Last and First Men

by Olaf Stapledon
Reviewed date: 2005 Apr 21
Rating: 3
246 pages
cover art

Last and First Men covers the two billion years of future human history. Olaf Stapledon starts in the 1930s and imagines the future of humanity, beginning with the Americanization of the world, the fall of civilization and the extermination of mankind, and the subsequent new species of man that arises from the evolutionary ashes of the extinct First Men. The Second Men create civilization and then too fall, giving rise to the Third Men. This continues until the eighteenth race of men, the Last Men, who witness the final failure of man.

There are no characters in Last and First Men. The protagonist is mankind; nations and races are anthropomorphized. The result is not a novel, but more a catalog of ideas and a fledgling philosophy.

Olaf Stapledon fails to predict his near future: he fails to predict the rise of Nazism or the Second World War. In his vision of the future the Soviet experiment with communism is largely successful. Stapledon does rightly predict 1) a culture struggle between superpower America and a Europe struggling for relevance, and 2) the ultimate clash between America and China (which we see happening today.) I notice also that Stapledon spectacularly forgets about atom bombs (which were a staple of science fiction even at that time) but imagines (just as staggeringly) chemical and biological weapons whose payloads decimate entire continents.

Last and First Men is a book only for serious science fiction fans.

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