William Olaf Stapledon (10 May 1886 – 6 September 1950) – known as Olaf Stapledon – was a British mystic of another order (perhaps of a future order) than what is traditionally thought of as a spiritual adept. He was also a visionary philosopher and author of highly influential works of science fiction which are only recently being rediscovered. Some have called Stapledon the philosopher Spinoza’s greatest 20th-century disciple, while others consider him a prophetic genius in a class by himself, with an unparalleled depth and breadth of vision of the cosmos.
Stapledon was born in Seacombe, Wallasey, on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, the only son of William Clibbert Stapledon and Emmeline Miller. The first six years of his life were spent with his parents at Port Said, Egypt. During the First World War he served as a conscientious objector. Stapledon became an ambulance driver with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium from July 1915 to January 1919; he was award the Croix de Guerre for bravery. On 16 July 1919 he married Agnes Zena Miller (1894–1984), an Australian cousin.They had first met in 1903, and later maintained a correspondence throughout the war. They had a daughter, Mary Sydney Stapledon (1920–), and a son, John David Stapledon (1923–). In 1920 they moved to West Kirby.
Stapledon was awarded a PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1925 and used his thesis as the basis for his first published prose book, A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929). However, he soon turned to fiction in the hope of presenting his ideas to a wider public. The relative success of Last and First Men (1930) prompted him to become a full-time writer. He wrote a sequel, Last Men in London, and followed it up with many more books of both fiction and philosophy.
For the duration of the Second World War Stapledon abandoned his pacifism and supported the war effort. In 1940 the Stapledon family built and moved into a new house on Simon’s Field, in Caldy, in the Wirral. During the war Stapledon become a public advocate of J.B. Priestley and Richard Acland’s left-wing Common Wealth Party, as well as the British internationalist group Federal Union. After 1945 Stapledon travelled widely on lecture tours, visiting the Netherlands, Sweden and France, and in 1948 he spoke at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wrocław, Poland. He attended the Conference for World Peace held in New York City in 1949, the only Briton to be granted a visa to do so. In 1950 he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement. After a week of lectures in Paris, he cancelled a projected trip to Yugoslavia and returned to his home in Caldy, where he died very suddenly of a heart attack. Stapledon was cremated at Landican Crematorium, and then his widow and their children scattered his ashes on the sandy cliffs overlooking the Dee Estuary, a favourite spot of his that features in more than one of his books. Stapledon Wood, on the south-east side of Caldy Hill, is named after him.
Stapledon’s fiction often presents the strivings of some intelligence that is beaten down by an indifferent universe and its inhabitants who, through no fault of their own, fail to comprehend its lofty yearnings. It is filled with protagonists who are tormented by the conflict between their “higher” and “lower” impulses. Stapledon’s writings directly influenced Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Stanisław Lem, Bertrand Russell, John Gloag, Naomi Mitchison, C. S. Lewis, Vernor Vinge, John Maynard Smith and indirectly influenced many others, contributing many ideas to the world of science fiction. The “supermind” composed of many individual consciousnesses forms a recurring theme in his work. Star Maker contains the first known description of what are now called Dyson spheres. Freeman Dyson credits the novel with giving him the idea, even stating in an interview that “Stapledon sphere” would be a more appropriate name. Last and First Men features early descriptions of genetic engineering and terraforming. Sirius describes a dog whose intelligence is increased to the level of a human being’s.
Some commentators have called Stapledon a Marxist, although Stapledon himself explicitly rejected Marxism. Last and First Men, a “future history” of 18 successive species of humanity, and Star Maker, an outline history of the Universe, were highly acclaimed by figures as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Algernon Blackwood, Hugh Walpole, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf (Stapledon maintained a long correspondence with Woolf) and Winston Churchill. In contrast, Stapledon’s philosophy repelled C. S. Lewis, whose Cosmic Trilogy was written partly in response to what Lewis saw as amorality, although Lewis admired Stapledon’s inventiveness and described him as “a corking good writer”. In fact Stapledon was an agnostic who was hostile to religious institutions, but not to religious yearnings, a fact that set him at odds with H. G. Wells in their correspondence. The writer Brad Steiger wrote of Stapledon: “Stapledon’s visionary account of the end of a universe and the birth of future universes is one of the high points in all human thought.”
