Part of a continuing series looking at maligned, misunderstood, and forgotten works of genre fiction and making the case for their reevaluation. If you can think of something that you believe to be badly in need of this treatment, send us a message– it may get featured!
Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead!
The canon of Golden Age SF has been set for some time now, and its uncontested greatest figures tower over their lesser-known contemporaries. Verne. Wells. Asimov. Bradbury. Clarke. Herbert. E. E. Smith. But how many SF fans today, aside from the hardcore or just plain weird ones (I fit under both categories), have heard of Olaf Stapledon? Anybody? Note that this is a man who was widely admired by his contemporaries; his great opus Star Maker was called “the most powerful work of the imagination ever written” by Arthur C. Clarke himself. He may have had a blip of exposure recently due to the late Johann Johannsson’s cinematic/musical adaptation of Last and First Men, but overall his work remains well outside the mainstream. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a damn shame, because I maintain that every lover of science fiction ought to read Star Maker— and here’s why.
In most cases, such a general statement would be invalid—I mean, it’s not like every SF fan likes the same kind of story or even conceives of the genre in the same way, right? However, Star Maker is not a conventional story. Actually, it’s not even really a story at all. It’s a raw fountainhead of ideas, a dizzying headtrip arranged around a central narrative progression so universal that anyone even slightly intrigued by the mysteries of our universe—presumably the vast majority of regular SF readers—can’t help but invest in it.
You’re probably wanting some specifics about now. This is as much as I can provide. A man, presumably from 1930s Britain like the author (though he could just as easily be any human from any background), is lying on a hill admiring the night sky. Without warning, he comes into psychic contact with a totally alien and inescapably superior intelligence, which takes his mind on a tour of the universe. He experiences the rise and fall of several planetary civilizations, joins minds with representatives of each one, and eventually comes to be part of an overarching universal superconsciousness that ascends beyond material reality. There, at the culmination of the protagonist’s transcendental journey, he meets the Star Maker—Stapledon’s idea of God as an extension of the author—and his understanding of the very nature of being is transformed.
If Star Maker was any more conceptual, it would move entirely into uninteresting abstraction. Conversely, if the sheer mad invention were dialed down, the plot, such as it is, would seem threadbare and simplistic. Good thing, then, that Stapledon walks the tightrope perfectly, delivering a grand work that is nothing short of rapturous in its appeal. A good deal of that is due to the relentlessly fascinating invention on display throughout. Whereas many of the period’s science fiction authors’ imaginations are limited to uniformly rocky planets populated by hideous bug-eyed monsters (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Stapledon’s cosmos is filled with a dizzying diversity of life. Intelligent stars. Plant societies. Spaceships that nurture their young. And that’s just scratching the surface.
If the primary emotion SF aims to evoke is wonder—and I believe it is—then Star Maker must be counted among the very best achievements of the genre. It has none of the standard annoyances of Golden Age SF—shallow characters, excessive technobabble, dated politics inserted for no apparent reason. What is left are the qualities that lie at the heart of the genre: the pure awe Herbert conveys in his description of Arrakis, the encyclopedic plenty of Asimov’s Foundation timeline, the fascinating weirdness of Heinlein’s Mars, mixed together into an intoxicatingly hallucinatory cocktail.
What is most refreshing about Stapledon is how accessible his work is even today, Star Maker especially. Apart from some antiquated word choices, there’s little to tell the reader that it was written ninety-some years ago and largely forgotten since then (for reasons I’ve never quite been able to figure out). The fact is that the book is a practically perfect distillation of the science fiction novel, keeping what is potent and removing the extraneous. It also succeeds as few have in adopting a truly cosmic perspective, unlike far too many works of SF that can’t seem to shake the eternal bias common to all human writers: anthropocentrism.
In Stapledon’s grand universal panorama, Earth and our species are merely one point in an infinitely greater narrative, no more or less significant than any other. As seen through the eyes of the titular Star Maker, who cares only for perfecting his craft, our universe’s entire history is merely a trial run. The next one he makes will incorporate the lessons learned from this one, which in turn will inform the one that follows, and so on unto eternity. The book concludes with the realization that knowing the ultimate insignificance of our time here does not inspire apathy in the protagonist, but rather a renewed engagement: “the human crisis does not lose but gains significance”. Considering the book came out in ‘37 when the whole world was perched on the brink of total war, that affirmation feels all the more significant—though it’s every bit as relevant today.
But back to the text itself. It’s hard to say how much of a thrill it is to have narrative on such an absurdly grand scale realized so effectively, especially for an SF buff that is continually disappointed by the sheer provincialism the genre can’t seem to get away from. Star Maker feels mythical in the truest sense, like some epic passed down orally from time immemorial—or the distant future. On the scale the book operates on, the distinction is all but meaningless.
As you can see, Star Maker is the kind of book to make even normally no-nonsense writers wax poetic involuntarily. I decided not to resist it in writing this article because it’s hard to convey the unique appeal of the book in straightforward terms. The closest I can come is this: Imagine an account of the length and breadth of the universe—space as well as time—as told by, well, God. Then you might have an idea of the grandeur, depth, and rapturous intensity of Stapledon’s masterwork. If you want an even better one, go and read it already—I promise you, it’ll be an experience you won’t soon forget.