Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon, University of Liverpool, 1925-50

“No other book had a greater influence on my life”, wrote Arthur C. Clarke about Olaf Stapledon’s first novel, Last and First Men (1930).

Stapledon is perhaps best known today as one of the fathers of visionary science fiction, heir to H. G. Wells (with whom he corresponded) and a major influence upon writers such as Doris Lessing and Brian Aldiss, each of whom discovered copies of that same novel and (like Clarke) were changed utterly. But he was also – perhaps predominantly – a philosopher, educationalist and social reformer, linked to pacifist movements in 1930s and (until his death in 1950) a tireless campaigner against the prospect of a Third World War between the USA and the USSR.

(William) Olaf Stapledon was born in Wallasey in 1886. His grandfather William, a sea captain, established, on the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a shipping agency representing the Holt Blue Funnel Line, and Stapledon spent several years in Port Said as a child. He was educated at Abbotsholme School and Balliol College, Oxford, before working in the Port Said office of the family business. He began to write and publish poetry: his Latter-Day Psalms was published in 1914. The outbreak of The First World War caused him to examine his pacifist instincts, and in 1915 he joined the Ambulance Unit of the Society of Friends, carrying wounded and dying men and driving ambulances under fire. He drew on these experiences in his second novel, Last Men in London (1932), which explores the moral and ethical struggles of his protagonist Paul, who, like Stapledon considered that “To fight for one’s nation against other nations in a world insane with nationalism, is an offence against the spirit.”

Paul’s experiences in war drive him to the edge of mental collapse, something which must have reflected Stapledon’s own reaction. After the War, he agitated for disarmament and World Government, influenced by the ideas of H. G. Wells. Joining a social work project operating out of the University of Liverpool, he lectured for the for the Workers’ Educational Association. In 1925 he was awarded a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool for a thesis on “Meaning”. Thereafter he taught philosophy for many years for the extramural department of the University, and for the Workers Educational Association on Merseyside. The history of the Philosophy Department in those years is recorded at https://pcwww.liv.ac.uk/~srlclark/history.htm.

Olaf Stapledon

His first novel, Last and First Men, is an ambitious future-history of the human race, ending up with the eighteenth and final species of humanity on Neptune, disseminating spores into the universe in the hope of eventual survival upon some hospitable world as the explosion of the sun becomes imminent. At the beginning of the novel, cleverly written as by one of the “Last Men” telepathically influencing the mind of an obscure English academic, Stapledon makes it clear that that his work is no conventional utopia, but “myth creation”; an exploration of the spiritual and pragmatic poles of human thought and the conflict between materialist science and transcendent religion. The novel, which was reviewed favourably by figures like J. B. Priestley and Arnold Bennett, was strongly influenced by Wells’s concern with evolution and progress, and the speculations of the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, the brother of his friend and fellow novelist Naomi Mitchison whose insight later helped shape a semi-sequel, Star Maker (1937). Wells himself responded enthusiastically to Stapledon and produced his own massive future-history in The Shape of Things to Come (1933). Virginia Woolf praised Star Maker, telling Stapledon that he was grasping ideas that she had” tried to express, much more fumblingly”, in her fiction. One fascination of Last and First Men is in Stapledon’s epic command of carefully charted timescales, whose originals survive in his archive.

Later novels such as Odd John (1935) and Sirius (1944) continued Stapledon’s exploration of the nature of humanity and the temptations of apparently “superior” intellects and ideologies.

In a lecture entitled “Possible Futures”, undated but delivered at various times between the First and Second World Wars, Olaf Stapledon sketched the “degrees of futurity” we imagine; our personal futures, the near-future of a century ahead and the far future of millions of years. He suggests various scenarios which now look intriguingly prescient: a dominant USA, a “modified capitalism” in Russia, and the vast potentiality of China. Will there be humans in the far future? “Certainly not like us” is his conclusion. Sceptical about the achievement of space travel, in 1948 he concluded an address to the British Interplanetary Society by referring to the ideological conflict of the Cold War. Each ideology he said, “contains very important truth which the other ignores.” His ideal was “a society of very diverse individuals united in mutual insight, understanding, and sympathy”. The increase in “diversity”, for whatever reason, increased the potential for a “commonwealth of worlds”.

Stapledon depicted himself in a cartoon to Wells as a jackdaw, “free, but uncertain” outside the cages of religious dogmatism or Marxist materialism. His activity in the peace movement both in the 1930s, when he clashed with “Ignotus” (possibly, according to his biographer, Robert Crossley, Alan Dorward, the Chair of Philosophy at Liverpool University) in the pages of the Liverpool Post, or in the late 1940s, during which he attended communist-organised peace conferences as a critical participant suggest a marginality in his intellectual life which, perhaps has not been fully explored. In his fiction, he influenced his successors through his use of the future as a location for vast and engaging possibilities rather than as a political or philosophical thinker, but throughout his work is an obsession with the future –the political future arising from the clashes during his lifetime, but also the overarching evolutionary and ethical future of the human form and the human spirit.

The Olaf Stapledon Archive held by the University Library’s Special Collections and Archives is an extensive collection of material, deposited with The University of Liverpool in 1983. The Archive consists of corrected holograph manuscripts and typescripts of Stapledon’s published works, including his most famous novels as well as some unpublished works. In addition, there are publishers’ proofs, notes for lectures and teaching courses and Stapledon's diaries and appointment books spanning 50 years. There is also a large section of correspondence relating to Stapledon's writing, political activities and teaching, as well as letters to and from friends and important writers of the day, and a collection of his works.

An online finding-aid can be found at http://libguides.liverpool.ac.uk/library/sca/stapledon. In addition, a wide variety of material by and about Stapledon is held by the Science Fiction Foundation Collection.

Andy Sawyer, Science Fiction Collections Librarian 

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