Together with his philosophy lectureship at the University of Liverpool, which now houses the Olaf Stapledon archive, Stapledon lectured in English literature, industrial history and psychology. He wrote many non-fiction books on political and ethical subjects, in which he advocated the growth of “spiritual values”, which he defined as those values expressive of a yearning for greater awareness of the self in a larger context (“personality-in-community”).
A special mention here will be made of Stapledon’s magnum opus. Star Maker is a mystical/science fiction novel published in 1937. The book describes a history of life in the universe, dwarfing in scale Stapledon’s previous book, Last and First Men (1930), a history of the human species over two billion years. Star Maker tackles philosophical themes such as the essence of life, of birth, decay and death, and the relationship between creation and creator. A pervading theme is that of progressive unity within and between different civilizations. Some of the elements and themes briefly discussed prefigure later fiction concerning genetic engineering and alien life forms. Arthur C. Clarke considered Star Maker to be one of the finest works of science fiction ever written.
The book begins with a single human narrator from England who is, via unexplained means, transported out of his body and finds himself able to explore space and other planets. After exploring a civilization on another planet in our galaxy at a level of development similar to our own that existed millions of years ago thousands of light years from Earth (the “Other Earth”) in some detail, his mind merges with that of one of its inhabitants, and as they travel together, they are joined by still more minds or group-minds. This snowballing process is paralleled by the expansion of the book’s scale, describing more and more planets in less and less detail.
The disembodied travelers encounter many ideas that are interesting from both science-fictional and philosophical points of view. These include the first known instance of what is now called the Dyson sphere, reference to a scenario closely predicting the later zoo hypothesis or Star Trek’s Prime Directive, many imaginative descriptions of species, civilizations and methods of warfare, and the idea that the stars and even the pre-galactic nebulae are intelligent beings, operating on vast time scales. A key idea is the formation of collective minds from many telepathically linked individuals, on the level of planets, galaxies, and eventually the cosmos itself.
A symbiotic species, each individual composed of 2 species, both non-humanoid, is discussed in detail, especially when, normally detached from the galaxy’s turmoil, intervene a la deus ex machina to end the threat of a civilization dedicated to the idea of total insanity, and forcing one stellar civilization after another into insanity.
The climax of the book is the “supreme moment of the cosmos”, when the cosmical mind (which includes the narrator) attains momentary contact with the “Star Maker” of the title. The Star Maker is the creator of the universe, but stands in the same relation to it as an artist to his work, and calmly assesses its quality without any feeling for the suffering of its inhabitants. This element makes the novel one of Stapledon’s efforts to write “an essay in myth making”.
After meeting the Star Maker, the traveler is given a “fantastic myth or dream,” in which he observes the Star Maker at work. He discovers that his own cosmos is only one of a vast number, and by no means the most significant. He sees the Star Maker’s early work, and learns that the Star Maker was surprised and intensely interested when some of his early “toy” universes — for example a universe composed entirely of music with no spatial dimensions — displayed “modes of behavior that were not in accord with the canon which he had ordained for them.” He sees the Star Maker experimenting with more elaborate universes, which include among others the traveler’s own universe, and a triune universe which closely resembles “Christian orthodoxy” (the three universes respectively being hell, heaven, and reality with presence of a savior). The Star Maker goes on to create “mature” universes of extraordinary complexity, culminating in an “ultimate cosmos,” through which the Star Maker fulfills his own eternal destiny as “the ground and crown of all things.” Finally, the traveler returns to Earth at the place and time he left, to resume his life there.
