Beyond Limits

The book that influenced my vision of the world more than any other is, by conventional literary standards, a very bad work of fiction. There are no characters in the traditional sense, nothing much in the way of a plot, and the writing is often stilted or crude. Yet the book inspired Jorge Luis Borges to write an introduction declaring that its author's "literary imagination was almost boundless," and moved the literary critic Leslie Fiedler to write the author's biography. Star Maker was first published in 1937 by William Olaf Stapledon.

Stapledon (1886–1950) received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Liverpool and made a living by teaching at workers' associations and colleges in the United Kingdom. He would be completely forgotten if he had not written two unique works of science fiction.

When I was in junior high, I came across his first novel, Last and First Men (1930), an imaginary history of the future in which our descendants evolve into numerous successive humanoid species on Earth and on other planets. My reaction was that of the late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote, "No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination: the Stapledon vistas of millions and hundreds of millions of years, the rise and fall of civilizations and entire races of men, changed my whole outlook on the universe and has influenced much of my writing since."

From Last and First Men I moved on to Star Maker, which applied the same technique on a grander -- indeed, the grandest -- scale: the evolution of our universe and others. In form Star Maker is a dream vision, in which the unnamed character's mind leaves his body in interwar Britain and journeys into space and time. First the narrator visits a rather crudely allegorical Other Earth, in the weakest section of the book. Then he witnesses the rise and fall of intelligent species in many worlds, including exotic hive minds, plant men, "nautiloids," and intelligent stars.

Star Maker leaves the territory of science fiction and ventures into the realm of high myth as the narrator, joined by the disembodied minds of many worlds, searches for the demiurge, a being that creates universes for its own amusement and produces better and more complex works over time. Stapledon's Star Maker resembles the gods described by Epicurus, perfect, self-contained beings who dwell in the spaces between universes and feel indifference toward human affairs:

It was with anguish and horror, and yet with acquiescence, even with praise, that I felt or seemed to feel something of the eternal spirit's temper as it apprehended in one intuitive and timeless vision all our lives. Here was no pity, no proffer of salvation, no kindly aid. Or here were all pity and all love, but mastered by a frosty ecstasy. Our broken lives, our loves, our follies, our betrayals, our forlorn and gallant defenses, were one and all calmly anatomized, assessed, and placed.

... All passions, it seemed, were comprised within the spirit's temper; but mastered, icily gripped within the cold, clear, crystal ecstasy of contemplation.

I found Stapledon's vision exhilarating, not demoralizing, when I was an adolescent, and I still do. We may never learn of other intelligent life, but even if its existence is rare, in a universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies, it seems almost certain that at this moment there are other thinking animals (if not plant men or sentient stars!) struggling to master nature with technology and to overcome fratricide to build civilizations as brilliant, flawed, and ephemeral as our own. The thought is comforting, like the sight of lights in distant windows. And it is with the image of light that Stapledon brings Star Maker to a conclusion that moves me, no matter how often I reread it:

Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it 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 of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness.