Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon

“From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.”

Star Maker, published in 1937, was Olaf Stapledon’s fourth fiction work [1]. The unnamed narrator (revealed to be the same narrator as in his first book, Last and First Man) goes out into a hill after a fight with his wife. On this walk he undergoes a psychic transformation that allows him to fly up into space. First he looks upon the earth, but soon he begins to explore the galaxy, searching for other inhabited worlds and intelligent life forms. As the psychic powers of the narrator expand he identifies his “self” with an ever expanding network of beings that strives for perfect harmony and perfect unity, often with catastrophic consequences. Stapledon lays out an imaginative account of civilizations, the galaxy, and divinity. The story unfolds in ever expanding layers, each building on the themes in the earlier layers.

Stapledon has a particularly negative opinion of machinery and civilization. It is clear that some of his pessimism comes from rise of fascism in Europe, as there are a number of undisguised allusions to his contemporary world. But the novel is not simplistic worrying over the potential dangers of fascism. Rather, Stapledon spins out an extended allegory for civilization, potential civilizations, and existence, of which fascism is just a small part.

The eponymous character in the novel is a divine creator equated with God, whose perfect existence is the ultimate goal for nearly every being in the novel. The narrator focuses on the Star Maker during the climax of the novel and it is in this section that Stapledon’s training as a philosopher is most evident [2]. The editor of the edition I have notes allusions and parallels to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Bible, and ”Piers Plowman, but it is clear that Stapledon was also steeped in the work of a plethora of other medieval and late antique philosophers and theologians.

Star Maker is not a typical novel. For instance, there is only one named character [3] and the narrator is an unnamed Englishman married to an unnamed woman. Too, the novel has an ascending, repetitive narrative pattern reminiscent of meditative literature, rather than a traditional arc. Individual characters are unimportant, replaced by races and collectives. But Stapledon demonstrates a remarkable imagination in populating his universe so that, even as there seems to be an inevitability about how civilizations behave, each race has its own particular character [4]. Star Maker is atypical, but it is a masterpiece of science and utopian (as well as hints of dystopian) fiction.

I’ve added Star Maker to my honorable mentions section of my list of favorite novels. Next up is The City and the Mountains, a novel by Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz.

[1] Quite by accident, this is the first of his books I have read. It was just the first of his books I managed to get my hands on.
[2] Stapledon earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool.
[3] Bvalltu, an alien from Other Earth, the first stop on the galactic tour.
[4] The variety of races were my favorite part of the novel and many of his creations seem to preempt the creations of science fiction and fantasy stories of later generations.

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