...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day 2331: Human Nature?


Daddy Richard has had rather a trying week, and that is why my diary has fallen behind again. Sorry!

Anyway, to make up, here is an ENORMOUS essay about some science fiction of the early twentieth century. If you are disappointed to learn that it is NOT this week's Doctor Who, though, you should read on. Doctor Who's (arguably) greatest Script Editor Mr Robert Holmes insisted that everyone who wanted to write Doctor Who for him should become literate in the greats of Science Fiction. This is the good stuff.

Scary scarecrows will just have to come later.
There is a chance that you have heard of W. Olaf Stapledon. You probably haven't but you should have done. He was a writer mainly of the 1930's, only a generation after H.G. Wells practically invented the "Scientific Romance" with The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and yet he is almost forgotten.

But he shouldn't be. His two great works, Last and First Men and its sort of sequel Star Maker, are the most astonishing description of imagination it is possible to come across, as far beyond Wells in scope and realisation as Wells himself is beyond the domestic concerns of an Austen or a Brontë.

Stapledon himself didn't even think of his work as "science fiction", would probably have been faintly offended by the term. And to be fair, this is only "science fiction" in so much as Professor Tolkein's epic study of language and search for and English mythology is "fantasy". Stapledon was writing a philosophical treatise, a discussion on the nature of man, evolution, the Universe and god. That he would do so by describing a future history of mankind was so obvious as to be no more than incidental.

So, in spite of the SF on the label, don't judge these books by their covers.

If there are two key factors to Stapledon's work then they are "scale" and "tragedy".

The scale is simply breathtaking: by the end of Star Maker he has encompassed literally all of time and space, forever and ever and in a very real sense, amen. The tragedy is in the repeated motif of failure, death unlooked for, too soon, too unfair, of striving and achievement coming ever and again to nothing, falling eternally short of the might have been.

Where Tolkien and all who followed him have "the map", that much-referred-to diagram in the endpages which lays out the geographical separation of the events of the story, Stapledon instead has a series of timescales, each a line centred on 2000 AD stretching backwards and forwards and showing the relative placing of the incidents of his future history.

While the first, from -2000 to +2000 years, showing the period from the time of Christ to the future Americanised World State, seems a familiar kind of history, as soon as you move to the second, -200,000 to +200,000 you understand more of Stapledon's perspective, for it shows the period of Palaeolithic Culture lasting from -200,000 until almost today, and – apart from two brief flowerings, one now and one in Patagonia in about 100,000 years time – all of the next 200,000 years has we, the first men, in barbaric eclipse.

Worse, his third scale, -20,000,000 to +20,000,000 or from the earliest mammals to the distant future, shows the whole history of "first men" as a blip around the present day, and the whole history of our evolutionary successors the "second men" as another blip around the year 10,000,000.

Not very Russell T Davies, is it?

With an eye to the realities of the Universe, Stapledon constructs a history that is both vast and mostly empty.

The fourth scale, -2,000,000,000 to +2,000,000,000 starts with the formation of the Earth and concludes with the extinction of the final human species, the "Last Men".

The timescale of Star Maker goes even further, starting with a range from 20 billion years in the past to 80 billion years in the future, with the entire story of "Last and First Men" a blink-and-you'll-miss-it footnote in the middle.

His next time line cover the complete life span of our cosmos, from its moment of creation 200 billion years ago to final entropy three hundred billion years in the future.

And his final scale shows the lives of every Universe from the first to the last.

The device of these timescales perfectly illustrates the design of Stapledon's works, starting with the nearby history of the familiar and describing it in a certain degree of detail over several chapters – the first four chapters of "Last and First Men", for example, are all encompassed in the very first timescale. But then as he ranges further and further into the future, he compresses the amount that he writes to describe these future words just as the gap between events foreshortens as the scale of his time lines increases, thus by the end of "Star Maker" it is necessary for him to describe whole Universes in a paragraph, or even many Universes in a passing sentence.

Last and First Men

In his foreword to the first complete American edition, Gregory Benford advises the reader to skip over the first four chapters, ostensibly because they are the bit that Stapledon got demonstrably wrong. I think that that would be a disservice to the book and the reader. You will gain far more insight into Stapledon's thinking by comparing his future vision with what we know did happen next. Additionally, it will gather you up into the accelerating pace of the future history as he covers it, starting with small steps to cover the years of the now past Twentieth Century before he begins to step up to higher and higher gears.

