Literature: Last and First Men

This book has two authors, one contemporary with its readers, the other an inhabitant of an age which they would call the distant future. The brain that concieves and writes these sentence lives in the time of Einstein. Yet I, the true inspirer of this book, I, who have begotten it upon that brain, I, who influence that primitive being's conception, inhabit an age, which, for Einstein, lies in the very remote future.

The actual writer thinks he is merely contriving a work of fiction. Though he seeks to tell a plausible story, he neither believes it himself, nor expects others to believe it. Yet the story is true. A being whom you would call a future man has seized the docile but scarcely adequate brain of your contemporary, and is trying to direct its familiar processes for an alien purpose. Thus a future epoch makes contact with your age. Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help.

Welcome to the future of mankind.

Written by Olaf Stapledon in 1930, this future history is one of the oldest examples of future histories, as it relates a story of over two billion years in which the protagonist is mankind in a quest across three planets and eighteen species for greater intelligence. Mankind rises and falls many times, and, although it falls to the very depths of nonsentience (each time progressively more savage), each height it rises to is greater than the last. In a curious choice, the reader's glimpse of the future becomes increasingly broad and vague as time progresses. This is especially true when one compares the whole chapters devoted to modern Man and his immediate descendants to the single-paragraph mentions of the distant ones.

Tropes covered in this book include:

  • Adaptive Ability - The Martians are described as doing this against the Second Men during their extremely long war. Every time the Martians come back, they are described as immune to what defeated them last.
  • Honorary Alternate History - The immediate future concerns regional conflicts (World War II never occurs as OTL) and the mutilation of Europe at the hands of the United States.
  • America Takes Over the World - The Americans' success was what led to the First World State.
  • Blue and Orange Morality - Invoked by many later men and especially the Martians.
  • Brain in a Jar - The Fourth Men are literally this.
  • Colony Drop - Due to changes in the laws of physics, the Moon starts spiraling in towards the Earth. Rather slow-mo, however, as it takes ten million years for the Moon to hit, giving the Fifth men time to genetically engineer the Sixth Men to live on a newly terraformed Venus.
  • Cultural Posturing - The Last Men aren't above "expressing" their enlightened superiority, especially when comparing themselves to the First Men.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas - The Second, Fifth, and Eighteenth Men. The First Men were shown to be approaching this only to crumble just short of it.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance - Applies both for the author and the different species of Man. This is especially true to the Last Men, who treat ritual cannibalism as a sacred death practice.
  • Direct Line to the Author - The book is supposedly being narrated by one of the Last Men, who has taken over the mind of Stapledon so subtly that even Stapledon still believes it's a work of fiction.
  • Eternal Recurrence - Stressed over and over all throughout.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage - The Second Men have group marriages, and the Last Men have group mind marriages formed from one member of each of their ninety-six sexes.
  • Grey and Gray Morality - The First Men.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War - After fifty thousand years of intermittent warfare between the Second Men and the Martians there is no hesitation to use a bioweapon that kills all the Martians and leads to the downfall of the Second Men.
  • Heavy Worlder - Invoked by the Eighth Men when engineering the Ninth Men to live on Neptune, when that still seemed possible.
    • Apart from the (today) obvious uninhabitability of Neptune, the Ninth Men are a relatively realistic example - they're scaled-down Eighth Men that take advantage of the Square/Cube Law.
  • Homeworld Evacuation: The Fifth Men migrate to Venus when the Moon (destabilized millions of years earlier in the Martian/Second Men war) starts to crash into the Earth. And the eighth men design the ninth to colonize Neptune when the sun expands to cover the Inner System. But eventually the sun goes nova too quickly for the Eighteenth Men to devise a means of escaping to another system, though they do manage to send out "seeds" of life that might eventually evolve into new humans.
  • Hostile Terraforming: The Fifth Men escape a dying earth by terraforming Venus. Halfway through the process they discover that Venus is inhabited and oxygen is lethal to the natives, they keep at it anyways.
  • Human Subspecies: The Trope Maker, which details the history of over a dozen of humanity's descendants!
  • Intangible Time Travel - See the introduction to the book. The Last men can do this, as can other species, starting with the Fifth. It is the best and most reliable method of historical research.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: It's revealed that the Last Men honor their dead by consuming their bodies with great ceremony—just to emphasize how different their culture is from ours.
  • Interactive Narrator - The "true inspirer" of this work would technically qualify.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!
  • One World Order - The Americanized World State. It lasts for millennia; yet its downfall rapidly leads to a new dark age.
    • It's also mentioned as happening numerous times over the eons.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions - Played with. Though patterns of faith/rationalism conflict recur over the course of Man's future history.
  • Planet Looters - The Martians colonize earth during the reign of the Second Men seeking our plants, water, and diamonds.
  • Science Marches On - For instance, the outer planets (and Neptune especially) are treated like they have a solid surface. See also Heavyworlder on this same page.
    • This also extends to how geology and evolution itself is treated.
  • Species Loyalty - Fealty to the "race" of humanity is described as the only enlightened and valid form of patriotism, which carries over into the later descendants of Man.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History - Subverted to a degree. Yes progress beings Man to ever greater heights...but not before experiencing ever darker lows.
  • Starfish Aliens - the Martians, a kind of sentient, electromagnetic gas-cloud. They spend a long time assuming that the radio transmitters of the Second Men are in fact Earth's dominant life-form.
  • Terraform - To escape a doomed Earth, mankind has to enrich Venus's atmosphere with oxygen. Too bad this means killing the whole native population.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep - None of the characters mentioned or focused on are given any actual names, with the exception of a brilliant Chinese physicist later deified as Gordelphus.
  • Fling a Light into the Future - Several examples abound over the long timespan. One such attempt is a cavern where the First Men survivors of Patagonian civilization's cataclysmic end tried to painstakingly preserve as much of their culture, sciences and worldview as they can into stone in the hopes of rekindling civilization among their descendants. The cavern is eventually discovered by the Second Men, who by then had surpassed many of the First Men's achievements. Although they did take the records of their ancient predecessors' beliefs to heart.
  • Ragnarok-Proofing - Structures and artifacts made by a species of Man at their zenith (or sometimes its end) tend to stay sturdy long enough for their descendants to recognize the relics as such.
  • United Nations Is a Superpower - Or rather, the League of Nations in the First Men sections, which over time evolved into an actual global government before splintering into American and Chinese halves. The Americans were the ones who founded the First World State.
  • We Are as Mayflies - Most of the other species of Man, but especially the Last Men, who usually live about 250,000 years and do not die of old age.
  • Winged Humanoid: The Sixth Men—descendants of humans who had fled to Venus following Earth's destruction—became obsessed with flight, and, taking advantage of Venus's lighter gravity, ended up genetically engineering their own winged successors, the Seventh Men. Like bats, the Seventh Men's wings were part of their arms and hands, rather than being separate limbs, but they kept two fingers (thumb and index) reserved for use as actual fingers.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide" - Type B: as the author puts it, humans are terribly sorry they have to kill all Venusians in the terraforming process, but there's no other solution. Stapledon was quite critiqued for this.
  • Writer on Board - Mr. Stapledon had some gripes with Americans, which shows in the earlier segments. He acknowledges and apologizes for this, however, in the prelude.

Alternative Title(s):

Last And First Men