Felix Writes: Olaf Stapledon And The Future That Was

DigitalThoughts / Olaf Stapledon And The Future That Was

2013-01-11

To be honest, I hadn't heard of Olaf Stapledon before a random Twitter link pointed me at the University of Adelaide's eBook library. But I was intrigued to hear he was such an influential author, and sure enough, once I started reading one of his books, it was hard to set it aside. Not because it's such a masterpiece (though the writing is pretty darn good) but because of the amazing insights it gives into the mentalities of the era in which it was written. Last and First Men is often a naive book, but its focus on social issues makes it age much better than typical technology-oriented science fiction.

Here are some things that Olaf Stapledon correctly predicted in 1930:

  • the rise of fascism in Europe (though he singles out Italy for some reason);
  • US culture being imposed on the whole world through mass-media;
  • peak oil and coal (though they somehow last another three thousand years after that point);
  • China and India becoming superpowers (and remember, the latter was still a British colony at the time);
  • the US unilaterally taking on the role of world policeman;
  • the war on sex and birth control.

I would count weapons of mass destruction as well, but I get the impression that the concept was already widespread back then; poison gas was still fresh in everyone's memory, so soon after World War I.

That said, the book also contains some absolutely ridiculous points. To his credit, the author states outright in the preface that science fiction doesn't try to predict the future -- a lesson oft-forgotten in the decades since. But that shouldn't be an excuse to write things that stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point and make the reader repeat the MST3K mantra desperately.

Here are some things that Olaf Stapledon simply didn't understand:

  • Science. Hint: it's not a religion. They're not even compatible.
  • War. In Mr. Stapledon's defense, everyone back then thought that wars would be short affairs in the future, due to aviation and overly powerful bombs. (Also, he was a pacifist, according to his Wikipedia bio.) But that just showed a lack of critical spirit, as history demonstrated less than a decade later.
  • Transportation, for that matter. No, planes could never have fully replaced ground vehicles. They're too inconvenient, and use up way more power. Not anything that's newer and shinier is also better.
  • Race. To be fair, racism and sexism are still very much with us. Back then, however, they actually believed racial differences were objectively significant!
  • East Asian cultures. He describes the Chinese as individualists who have to import the communal spirit from Communist Russia! Seriously...

Notably, right in the book's introduction it's acknowledged that technological progress accelerates exponentially, leaving society behind. Then the author proceeds to describe the future as happening at a glacial pace. So much for extrapolating from a premise.

There is, however, one trap that Mr. Stapledon deftly avoids. Throughout the first quarter of the book, references to future tech are limited to offhand references to airplanes, "televisors" and advanced materials. Even the mention of gramophones doesn't seem out of place, once you remember that turntables never went anywhere.

Yes, as of this writing I'm only a quarter through the book, which is quite large. So take this review with a grain of salt. In any event, you can read the book for free; while it will be under copyright until 2020, the University of Adelaide offers it under a Creative Commons license -- an arrangement I would like to see more frequently. Happy reading!

P.S. As several readers pointed out, he singled out Italy because it was the first noticeable fascist regime in Europe. I guess the larger trend wasn't visible quite yet.

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