The novel is one of the most highly acclaimed in science fiction. Its admirers at the time of first publication saw it as one of the most brilliant, inventive, and daring science fiction books. Among its more famous admirers were H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, Brian Aldiss, Doris Lessing and Stanisław Lem. Borges wrote a prologue for a 1965 edition and called it “a prodigious novel”. Lessing wrote an afterword for a UK edition. Lem Freeman Dyson was also a fan, admitting to basing his concept of Dyson spheres on a section of the book, even calling “Stapledon sphere” a better name for the idea. Among SF writers, Arthur C. Clarke has been most strongly influenced by Stapledon.
Some of the science described in Star Maker has since been shown to be inaccurate, but much of the book is still thought to be correct. Astronomical scales would have to be adjusted by a few orders of magnitude, but the overall scale of time and space is still valid. Stapledon is an author who takes interstellar and galactic distances seriously. Some editions contain a timeline (over billions of years) for the book. It may be instructive to compare these with modern conceptions of orders of magnitude (length) and orders of magnitude (time), in particular 1 E19 s and more as well as the modern view of the ultimate fate of the universe.
Stapledon imagines alien biologies, minds and civilisations radically different from human ones. But unlike in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, all these are supposed to be fundamentally similar in the long run, since all are governed by the same Darwinian and Marxist laws of development. Some of Stapledon’s ideas for alien minds, such as collective intelligence, seem far ahead of their time, anticipating recent ideas about swarm intelligence and the general fascination with networks. He also mentions the idea of virtual reality in the first and most Earth-like alien world visited, in the form of an apparatus that directly affects sense centres in the brain. The idea of entire worlds as spacecraft is used several times.
Excerpt from an appreciation by Liel Leibovitz:
“What attracted such awe and ire is precisely what makes Star Maker so impossible to describe. The plot, if there is one, involves a British man who one night and for some unknown reason takes leave of our verdant planet and sails the cosmos, disembodied, to learn of its inhabitants and machinations. Much of the book consists of intricate descriptions of interstellar peoples; some, like the Other Men, are muddled by greed and pornography and omnipresent media and are deeply recognizable to us, while others are beautifully abstract.
None, however, are entirely alien. Resisting invention for its own sake and shunning the sort of easy metaphor that relies on bits of imagination and scraps of scientific knowledge, Stapledon invested even his strangest creation with a sense of humanity, because he believed that the entire cosmic landscape shares the same matter and the same spirit. Early on in the novel, its human protagonist reaches this realization, and he is soon busy melding his mind with those of the creatures he encounters. “In time,” Stapledon wrote, “it became clear that we, individual inhabitants of a host of other worlds, were playing a small part in one of the great movements by which the cosmos was seeking to know itself, and even to see beyond itself.”
Spinoza couldn’t have put it better himself. The Jewish philosopher was excommunicated in part for arguing that God was not “like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions,” but rather an infinite substance. “Whatever is,” he wrote, “is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.”
When they finally meet the book’s eponymous Star Maker, Stapledon’s space travelers realize just how firmly they are in Spinoza’s debt. The philosopher isn’t mentioned by name, but his ideas bob just below the surface. Stapledon’s Star Maker, like Spinoza’s God, isn’t a singular creator who fashioned life out of nothingness with a single stroke of divine will but merely that entity from which all things flow, the cause of all existence—which means that we, too, are of him, minuscule parts of his divine intellect, eager to learn more.
Such thought was heretical when Spinoza expressed it in the 17th century, and it was no less shocking coming from Stapledon in 1937. C.S. Lewis, a great admirer, nonetheless condemned Stapledon’s “desperately immoral outlook” and wrote his Space Trilogy to reaffirm his Christian belief. Lewis’ is a world of humans and demons, of strict codes and looming sin, the sort of heavily moralistic environment that he would later perfect in the Chronicles of Narnia. His turn to fantasy is no coincidence: While closely aligned with science fiction, fantasy is a far more elastic genre, one in which the great questions of this world are often set aside in favor of the luminous splendors of others.
