Back in 1937, Olaf Stapledon walked up to the writer’s Homeplate and pointed to the sky. He heard the announcer say he was signaling to hit one into the stands. Olaf shook his head and pointed higher. The announcer claimed he was going to hit one out of the park. Olaf shook his head again and made a big circle with the end of the bat. The announcer laughed saying he was going to hit one into orbit. When the pitch came the ball disappeared. No one knew where it went. But Olaf had hit one out of the galaxy with Star Maker.
Years earlier, in 1930, Stapledon had written Last and First Men, a “novel” that spanned two billion years and covered the evolution of 18 species of humans. That epic sweep of future history would be but a single vibration of an atomic clock within the scope of Star Maker. The unnamed narrator of Star Maker is really Olaf Stapledon as he travels through vast expanses multi-dimensional multiverses of spaces and times via what was once called astral projection.
It’s hard to believe science fiction readers embrace him as a pioneer of their genre. Stapledon is closer to the writers of the Vedas, William Blake, Dante, and John Milton than he is to Kim Stanley Robinson or Octavia Butler. But anyone who reads Star Maker will call it science fiction. That’s because many of the concepts science fiction owns today were first suggested in Star Maker. Once you read Stapledon you see where Arthur C. Clarke got his ideas for Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, those are just two obvious examples.
Olaf Stapledon strove to describe a spiritual reality. I use the word reality to mean everything – universe, multiverses, other dimensions, time, multiple-time streams, the infinity of many-world hypothesis, and anything we’ve yet to imagine. The Star Maker is what some would call God, but the label God is too small for Stapledon. Stapledon imagined the Star Maker being indifferent to his creations, using evolution as its artist’s brush to paint an endless infinity of cosmoses. Star Maker the novel imagines just what some of those creations would be like. This is where the science fiction comes in. Stapledon envisions life on other worlds produced through different paths taken by evolution and then scales it up to interplanetary travel, galactic civilizations, hive minds, terraforming, planetary and stellar engineering, artificial life, higher states of being, all the way up to the Star Maker.
Tragically, Olaf Stapledon is a writer known to damn few readers. Even his biographer, Robert Crossley, apologizes for writing Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future in 1994 about an unknown person. Crossley had to learn to stop worrying about his obscure subject after hearing so many people reply to him, “Olaf who?” Stapledon should be remembered as a significant philosopher of the 20th century, but he’s not. He’s remembered by a small cadre of science fiction readers, and not many of those.
Anyone who studies science fiction will know why Star Maker is such an important novel in the history of the genre. Star Maker isn’t really a novel or science fiction but that’s where it’s been pigeonholed by history’s cleanup crew. Star Maker is a novel Hermann Hesse would have written if he had read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin after doing Ketamine with John C. Lilly in a sensory deprivation tank. Read Lilly’s Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer to fully understand that last sentence.
Out of the billions of individual our species produces we get a handful of visionaries who think larger than all the rest, like those who wrote The Vedas. (The universe of The Book of Genesis is tiny in comparison.) Stapledon saw reality in a truly cosmic way – but is his work science fiction or spiritual woo-woo? Stapledon was a philosopher who had a humanistic spiritual streak. Obviously, Stapledon wanted humans to have a purpose in this giant reality – but that’s wishful thinking if you truly understand evolution.
Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design hate evolution because they instinctively understand evolution invalidates the need for a creator. Stapledon didn’t accept that and makes evolution the tool of the Star Maker (God). Spiritual people want to believe that humans have souls that will travel on after death. Star Maker is no different from Seth Material books by Jane Roberts or The Urantia Book. That’s why I compare him to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and John Lilly. These are all people who believe in a vast spiritual multiverse that has a workable cosmology like our universe.
The purpose of science fiction is to imagine aspects of reality in stories before science discovers and validates those aspects. Fantasy stories are either based on myths, religion, or fantasies that have no grounding in reality. For Star Maker to be science fiction we have to accept theories about spiritualism which Stapledon did but I don’t. If you understand science God, gods, vampires, ghosts, souls, angels, etc. don’t exist at all.
Stapledon probably didn’t believe in those things either but wanted a spiritual multiverse that co-existed with science. His work predicts that we will find spiritual states of being in the future via evolution. Is that any different from Arthur C. Clarke’s Starchild or Theodore Sturgeon’s hive mind in More than Human? Modern science fiction, for the most part, rejects these ideas as religious in nature, and thus not scientific. Modern science fiction imagines human minds being downloaded into artificial realities or robotic bodies. The goals are the same but the predicted methods differ. Whether or not these new hopes are validated by science are yet to be seen.
In Star Maker, Stapledon as the unnamed narrator astral travels to nearby stellar systems to study life on other planets. Eventually, he co-inhabits the mind of another being on a distant planet. Together they take off for other worlds, gathering other like-minded minds to form a gestalt intelligence. As they evolve they perceive greater intelligences in the galaxy and beyond, subsuming each along the way. This super-being travels up and down the time line and eventually meets with the Star Maker, who has no interest in them. The Star Maker is a God indifferent to the beings who have evolved out of his creations. The Star Maker is unknowable – all the beings of evolution can really see are small fraction of its infinite creations.
This all sounds both science fictional and woo-woo! Stapledon makes the same kind of observation about our species as Yuval Noah Harari makes in Sapiens and Homo Deus. This is why most science fiction readers have trouble reading his books, they really are philosophical speculations about the nature of homo sapiens rather than a novel. But I believe that anyone who wants to understand the heart of science fiction needs to read Stapledon. Jules Verne was the father of technological science fiction, H. G. Wells was the father of philosophical science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the father of adventure science fiction, and Olaf Stapledon was the father of spiritual science fiction. See Center for Future Consciousness for a real-world group that follows this philosophy.
Many of the ideas used in later science fiction stories are found in the Star Maker. Stapledon’s contemporaries writing in the same vein were E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edmond Hamilton, and their stories barely scratched the territory Stapledon covered in Star Maker. Smith and Hamilton were considered far-out thinkers to American pulp readers, however, Stapledon goes way beyond what they imagined. Stapledon thought of terraforming planets, intelligent suns, much bigger space battles, genetic engineering, all kinds of space drives, beings of endless variety, all kinds of weird alien sex, symbiotic telepathic relationships, galactic civilizations rising and falling, beings who develop technological longevity and beings who free themselves from physical reality – to list them all is exhausting and beyond the abilities of my memory.
When Bob Dylan wrote, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” he said, “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.” That’s how reading Star Maker feels. It’s one long narrative that could have been hundreds of science fiction stories and novels. I doubt Stapledon thought of himself as science fiction writer, but since no one else is claiming him, I think it’s fine for our genre to latch onto him.
- Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction by Robert Crossley
- Olaf Stapledon: The Father of Modern Science Fiction
- Olaf Stapledon On How Science Fiction Defeats Fascism
- Contact, Communion, and the Marriage of Minds: Olaf Stapledon in Context
- Star Maker at GoodReads
- Excerpt from Religion in Science Fiction
- Center for Future Consciousness list of SF novels
- Star Maker: The Philosophy of Olaf Stapledon
- The Science Fiction Writer Who Received Fan Mail From Virginia Woolf