SkyFi November 2019 :: Last and First Men + Star Maker :: Stories of Love
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
Welcome back travelers,
What a journey we took this episode, or at least I took. I encourage others to come along for the ride.
Unfortunately, this round was a bit of a wash on reading our two titles by Olaf Stapledon. I personally found these to be some of the most profound books we have encountered during our explorations and enjoyed the pairing since they are related and unique inquiries into the human condition and consciousness. The true stuff Science Fiction is made of. Both Last and First Men (1931) and Star Maker (1937) deliver timely messages about our place on this Earth and in the Cosmos. Our search for meaning across eons.
One critical point to recognize is that these books were both written in the space between our first and second world wars in the context of England. This combined with Stapledon's dense and elaborate linguistic style and a non-protagonist narrator makes for some very thick text with no breakup of dialog. This made both books (though more so Last and First Men) slower reads, not tedious or boring, but a rather significant commitment to the journey. And what a journey they present.
LAST and FIRST MEN (perhaps we could now say HUMAN) follows the development of humanity on earth, jumping off from a gradual shift forward from the early 20th century and traveling billions of years through 18 distinct evolutions of human consciousness before the final demise of humanity. Each iteration explores increasingly alien and tragic social and technological conditions hyper extrapolated from our past. Some very interesting situations with genetic (germ) engineering as humanity attempts to improve itself to develop a greater understanding of time, space, the universe, and everything. The journey is a roller coaster of bright hope and crushing demise only to begin again.
This often reminded me of many other works of Science Fiction developed in the latter half of the 20th and the first part of the 21st century. In fact, both books delve into so potential futures and cultures that it seems Stapledon left little else for his future contemporaries to invent. The books are a survey of SciFi tropes as platforms for deep dives into myriad situations of humanity. Lovecraftian aliens of all sorts, genetic engineering, time travel, space travel, colonization, telepathy, transcendent computation (without knowing computers), atomics, evolution, cybernetics, architecture, space needles / towers, ecology, symbiosis, galactic empires, universal consciousness and the hive mind of the universe, parallel and multiple universes, and on and on. The encyclopedia if SciFi written for the future in the past at a nexus of social turmoil.
STAR MAKER starts from the humble Englander and the strife emerging in Europe prior to the outbreak of WWII. The preface sets the stage for the social allegory that extends to the end of all things, a space beyond time, cycles of birth and death and infinite universes. The initial pages are a complex transition from a Newtonian Earth to a quantum celestial experience. Much of the writing parallels shamanic or psychedelic practices as integrations of consciousness takes place for the narrator. It is rough, jarring, even a bit unnerving. Hard to follow in form and content, but it smooths, eases into the expanse, and opens to so many possibilities.
While there is much here to discuss as Stapledon explores the desire of conscious or human entities to understand their place in all things through a search for God or Maker or Meaning I will leave the journey to the reader. One of my most enjoyable experiences in Star Maker was during the description of the Star Maker's attempt to create multiple universes as simulations. The variety of strange and nearly familiar or even absurd possibilities was mentally stimulating since it went into territory beyond human comprehension and language.
SPOILER ALERT - This excerpt from Last and First Men left me with tears welling in my eyes as I read it on a park bench. It is hard to know if the impact can be savored without having made the journey through time and space, but I think many aspects will still resonate with any Human.
Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in them there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.
Man was winged hopefully. He has in him to go further than this short flight, now ending. He proposed even that he should become the Flower of All Things, and that he should learn to be the All-Knowing, the All-Admiring. Instead, he is to be destroyed. He is only a fledgling caught in a bush-fire. He is very small, very simple, very little capable of insight. His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a fledgling's knowledge. His admiration is a nestling's admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature. He delights only in food and the food-announcing call. The music of the spheres passes over him, through him, and is not heard.
Yet it has used him. And now it uses his destruction. Great, and terrible, and very beautiful is the Whole; and for man the best is that the Whole should use him.
But does it really use him? Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty? Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, not even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness.
But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accomplishment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.
In essence, both stories are really Love stories, not romantic, but universal love for all things, togetherness captured here in this excerpt from Star Maker:
Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that is signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars, symbol of the hypercosmical reality, with its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less, urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort and animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness
Aside from my disappointment at not being able to really dig into the books with everyone, we had a wonderful turnout and I am grateful to see everybody and share in such exciting conversations. Following it all becoming more complex each time, our hive mind grows stronger and the community expands.