Perhaps most obviously, Last and First Men is the work of a man who has seen the First World War, seen it and been convinced that it was the ending of things.

So his vision of the world's future – our world's future, the world of we the First Men – is one of inevitable decline, brought about by our own follies. Europe is laid waste first by a war between England and France, then between Russia and Germany as client states of the mighty powers of America and China, finally when she dares to rise up against America, Europe is exterminated with poison gas.

Well, obviously that didn't happen… yet it is interesting the things that Stapledon did get right: Germany breeds a generation of pacifists in guilt at the European War – right response, wrong war – Russia is belligerent through her forced subservience to American finance; China rises to become the opposing pole to America…

It is true to say that Stapledon is not subtle with his racial stereotyping. But nor is he particularly biased, ascribing failings and foibles to almost everyone. The English are too cowardly, the French too vain, the Germans too passionate… even if his ascribing physical prowess as the talent of Negroid races makes us wince these days. His message though is not so much that everyone is rubbish but that only if we work together can we achieve our better nature. American dynamism needs to be tempered with European cynicism or it gets carried away; European intellectualism needs to be tempered with Indian spiritualism or it becomes cold and soulless and so on.

But it's not really about the details. Essentially, the history of the First Men concerns two big ideas: progress versus stability, and Stapledon chooses to represent these as America and China.

The Americans, perhaps driven a little mad with grief after the patricidal war against Europe, become obsessed with perpetual motion, that activity itself is sacred, ending with them fusing Fundamentalist Christianity with totemic scientific ideas in the worship of the source of all movement the "Gordelpus".

(The satirical naming of the object of veneration coming in fact from the oath uttered by one of the last English scientists on discovering the secret of atomic power – a secret immediately covered up, so these Americans always desire but never discover it.)

The extra irony added is that the Americans are stupendously sexually repressed, that enormous energy being diverted unnaturally into their ever busier, if futile, lives lived acquiring astronomical personal wealth.

The Chinese, in contrast, venerate the state of rest. They toil tirelessly in order to achieve the means to be idle. And with an open and decadent sexuality, they reproduce without restraint thus providing themselves with limitless manpower. No one achieves great personal wealth, but no one is oppressed by excessive labour either.

Obviously neither side can abide the other… but on the brink of war to the death, the community of businessmen on both sides decide that staying in business is more important than who wins and so assassinate all the world leaders and put the Church of Gordelpus in charge. Under their own board of managers, of course. They even manage to persuade the Chinese that – just as matter is merely another form of energy – rest is just another form of movement.

The first World State lasts for a thousand years, powered by petrol from Antarctic Coal deposits. Everyone has personal aeroplanes and these become integral to their religion. Since I first read Stapledon years ago, the image has always stayed with me of the Americanised World, all dancing on the wings of aeroplanes until the fuel runs out and they fall out of the sky.

Obviously this hasn't happened either. We've got there a whole lot faster.

Of the survivors of this great fall, only the Patagonian people of Latin America struggle to rebuild a civilisation. Here Stapledon turns his satirical eye to the practise of paternalism. These future Patagonians come to worship youth and childhood, because in their crippled world they are too soon forced into the burdens of maturity, and become prematurely aged.

Here Stapledon pauses to discuss the life of their main religious prophet, the Divine Boy – first its actuality, a young man who unlike the rest of his kind retains the vigour and mischief of youth into his middle years, and then the distorted "perfect child" image of a perfectly spoken, modest and obedient eternal child. As Olaf puts it: an image of a child only an old person could conceive. The real wisdom of the real man becomes buried under a weight of sentiment and tradition. I'm sure there was some allusion I meant to draw from this…

The Patagonians’ downfall comes from their paternalistic desire to look after all their people as though they are children. Wise enough to realise that the World State had abandoned the pursuit of intellect in favour of their religion of movement (thinking being far too sedentary to be considered an "activity"), the Patagonians try to nurture intelligence. The brightest among them are taken for special education to become leaders and governors. But unfortunately, the governors over time come to look upon the governed more and more as children to be cherished and nurtured, but also children who should obey without question just as the religious [i.e. unreal] version of the Divine Boy would have done.

