Sci-fi / Last And First Men Revisited

2013-02-01

After my review of Last and First Men, a friend accused me of racism. Being tired I replied something very stupid, which only served to strengthen his conviction. See, I was actually talking about culture, but somehow failed to make that clear, and he thought it was about race instead. So I'm taking this opportunity to apologize.

Let this be a cautionary tale. Racism is so deeply embedded in so many human cultures that even someone who is fully aware of the issue (me) has to make a conscious effort to avoid falling back on stereotypes. Back in 1930, even an enlightened philosopher like Olaf Stapledon did not think for a moment that human behavior could be driven by anything but heredity, and that's scary. How many people still hold such beliefs?

Perhaps that's why he felt the need to spread his tale across multiple successive human species, which, like everything else in the book, change with inordinate slowness. I guess they didn't know back then just how young hominids are on a geological scale, and especially Homo Sapiens; but the net effect is as if you'd tell me a story about dinosaurs, get me emotionally invested in them, and then suddenly 66 million years have passed and now it's all about humans.

Amusingly, it turns out that DNA was first isolated in 1869 and theorized to be the basis of heredity as early as 1927, but Stapledon predicts it would be discovered over 100 million years in the future, by the grandchildren of our species. This ignorance is all the more curious as he was perfectly familiar with the equally new (at the time) concept of transhumanism. Then again, philosophy was his specialty.

Despite all this, I have continued to read the book (after a break). The writing is top notch, and there's the occasional gem such as the description of a species that's the biological equivalent of grey goo and can form a planet-wide hive mind. It's also pretty good at examining the implications of rebuilding civilization from scratch in a world with no fossil fuels (though, ironically, on the absurdly long scale of the story coal and oil would have time to form again).

The end is still a way off, mind you, and I don't know what else the book might have in store, but I already don't regret reading it. This is a book that provides perspective, in more than one way, and we kind of need that in the modern world.

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