-MINDS, IMMORTALITY, MONSTERS, MUTANTS and TIME TRAVEL.
Arthur C. CLARKE and James BLISH are among the few sf writers who have
expressed their indebtedness to him, though his influence, both direct and
indirect, on the development of many concepts which now permeate genre sf
is probably second only to that of H.G. WELLS. [MA/JC]

Other works:

New Hope for Britain (1939);
Saints and Revolutionaries (1939);
Worlds of Wonder (omni 1949 US), assembling The Flames, Death into Life and Old Man
in New World; To the End of Time (omni 1953 US), assembling LAST AND FIRST
MEN (cut), STAR MAKER, Odd John, Sirius and The Flames; Odd John, and
Sirius (omni 1972 US);
Far Future Calling: Uncollected Science Fiction and
Fantasies of Olaf Stapledon (coll 1979 US) ed Sam MOSKOWITZ;
Nebula Maker, and Four Encounters (omni 1983 US);
Letters Across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, 1913-1919 (coll 1987
Australia; vt Talking Across the World 1987 US);
numerous uncollected articles for such scholarly journals as Mind and Philosophy.

About the author:

Olaf Stapledon (1982) by P.A. McCarthy;
Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided (1984) by Leslie A. FIEDLER;
Olaf Stapledon: A Bibliography (1984) by Harvey J. Satty and Curtis C. SMITH;
Olaf Stapledon and his Critics (1988) by Curtis C. Smith.

See also:
ANTHROPOLOGY; APES AND CAVEMEN (IN THE
HUMAN WORLD); DEVOLUTION; END OF THE WORLD; EVOLUTION; FRANCE; GODS AND
DEMONS; HISTORY IN SF; HISTORY OF SF; INVASION; LIFE ON OTHER WORLDS;
MAINSTREAM WRITERS OF SF; MUSIC; OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM; PHYSICS;
SOCIOLOGY; SUN.
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