It is a rather precise testament to our spiritual moment that Lewis’ mythology is revered while Stapledon’s complex theology is left for the passionate few. Most of us would rather embrace some ready-made hagiography of boy wizards or charismatic lions than read through an account of an ordinary man striving to understand that which is infinitely greater than himself. But this struggle, this desire to know, this conviction that even when empirical evidence is scarce rational explanations are still within reach—this is the spirit that has propelled mankind forward for centuries, and it must continue to be ours: The key to human evolution, Stapledon would argue, is to cultivate an open mind.”
Excerpts from Olaf Stapledon’s books and other writings:
“Philosophy is an amazing tissue of really fine thinking and incredible, puerile mistakes. It’s like one of those rubber ‘bones’ they give dogs to chew, damned good for the mind’s teeth, but as food – no bloody good at all.”
“My dear, it is a great strength to have faced the worst and to have *felt* it a feature of beauty. Nothing ever after can shake one.”
“Men endured so much for war, but for peace they dared nothing.”
“Sitting there on the heather, on our planetary grain, I shrank from the abysses that opened up on every side, and in the future. The silent darkness, the featureless unknown, were more dread than all the terrors that imagination had mustered. Peering, the mind could see nothing sure, nothing in all human experience to be grasped as certain, except uncertainty itself; nothing but obscurity gendered by a thick haze of theories. Man’s science was a mere mist of numbers; his philosophy but a fog of words. His very perception of this rocky grain and all its wonders was but a shifting and a lying apparition. Even oneself, that seeming-central fact, was a mere phantom, so deceptive, that the most honest of men must question his own honesty, so insubstantial that he must even doubt his very existence.”
“All this long human story, most passionate and tragic in the living, was but an unimportant, a seemingly barren and negligible effort, lasting only for a few moments in the life of the galaxy. When it was over, the host of the planetary systems still lived on, with here and there a casualty, and here and there among the stars a new planetary birth, and here and there a fresh disaster.”
“It seemed to me that I now saw the Star Maker in two aspects: as the spirit’s particular creative mood that had given rise to me, the cosmos; and also, most dreadfully, as something incomparably greater than creativity, namely as the eternally achieved perfection of the absolute spirit. Barren, barren and trivial are these words. But not barren the experience.”
“Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty? Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness. But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.”
“There is much in this vision that will remind you of your mystics; yet between them and us there is far more difference than similarity, in respect both of the matter and the manner of our thought. For while they are confident that the cosmos is perfect, we are sure only that it is very beautiful. While they pass to their conclusion without the aid of intellect, we have used that staff every step of the way. Thus, even when in respect of conclusions we agree with your mystics rather than your plodding intellectuals, in respect of method we applaud most your intellectuals; for they scorned to deceive themselves with comfortable fantasies.”
“The older Puritans had trampled down all fleshly impulses; these newer Puritans trampled no less self-righteously upon the spiritual cravings. But in the increasingly spiritistic inclination of physics itself, Behaviorism and Fundamentalism had found a meeting place. Since the ultimate stuff of the physical universe was now said to be multitudinous and arbitrary “quanta” of the activity “spirits”, how easy was it for the materialistic and the spiritistic to agree? At heart, indeed, they were never very far apart in mood, though opposed in doctrine. The real cleavage was between the truly spiritual view on the one hand, and the spiritistic and materialistic on the other. Thus the most materialistic of Christian sects and the most doctrinaire of scientific sects were not long in finding a formula to express their unity, their denial of all those finer capacities which had emerged to be the spirit of man.”
“The future needed service, not pity, not piety; but in the past lay darkness, confusion, waste, and all the cramped primitive minds, bewildered, torturing one another in their stupidity, yet one and all in some unique manner, beautiful.”