Unfortunately, this coincides with the rediscovery of the long lost secret of drawing power from the atom. So, when workers are chastised for not working hard in the new uranium mines they riot – or rather throw a great big tantrum – smashing one of the new atomic mining machines. The resultant explosion starts a chain reaction, and detonates all the uranium in the Earth's crust. A string of titanic explosions and volcanic eruptions run up the spine of America under the Bering Straits back down the Himalayas across to Europe, down to Africa… within a day every human on the planet is dead. Well, except for a tiny group of Arctic explorers.

It all goes very quiet for quite some time…

Eventually, from some of the descendents of these survivors – or rather the descendents of the descendents of their descendents – evolution develops a second human species, more robust than the first and yet more gentle, more inclined to sympathy and understanding, natural community makers. They discover other descendents of the human line, devolved into beast men, ironically in thrall to tiny monkeys that have developed a crude intelligence where the once humans have lost theirs.

These noble but unworldly Second Men fall victim to the invasion of an alien intelligence from Mars. Crudely put it sounds like pulp fiction, but Stapledon's development of the Martian form – a cloud or dust of microscopic particles that hold together and communicate by electromagnetism – is itself fascinating and also propels a critique of single-mindedness. The Martian host are literally of a single mind, having long since eliminated all other opposing dust clouds or subsumed them into one great form. Invasion after invasion comes from Mars, catching a foothold on Earth and being driven back, eventually colonising the southern hemisphere. As the Second Men try to come to an accommodation, the Martian invaders gradually realise that the humans might be intelligent… only for their parent/greater body on Mars to reject the idea and ruthlessly eliminate the colonist body before sending a new invasion. Earth and Mars are both worn away. Finally, the broken spirited Second Men can no longer maintain their characteristic sympathy and go a bit crazy, developing a genocidal weapon that destroys the Martian utterly, but at great cost, the poisonous dust of the dead Martians micro organisms wiping out almost all humans, in a bittersweet reversal of the War of the Worlds.

And this is Stapledon's pattern: over and again a new species of Men will arise, fall into obsession and meet with calamity.

The Third Men are the authors of their own downfall, obsessed as they are with perfection of nature, using their skills as breeders and then discovering the secret of the germ plasm (remember this was written before Watson and Crick discovered DNA) to make better and more diverse forms of all flora and fauna. Ultimately they turn to redesigning themselves, genetically engineering a species of gigantic human brains that supersedes them.

These great brains, the Fourth Men, are obsessed with pure intellect, as after all brains is all that they have. When they reach the limits of what they can learn, they find all their knowledge insufficient, so they design and make a Fifth Men with the sole intention of having them explain what they the Fourth Men are missing (a clue: it's bodies). The Fifth Men overthrow the tyrannical brains and exterminate them.

The Fifth Men are obsessed with art and beauty, discovering a way to re-enter history and see all its tragedies… until the Moon, displaced from orbit, starts to fall upon them and they must flee to Venus.

In spite of their best efforts to terraform their new world, Venus is in no way suited to humans of the Fifth Race and they evolve again into a Sixth species who live a miserable existence on the planet's few islands.

Eventually, they give themselves wings and become the Seventh Men. The Flying Men live short lives, but ecstatic ones when they are on the wing, and their civilisation lasts for millions of years – one of the few great successes, though they achieve no greatness in art or science or religion, except only the achievement of dance in the air. Their tragedy is that they are dependent on a rare salt for their power of flight, which in time they deplete. A groundling race of Eighth Men are bred, and they, jealous of the Seventh Men's freedom of flight, hound their predecessors to oblivion.

And so it goes on – when a solar collision causes the Sun to swell, dooming Mercury, Venus and Earth to fiery destruction – mankind emigrates once more, this time colonising the vast planet Neptune. Here man is reduced utterly to the animal and, just as all mammals today evolved from some small shrew-like creature that survived the Mexico impact at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, so man evolves again into all the many and varied forms of life that the environment on Neptune will allow. Just as mankind once evolved from the beasts, so in Stapledon's future all the beasts thus evolve from man.

Three hundred million years pass. Not even the mighty Frank Herbert can manage sentences like that one. Page 256 of my SF Masterworks edition: "Now in the fullness of time, about three-hundred million terrestrial years after…" evolution again throws up the conditions for an intelligent hominid.

Humanity goes though several more manifestations before finally achieving his ultimate, or at least final, incarnation in the Eighteenth or Last Men.

In the end, this Mankind achieves something new, a telepathic community that encompasses their whole civilisation. Unlike the earlier Martian mind, that was just one mind grown really big, these Men achieve a true Unity, where all contribute equally and all experience the collective wisdom.

