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.
  • 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.
  • Brain in a Jar: The Fourth Men are literally this.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Invoked by many later men and especially the Martians.
  • 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.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: In addition to the Gordelphus cult of the First Men, their later Patagonian civilization eventually has one in the form of a youthful prodigy who preaches a creed celebrating vitality and wisdom to a culture defined by its aged. This latter-day prophet's words were among those preseved in the stone tablets the Second Men discover countless generations later, who also take them to heart.
  • 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.
  • Cultural Posturing: The Last Men aren't above "expressing" their enlightened superiority, especially when comparing themselves to the First Men.
  • 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.
  • Designer Babies/Super Breeding Program: Several species of Man design their own successors, most notably the Third Men creating the Fourth Men, which then design the Fifth Men.
    • Often dips into eugenics territory, especially for the evolution of the First Men (several races are viciously stereotyped) or when breeding for intelligence or sanity. Justified in that, at the time of writing, eugenics was considered a genuine science and definitely not evil.
  • 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.
  • 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 known as Gordelpus.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 anyway, reasoning that the Venusians are ultimately doomed (for other reasons) regardless.
  • Human Subspecies: The Trope Maker, which details the history of over a dozen of humanity's descendants!
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The narration has shades of this, given that it's coming from the most distant descendant of mankind as we know it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Insufferable Genius: The "true inspirer" of the book would count. Given that it's coming from one of the Last Men attempting to reach out to the First Men, the narration can come across at times as patronizing and condesending. This becomes especially evident later on, when said "true inspirer" resorts more and more to analogies and metaphors to recount the future histories of the later species of Man out of the perception that it would be nigh incomprehensible to "limited" minds like the First Men.
  • Interactive Narrator: The "true inspirer" of this work would technically qualify.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!: Grand marvels are described, the ruins and relics of which occassionally stumbled upon by Man's descendants.
  • Mars Needs Water/Planet Looters: The Martians colonize earth during the reign of the Second Men seeking our plants, water, and diamonds.
  • Not So Different: Eventually, even the narrator, hailing from the Last Men, acknowledges how ironically similar they are to the First despite the immense differences.
  • Now You Tell Me: The Fifth Men are never able to figure out why the Moon is spiraling towards the Earth, or how to reverse it. It is suggested that their guilt over the inability to save Earth was part of why they died out on Venus. Many many years later their successors figure out why it happened (their powerful mental abilities actually had an unknown side-effect in the physical world, causing the moon to slow down and fall towards the Earth). Of course by that time it's an academic point.
  • 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. Patterns of faith/rationalism conflict recur over the course of Man's future history.
    • For the First Men, traditional religion is superceded during the One World Order period by a dogmatic rationalism that over time becomes a scientific cult dedicated to Gordelpus, ironically cribbing Christian elements in the process.
    • The Second Men meanwhile are mentioned as being "natural Christians" in their behavior and practices, though their creed would be unrecognizable to their ancestors.
    • The Last Men tend to follow a vague spiritualism derived from a more advanced form of rationalism, while treating religion itself as juvenile folly.
  • 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.
  • Solar Sail: The Martians, being creatures whose body is composed of trillions of nanoscopic (not microscopic) viruses that communicate on a central nervous system of radiation, are able to conform their bodies into thin solid sheets that can traverse interplanetary distances. This is how they reach an Earth inhabited by the Second Men to begin their crusade to 'liberate' terrestrial diamonds which they believe are being handled sacrilegiously by the planet's dominate species, which the Martians also mistakenly think are the humans' radio devices.
  • 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 brings 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.
  • 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.
  • Venus Is Wet: Venus is an ocean world with fierce storms.
  • 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 heavily criticized 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.