Futures far and near : the science fiction of Olaf Stapledon




Douglas, William N.

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Olaf Stapledon is lauded by authors and critics of science fiction as the author of seminal works of twentieth century science fiction, including the early novels, Last and First Men (1930), Odd John (1935), and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon, however, did not consider himself to be a science fiction writer, and drafted these three novels largely in ignorance of genre science fiction. An examination of Stapledon's life reveals him to have been, in essence, a lecturer and public speaker, and a teacher in adult education, in the area of philosophy in particular. Stapledon's approach to these early novels was as a pedagogue and public intellectual. The challenge of reconciling Olaf Stapledon's production of these texts in ignorance of the bases of genre science fiction with their reception as defining pillars of that genre, can be met by illustrating the manner in which Stapledon, through his novels, engaged rigorously with contemporary systems of knowledge, and extrapolated from them potential futures. Nowhere is this more evident than in Stapledon's consistent, and consistently ambivalent, engagement with the theories and ideas of Sigmund Freud. In Last and First Men, Stapledon engages with Darwinian and Freudian accounts of human development, through his use of evolutionary projections of humanity's future as a vehicle to explore the implications of such changes on the individual and their society. In Odd John, Stapledon considers more closely potential changes in the individual psyche which might equip individuals to realise a utopian society, and contrasts these with perceived limitations in humanity's current mental apparatus. In Star Maker, Stapledon explores the nature of the human urge to worship and the significance of this urge for the individual and for society in light of the world view of secular modernity. In these novels Stapledon engages optimistically with futurity, consistently considering and drawing on contemporary systems of knowledge to explore the future implications of potential change. In so doing, Stapledon has created texts which adhere to the tenets of science fiction, and which have demonstrably engaged with issues that science fiction texts into the twenty-first century have continued to explore.






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