(Incidentally, readers of Julian May's "Saga of the Pliocene Exiles" and "Galactic Milieu" series may recognise this idea of telepathic Unity.)

Truly, it is greater than the sum of all its million million parts. And, again with the tragedy, it is just in time to realise that the Sun is about to undergo an unnatural and premature Supernova. Mankind is about to become extinct forever.

This story of the fall of civilisation after civilisation is not so much a whiz-bang future history, but a spiritual quest, a journey away from our petty and individualistic concerns to something that is better than all of us. With his future, Stapledon tells cautionary tales against devoting all our energies into one course; not science, nor art nor music nor physicality is ever enough on their own. With his dispassionate observation, he advises us to temper our passions with cynicism, to govern ourselves not harshly nor unwisely. Given his urge for moderation but with spirituality, you will not be surprised to learn he was a Quaker; given his ending of grand Unity you will not be surprised to learn that he was a lifelong communist, but not above a critique of collectivism either, as his interlude with the Martian overmind shows.

Much of the science we now know to be nonsense – a Venus with oceans, Neptune a solid rocky planet beneath its think atmosphere – and those all-important time scales date from an era when we thought the Universe much, much older than we now believe, but that's beside the point when he has grasped so readily the sheer vast emptiness of space and how little we are on our precious blue dot, and the enormity of evolution and the way that it throws up change after change after change.

The only thing that really jars is that Stapledon's future Men never leave the solar system. A journey of hundreds of years to the nearest star system may be impossible for us to consider, but when future races have developed lifespans of thousands or even tens of thousands of years, such journeys become easily achievable, particularly once the secret of drawing power from "atomic disintegration" is discovered, essentially you can have as much E for your mc2 as you like if you can do that.

But then, that would be to give us a get-out, an escape from the inevitable; it would abolish the tragedy. Again we must come back to the First World War and the sense of a man struggling to come to terms with the ultimate in futility. The answer that Stapledon seems to grasp – perhaps the straw in his ocean – is that life, existence, the Universe, all of it is beautiful… from some perspective. Even if we cannot see that perspective, are not equipped biologically or spiritually to understand. Or perhaps he does in the end reject this as insufficient. Although the book closes with the Last Men having made their spiritual peace through their unified world mind, the epilogue twists the knife as, with their world collapsing, they can no longer achieve that height of "spiritual excellence". Worse, they begin to doubt whether they really achieved that unity, or was it just delusion?

Perhaps it sounds depressing, but instead it should be inspirational – this future is not inevitable. Yes, obviously, but those first four chapters prove that. Some decisions somewhere we got right. We can live in hope, and we can avoid extinction. But we have to go to the stars.

Two billion years covering the entire future of humanity. You would think you couldn't top that, wouldn't you…

Star Maker

If Last and First Men is the cri de coeur of a man who has seen World War One, then Star Maker is the rejoinder of a man who is desperate for his faith to be strong enough. Where the first rails against a cruel Universe: "is there no god?!", the second is a heartfelt "there MUST be!"

In Last and First Men, Stapledon took on the persona of one of those Last Men using their powers and understanding of the nature of time to convey his message back to the mind of a simple member of the First Human species.

For Star Maker he adopts a different tactic, describing instead the account as though he had experienced his strange travels as a vision, as a part of a greater collective of consciousnesses, a higher mind if you like, and now – reduced once more to his humble human condition – he recalls this in fragmentary and imperfect form. Slightly strangely he alludes once or twice to his earlier account of the fate of man, clearly Last and First Men, but never directly admits to being the same author or the same First Man who was earlier "possessed" or "visited" by one of the Last Men and so inspired to write that book.

Equally, there are some small differences in what you might call the "continuity". Last and First Men states that the Last Men have scoured the cosmos and find that they almost alone – unless it is in some of the more distant galaxies – have achieve the heights of consciousness and spirituality. But come Star Maker, there are many worlds in our galaxy of at least this stature if not higher – "awakened worlds" Stapledon calls them, where the entire populace have achieved that state of telepathic unity where all participate as equal parts of one being.

You could slightly wave your hands and say it is down to the vast gulfs of time. Mankind live in their little Universe of the Solar System about a hundred billion years before the beginnings of interstellar travel (by the unintentionally hilarious "Space 1999" method of strapping atom bombs to the side of your planet and blasting it out of orbit). The other "higher" civilisations may all exist in a later time. But it won't do: the very first other world our author and traveller visits is many billions of years in the past; worse, the greatest of civilisations evolves hundreds of billions of years before we do.

