Sunday, March 27, 2011

SF Masterworks #21: Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker

In a study of Poe's Eureka, Valéry has observed that cosmogony is the most ancient of the literary genres; despite the anticipations of Bacon, whose New Atlantis was published at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it is possible to confirm that the most modern is the fable or fantasy of scientific character.  It is known that Poe approached the two genres separately and perhaps invented the last one; Olaf Stapledon combined the two in this singular book.  For this imaginary exploration of time and space, he did not resort to vague troublesome mechanisms, but instead to the fusion of a human mind with others, to a kind of lucid ecstasy or (if one wants) a variation of a certain famous Cabalistic doctrine, which supposes that in the body of a man can inhabit many souls, as in the body of a woman about to be a mother.  The majority of Stapledon's colleagues seem arbitrary or irresponsible; this work, in exchange, leaves the impression of sincerity, despite the singular and at times monstrous nature of his stories.  He doesn't accumulate inventions for the distraction or stultification of those who will read him; it follows and it registers with honest rigor the complex and shady vicissitudes of a coherent dream. (Jorge Luis Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, p. 232)

Borges' commentary on Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel, Star Maker, serves as a perfect introduction to this work that builds upon and expands the scope found in his earlier 1930 novel, Last and First Men.  In my review of that earlier book, I focused on the cyclical nature of the narrative as two billion imagined years of future human existence were outlined.  Here in Star Maker, Stapledon expands that narrative in two ways.  The first is simply a matter of magnitude, instead of a measly two billion years, he charts a course through innumerable epochs of stars, galaxies, and the life that sometimes sprung up out of dead stellar material.  The second is more tricky.  As Borges notes in the excerpt I translated above, there is a sort of union of souls, as the human narrator at the beginning of the novel finds himself disassociated from his body, which in turn permits him to touch upon what may be the ultimate cosmic mind, the Star Maker himself.

Due to the presence of this disembodied human observer, the narrative structure for Star Maker oddly enough feels less "distant" than that of Last and First Men, despite the tens of billions more years covered in this book compared to the other.  Although the narrator is mostly content to make observations about the various strange (and sometimes familiar) life forms he encounters on his psychic journey through space-time, there are times that his observations serve to create a sort of quasi-mystical connection between various lifeforms and their struggles to understand that central mystery of "what is life and why am I alive to ask this question?"  Take for instance this passage about a race of plant-men:

It was of course through animal prowess and practical human intelligence that the species had long ago come to dominate its word.  But at all times this practical will had been tempered and enriched by a kind of experience which among men is very rare.  Every day, throughout the ages, these beings had surrendered their feverish animal nature not merely to unconscious or dream-racked sleep, such as animals know, but to the special kind of awareness which (we learned) belongs to plants.  Spreading their leaves, they had absorbed directly the essential elixir of life which animals receive only at second hand in the mangled flesh of their prey.  Thus they seemingly maintained immediate physical contact with the source of all cosmical being.  And this state, though physical, was also in some sense spiritual.  It had a far-reaching effect on all their conduct.  If theological language were acceptable, it might well be called a spiritual contact with God.  During the busy night-time they went about their affairs as insulated individuals, having no present immediate experience of their underlying unity; but normally they were always preserved from the worst excesses of individualism by memory of their day-time life. (p. 118)

Although there was some hint of this metaphysical concern in Last and First Men, it is here in Star Maker where Stapledon unfolds his narrative further to incorporate speculations on "meanings" and "purposes" for life and the cosmos.  While much of Stapledon's writings show at least some influence from authors like Schopenhauer and Spengler, the structure of Stapledon's narrative here (as it was to a lesser extent in Last and First Men) is that of a Marxist character, especially with its focus on societal mechanisms of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.  However, Stapledon added a few quasi-religious undertones to this narrative (as the above quote hints at) that likely confounded the more orthodox Marxist readers of this text.  In speculating on a divine figure, Stapledon is not demonstrating any loyalty to a particular creed; if anything, his Star Maker is a troubling entity, unconcerned as it seems to be, at least at first, with the organisms, ranging from galaxies to microbes, that it creates in order to destroy, perhaps in order to learn how to perfect what it has created.

This is not a comforting element.  It can be downright disturbing to imagine.  Yet Stapledon manages to create a sprawling narrative around this Star Maker (as witnessed in glimpses by the disembodied narrator) that somehow manages to be less threatening than it otherwise may have been.  Perhaps it is the Star Maker's quest for perfection reminds us of our own all-too-human desire to improve and expand our horizons and accomplishments that makes at least one facet of its immense personality fathomable to us.  Star Maker is not as much a novel about the universe as it is a microcosm in print form for all of our hopes and dreams regarding where we came from and where we're heading.  As such, it is a fitting sequel to Last and First Men and its sometimes-inconclusive responses to core human concerns makes it a "masterwork" worthy of reading by people from all walks of life even after seventy-plus years since its initial publication.

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