“In every one of these “chrysalis” worlds thousands of millions of persons were flashing into existence, one after the other, to drift gropingly about for a few instants of cosmical time before they were extinguished. Most were capable, at least in some humble degree, of the intimate kind of community which is personal affection; but for nearly all of them a stranger was ever a thing to fear and hate. And even their intimate loving was inconstant and lacking in insight. Nearly always they were intent merely on seeking for themselves respite from fatigue or boredom, fear or hunger. Like my own race, they never fully awoke from the primeval sleep of the subman. Only a few here and there, now and then, were solaced, goaded, or tortured by moments of true wakefulness. Still fewer attained a clear and constant vision, even of some partial aspect of truth; and their half-truths they nearly always took to be absolute. Propagating their little partial truths, they bewildered and misdirected their fellow mortals as much as they helped them.”
“The truth of the matter was something much more subtle and tremendous than any plain physical miracle could ever be. But never mind that. The important thing was that, when I did see the stars (riotously darting in all directions according to the caprice of their own wild natures, yet in every movement confirming the law), the whole tangled horror that had tormented me finally presented itself to me in its truth and beautiful shape. And I knew that the first, blind stage of my childhood had ended.”
“In this passionately social world, loneliness dogged the spirit. People were constantly “getting together,” but they never really got there. Everyone was terrified of being alone with himself; yet in company, in spite of the universal assumption of comradeship, these strange beings remained as remote from one another as the stars. For everyone searched his neighbour’s eyes for the image of himself, and never saw anything else. Or if he did, he was outraged and terrified.”
“This microcosm was pregnant with the germ of a proper time and space, and all the kinds of cosmical beings. Within this punctual cosmos the myriad but not unnumbered physical centers of power, which men conceive vaguely as electrons, protons, and the rest, were at first coincident with one another. And they were dormant. The matter of ten million galaxies lay dormant in a point.”
“We are bound to hurt one another so much, again and again. We are so terribly different.”Yes,’ he said, ‘But the more different, the more lovely the loving.”
“Conceive a world-society developed materially far beyond the wildest dreams of America. Unlimited power, derived partly from the artificial disintegration of atoms, partly from the actual annihilation of matter through the union of electrons and protons to form radiation, completely abolished the whole grotesque burden of drudgery which hitherto had seemed the inescapable price of civilization, nay of life itself. The vast economic routine of the world-community was carried on by the mere touching of appropriate buttons. Transport, mining, manufacture, and even agriculture were performed in this manner. And indeed in most cases the systematic co-ordination of these activities was itself the work of self-regulating machinery. Thus, not only was there no longer need for any human beings to spend their lives in unskilled monotonous labour, but further, much that earlier races would have regarded as highly skilled though stereotyped work, was now carried on by machinery. Only the pioneering of industry, the endless exhilarating research, invention, design and reorganization, which is incurred by an ever-changing society, still engaged the minds of men and women. And though this work was of course immense, it could not occupy the whole attention of a great world-community. Thus very much of the energy of the race was free to occupy itself with other no less difficult and exacting matters, or to seek recreation in its many admirable sports and arts. Materially every individual was a multi-millionaire, in that he had at his beck and call a great diversity of powerful mechanisms; but also he was a penniless friar, for he had no vestige of economic control over any other human being. He could fly through the upper air to the ends of the earth in an hour, or hang idle among the clouds all day long. His flying machine was no cumbersome aeroplane, but either a wingless aerial boat, or a mere suit of overalls in which he could disport himself with the freedom of a bird. Not only in the air, but in the sea also, he was free. He could stroll about the ocean bed, or gambol with the deep-sea fishes. And for habitation he could make his home, as he willed, either in a shack in the wilderness or in one of the great pylons which dwarfed the architecture even of the American age. He could possess this huge palace in loneliness and fill it with his possessions, to be automatically cared for without human service; or he could join with others and create a hive of social life. All these amenities he took for granted as the savage takes for granted the air which he breathes. And because they were as universally available as air, no one craved them in excess, and no one grudged another the use of them.”