But never mind that. Again, Stapledon is merely using these worlds and times as illustrations for the ideas that he wants to discuss.

Where Last and First Men is so clearly influenced by the First World War, Star Maker is foreshadowed of the Second. In his mental or astral travel, the author is drawn again and again to worlds that are experiencing what he keeps describing as "that crisis that we ourselves currently face on our little Earth". Actually, it almost becomes frustrating, as the "crisis" is so obvious to Stapledon that he never spells out exactly what he means: is it the imminent mid Twentieth Century clash of nationalism against globalism; or is this simply too obvious? Does he extend this to spiritualism versus materialism, or militarism verses pacifism, or even individualism versus collectivism? (Remembering again that Stapledon is a communist and Quaker.)

It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to him that there might be another way, muddling along without having to choose between the Fascists and the Communists.

Still, with this in mind we see him exploring a Universe of alternative evolutions. Not confined to what can be achieved by "Star Trek's" prosthetics department, he devises world after world in which new and more and more bizarre ways exist for life to have evolved. Cleverly linking it to the author's "spiritual growth", he explains that initially he is drawn through space and – it turns out – time to those civilisations most like our own, in biological form as in mental development.

Thus he first finds himself on a very Earth-like world where hominid, but vaguely amphibian, inhabitants live very human lives, threatened by global war and their own declining strength of spirit. Stapledon also takes a side-swipe at television in passing, with the Other Men falling into an addiction to their own version. Many abandon the world, retiring to beds and artificially fed and medicated in order to receive all their input from television. Yes, Olaf invented the Internet nerd.

Following the pattern of Last and First Men, the early chapters are slow and take time to discuss the history and tragedy of this Other Earth. There he meets a like-minded individual and is eventually able to learn to communicate with him, and then further teach him the power to travel and explore mentally. Together they explore the Other Earth and eventually leave together to explore further and find new worlds and new companions.

As their experience together grows and their thinking becomes broader, they become able to visit worlds of greater and greater difference, far beyond the range of vertebrate-type civilisations they begin with. Stapledon really lets his mind go, exploring ideas as varied as nautiloids – great living ships – and echinoderms – sentient starfish; intelligent plant-men, dwelling on planets with abundant sunlight; and symbiotic species, including the paring of species of huge thoughtful fish with tiny but dextrous spiders to be found in one of the satellite galaxies.

I should briefly add a moment of warm praise for the inclusive way in which Stapledon uses the term "human", to include all beings capable of intellectual and spiritual understanding. Of course it's an allegory about difference not dividing us, but nevertheless it manages to be more I.D.I.C. than "Star Trek". All of these worlds, in Stapledon's terms then are "human".

For all these worlds, the group of travellers learn to follow their histories from the point where sentience emerges up to the "spiritual crisis", after which they either fail and fall into self extermination, or the travellers lose contact with them.

It becomes apparent to them that in fact they lose contact because the worlds have advanced to a higher spiritual level. In fact, they have evolved in the way that the Last Men achieved at the end of Last and First Men, and become a unified or "awakened world". In time, the travellers learn to follow this path themselves, as indeed their travelling collective is clearly an imperfect foreshadowing, and they learn of the developing community of worlds.

Here Stapledon changes tack, no longer concerned with life in its diversity but in its hierarchy.

As the worlds come awake, they colonise their systems and – as indicated before – learn to travel to new systems and spread their state of consciousness further. Each world becomes essentially a being, a being composed of millions if not billions of individuals, just as in Stapledon's analogy, your body is composed of trillions of cells, all acting as a part of the whole.

Individuals unify to become equal parts of an awakened world; worlds unify into systems; the whole galaxy gradually comes awake, as vastly greater a mind than the living worlds as they were then their component individuals; ultimately the galactic minds try to reach out to one another to join in an awakened literal cosmic consciousness.

Will this supreme consciousness in fact be god, ponders the author? Or rather the "Star Maker", the oh so obviously responsible for the Universe creator? And will such a being have the perspective to understand the place and purpose of all the suffering and all the worlds that fail and die?

Along the way, the living worlds inevitably come into conflict with one another. Empires arise, all vying to impose their own particular philosophy by telepathic propaganda if possible, by force if required. Stapledon describes these Empires as materialistic utopias. Ironically, he has invented "Star Trek's" Federation 30 years early. The galaxy seems poised to fall under their sway, and Stapledon makes it clear that this would be a dead end for the spirit, but there comes an intervention from the great symbiotic race of the satellite galaxy, and the worlds are set back on the path to unity.

Later still, the living worlds come into conflict with living stars.

The stars, vastly larger than planets, have long since passed through a similar evolution of mind to those of the awakened worlds, but even more bizarre and alien, and hence remaining unrevealed to the travellers. Now, in Stapledon's cosmology, they perform an intricate dance, a dance that merely perfectly resembles the motions that they would perform under gravity. Okay, I'm a bit sceptical about something whose presence is indistinguishable from its absence. However, the efforts of the living worlds to engineer their own solar systems interfere with the perfect motion of the stars' dance. The result is disaster – moral shame for violating their own near religious observance leads the stars to take violent retribution, prematurely going supernova to rid themselves of the planets that they identify as the cause of their shame.

This could be – obscurely – and unlooked for explanation of the mysterious death that afflicts Mankind at the conclusion of Last and First Men. Our race may be innocent victims of the war of worlds and stars, collateral damage if you like in a war of which we know nothing. Or perhaps not. It's certainly never made clear.

In time, differences are resolved and peace is restored. But the time is ill spent, because the Universe has a finite life span, and already it is most used up. In that far distant future when the cosmos does indeed awaken, and the travellers find themselves joining in the supreme moment, the nascent universal mind perceives almost at once its own imminent dissolution and the passing of the Universe into entropy, dust and silence.

But in that one moment – or eon, when you’re the whole Universe these things pass in a blink – the author reveals a glimpse of the perspective both down, seeing the fullness and richness and rightness of every part of every life that has ever lived that carved the face of the Universe to achieve this final unity, and also up, seeing truly how the Universe is a tiny child, a newborn gazing up at the true face of the Star Maker.

And god looks down on his creation with infinite disdain and, in the instant before turning to begin again, dismisses the Universe as not good enough yet.

In his final chapters, Stapledon expounds his mythology of the Star Maker. The being creates as naturally as existing: in his immature phase creating Universes with simple rules, trying out basic rules of physics or different balances of good and evil; simplistic life/heaven/hell paradigms or building blocks of free will. The Star Maker's mature phase begins with the creation of a Universe, maybe our Universe, that puts these rules together in a coherent pattern, a pattern that from the Star Maker's perspective begins with the universal cosmic mind, and then works backwards to the events that must proceed in order to arrive at his endpoint.

And this Universe is not the last, not nearly the last, as the Star Maker creates again and again in endless variety seeking evermore to create the pattern aright. Seeking to create, as indeed he does in the end, the ultimate cosmos, a Universe fully alive and intimately connected to each and every person and world and galaxy that it comprises. A Universe that will give birth to the Star Maker, and start the cycle anew.

Stapledon does have a perhaps worrying habit of willingness to worship, a surrendering to unproven higher powers. For him, the Star Maker is deserving of worship almost merely because he exists. Worshipping divinities is what little things like us are supposed to do. During the war of living worlds, he repeatedly condemned the materialist Empires as "insane". That the Star Maker – within the context of the story – is awesome is undeniable, but does this truly make him worthy?

Even in the ultimate Universe there is suffering and failure and death, and that is a Universe where the suffering of even one individual is felt as keenly and as terribly as the all the suffering of our own Universe. Why is this? Stapledon does not have a satisfactory answer: it is down to perspective, he says. Do we worry for the suffering of individual cells in our bodies? Still less for the cells of the pre-human creatures from which we evolved. No more, then, should the minds of worlds or Universes feel for the lives of those who live and struggle and fight and die in the history that makes them possible. From a certain point of view, it is noble and necessary and tragedy is beautiful.

God, you might say, moves in mysterious ways – and who are we, mere mortals, to judge?

Well, in one of the finest quotes from a (really rubbish) Doctor Who story: who do we have to be?

For his Universe-spanning achievement of imagination, I salute Olaf Stapledon, but for his conclusion that we should all merge into one giant hymn-singing overmind… well, forgive me if I ask you to count me out.

But as the man himself says: it is a matter of perspective. So I would urge you to read for yourselves and make up your minds – expanded, unified, or awakened – all for yourselves.

In his epilogue, the author returns to Earth, to England it seems, and it is sufficient. To me, that seems good.

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