Some of our emergent tangents:
We are potentially shifting the focus of the book club for the next year while we explore the highly acclaimed best works of Christopher Pike - starting with Remember Me.
also known as...
And more recently seen wearing this subtle shade of murder red...
If you enjoyed last episodes David Foster Wallace essay deep dive then this time we are suggesting John Jeremiah Sullivan and his Pulp Culture reflections.
I especially resonated with this one, since sometimes I wonder what all these words really amount to: https://lithub.com/john-jeremiah-sullivan-theres-no-such-thing-as-wasted-writing/
Movie Recommendations (or Critiques?):
Jason X - A fantastic space horror extravaganza staring this prime specimen of cybernetic enhanced genetic terror:
C.H.U.D. - Caniobalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers - A fun look at NY Cities underbelly.
Basket Case - a stain on the retinas?
They even made a few sequels, and with litters like this how could you not.
Terminator gets back to its roots in Dark Fate - Almost Human or Almost Machine - A Metal Mother Fucker of a ride
Such a badass, then and now, or both, since this is a time travel thing. I think the casting, outside of the tried and true originals in new roles as aging cyborg time wars veterans, was very well considered on the physical and emotional level. The new Terminator is uncanny in his blend of every human and subtle empathetic responses, very creepy. Grace is powerfully and jacked to the gills on adrenaline and purpose. The future of humanity is another every woman, discovering a way in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century, and coming into her confidence and purpose through adversity and resilient self-determination.
Great particle simulation effects for the dualistic machine: T1 + T2 hybrid.
It takes our face
George Lucas just can't leave well enough alone as he reworks the infamous scene between Han and Greedo in Star Wars A New Hope. It no longer matters who shot first, but what was really said?
A couple of us had gotten into the new Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, which is a. great idea since Boba Fett has always been the coolest character from that series. Plus the cast is pretty fantastic, Werner Herzog and baby Yoda thing.
Joe also mentioned getting into the new Watchmen series:
Oh wait! not that one!
The biggest question of the night - is she his daughter?
...or is it the three seashells thing?
Again with the face, what is with these robots trying to be so human? Think he works out with Mecha Jason in space?
Gravity's a bitch, ain't it?
It's getting a little retro 90's action all of a sudden.
Nate shared his amazing Army of Darkness Ash costume and fun Halloween trickery.
The entire Sam Raimi series, Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness are must watch for the Halloween season, or just about any time you need to work on your melodramatic one-liners, and fight evil.
Wings of Design and Faraway so Close, directed by Wim Wenders are film classics with an outstanding cast and chilling inhabitation of the emerging Berlin.
including this guy...
Who had some Bostonian connection with these cats. I forget (Nate or Joe) brought up this music connection.
I was speaking to my friend John on Friday after our meeting and he shared an exciting recommendation for our mostly architecture nerd book club.
Permutation City: A Novel by Greg Egan (the author of a previous episodes reading - Schild's Ladder: A Novel)
Inspired Musings while I waited for the meeting to begin:
What do we do with the Future?
We create it every moment, riding the currents of our actions of now into seas of possibilities.
We fear it, and the robotic, cybernetic, AI overlords and Apocalypse it seems to inevitably bring. It is the unknown, the uncertainty of tomorrow. Will we awake from this dream or suffer the joys of existence once more. Does anything we do really matter at all, or is the whole simulation already mapped out and we are just along for the ride?
We speculate, make-believe in possible realities that suit our vision or our anxieties. We challenge the way we are today with how we could be then. We generate wild potentialities on the slim hope that we may one day see some semblance take shape. We warn of where things are pointing and how things could be better if.
We plan for it. As if we have any agency in this vast cosmos, we must pretend, or is it believe, that our actions, however small, may aggregate to some bright and distant spectacle. The ship may not have a rudder, but our cries to the wind will guide us home.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
“StarshipTroopers meets Apocalypse Now – and they’ve put Kurtz in charge...Mind-blistering military space opera, but with a density of ideas and strangeness that recalls the works of Hannu Rajaniemi, even Cordwainer Smith.An unmissable debut.” :: Author: Stephen Baxter
We will dig into this adventure mid-December so we can set ourselves up for an Epic winter holiday read.
Keep looking up, and listen for the music of the spheres.
Until next time fellow travelers.