“I see, indeed I know, that in some sense God is love, and God is wisdom, and God is creative action, yes and God is beauty; but what God actually is, whether the maker of all things, or the fragrance of all things, or just a dream in our own hearts, I have not the art to know. Neither have you, I believe; nor any man, nor any spirit of our humble stature.”
“We should not for a moment consider even our best-established knowledge of existence as true. It is awareness only of the colors that our own vision paints on the film of one bubble in one strand of foam on the ocean of being.”
“Today we should welcome, and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.”
“Long before the human spirit awoke to clear cognizance of the world and itself, it sometimes stirred in its sleep, opened bewildered eyes, and slept again.”
“I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness. And on the skin of that little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit. And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolutions, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of the stars.”
“The sheer beauty of our planet surprised me. It was a huge pearl, set in spangled ebony. It was nacreous, it was an opal. No, it was far more lovely than any jewel. Its patterned colouring was more subtle, more ethereal. It displayed the delicacy and brilliance, the intricacy and harmony of a live thing. Strange that in my remoteness I seemed to feel, as never before, the vital presence of Earth as of a creature alive but tranced and obscurely yearning to wake.”
“Was man indeed, as he sometimes desired to be, the growing point of the cosmical spirit, in its temporal aspect at least? Or was he one of many million growing points? Or was mankind of no more importance in the universal view than rats in a cathedral? And again, was man’s true function power, or wisdom, or love, or worship, or all of all these? Or was the idea of function, of purpose, meaningless in relation to the cosmos? These grave questions I would answer.”
“It seemed to me that I, the spirit of so many worlds, the flower of so many ages, was the Church Cosmical, fit at last to be the bride of God. But instead I was blinded and seared and struck down by terrible light.
It seemed that he gazed down on me from the height of his divinity with the aloof though passionate attention of an artist judging his finished work; calmly rejoicing in his achievement, but recognizing at last the irrevocable flaws in his initial conception, and already lusting for fresh creation.
The creator, if he should love his creature, would be loving only a part of himself; but the creature, praising the creator, praises an infinity beyond himself.
It is enough to have been created, to have embodied for a moment the infinite and tumultuously creative spirit. It is infinitely more than enough to have been used, to have been the rough sketch for some perfected creation.
In that instant when I had seen the blazing star that was the Star Maker, I had glimpsed, in the very eye of that splendor, strange vistas of being; as though in the depths of the hypercosmical past and the hypercosmical future also, yet coexistent in eternity, lay cosmos beyond cosmos.”
“The cosmos which he now created was that which contains the readers and the writer of this book. In its making he used, but with more cunning art, many of the principles which had already served him in earlier creations; and he wove them together to form a more subtle and more capricious unity than ever before.”
“To speak thus of the universal spirit is almost childishly anthropomorphic. For the life of such a spirit, if it exists at all, must be utterly different from human mentality, and utterly inconceivable to man. Nevertheless, since this childish symbolism did force itself upon me, I record it. In spite of its crudity, perhaps it does contain some genuine reflection of the truth, however distorted.”
“These three activities, then, intelligence, love and creative action, which are so closely involved in one another, I cannot but feel to be intrinsically good. In their outstanding expressions they are good in an outstanding degree. Together they form the distinctively human kind of behaviour. Broadly there are two very different spheres of our unconscious nature. The one is primitive and largely sub-human. It consists of all our bodily needs and our so-called instinctive cravings. It is all that we have in common with the beasts together with all that we share with the lowliest of our own human kind. But in addition to this there are seemingly unconscious factors in our nature which, far from being sub–human, constitute the drive of our nature toward experiences and activities of a kind more developed and more lucid than our extant ordinary conscious nature.”
Another fascinating appreciation of Olaf Stapledon can be found online here: