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Literature / Last and First Men

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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 conceives 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 which must be sketched out in sadly brief detail so that you may understand this article, though of course each absorbed the lives of many generations of men each as real as you and I, 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.
  • After the End: Happens repeatedly, as the end of one civilization or race of Man is implicitly the beginning of the next one. The most detailed such tale involves the small band of survivors of the Late First Men who colonize what used to be Northern Siberia and become the ancestors of the Second Men.
  • 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.
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  • America Takes Over the World: The Americans' success was what led to the First World State.
  • Apocalypse How: Happens repeatedly to most of the Races of Men, to the point that after the First Men destruction less than continental gets glossed over and by the emigrations to Venus and Neptune, anything that doesn't wipe out a whole species gets essentially ignored. Some notable ones:
    • Early First Men often suffer Urban to Regional, and occasionally Continental Extinction events, mostly due to the use of advanced chemical weapons (think "nerve gas on steroids"), before the Planetary Societal Collapse resulting from a catastrophic energy crisis.
    • The Late First Men accidentally manage to chain-detonate massive amounts of radioactives in situ UNDERGROUND, causing massive volcanic eruptions that result in multiple Continental Total Extinction events, with Earthlife only surviving in a few isolated areas, mostly in the Arctic.
    • The Second Men, who are specially vulnerable to disease, suffer repeated diebacks from plagues, generally at the level of Continental to Planetary Societal Collapse, before they finally attain the relative stability of their zenith.
  • Biotech Is Better: Definitely the opinion of the Third Men. Even their mechanically-oriented civilizations pursue the artistic and practical breeding of animals and plants on a wide scale, and their ultimate civilization is obsessed with eugenics and genetic engineering.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Invoked by many later men and especially the Martians.
  • Brain in a Jar: The Fourth Men are literally this. The 'jar' in question is a large tower, with their brains occupying the upper compartments and power and life support systems in the lower ones.
  • 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.
  • Creating Life Is Awesome: On several occasions.
    • The opinion of the Third Men during most of their history,
    • The experience of the Sixth Men when they create the Seventh Men in fulfillment of a long mystical obsession with flight (though note, we don't know what actually happened to the Sixth Men).
    • The experience of the Sixteenth Men, who deliberately create the Seventeenth Men to supplant them, who in turn deliberately create the Eighteenth Men to supplent them. This is all done voluntarily, unlike the earlier succession from Third to Fifth Men.
  • Creating Life Is Bad: The experience of several races, notably:
    • The Third Men when they create the Fourth Men and the Fourth Men first make themselves their masters and then annihilate them.
    • Also, the experience of the Fourth Men when they create the Fifth Men, which leads to the Fifth Men rebelling against them and annihilating them.
    • And of the Seventh Men when they create the Eighth Men, who proceed to take over Venus from under their control and drive their makers into extinction.
  • 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 preserved in the stone tablets the Second Men discover countless generations later, who also take them to heart.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: The Second, Fifth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth 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.
  • Darwinist Desire: Particularly true of the last and highest culture of the Third Men.
    ... for the relation between the sexes was much more consciously dominated by the thought of offspring than among the First Men. Every individual knew the characteristics of his or her hereditary composition, and knew what kinds of offspring were to be expected from intercourse of different hereditary types. Thus in courtship the young man was not content to persuade his beloved that his mind was destined by nature to afford her mind joyful completion; he sought also to persuade her that with his help she might bear children of a peculiar excellence. Consequently there was at all times going on a process of selective breeding toward the conventionally ideal type.
  • 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 wasn't yet discredited.
    • The Sixteenth Men design the Seventeenth Men, who after "only" a few hundred thousand years design the Eighteenth (and Last) Men.
  • 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.
  • Doomsday Device: Several wars feature weapons which destroy both combatants, but the most explicit example is the biological weapon by which the Second Men finally end the Martian Invasions, utterly annihilating both Colonial and Homeworld Martians — and almost annihilate themselves in the process. (Special bonus points because the Second Men thought that they would completely annihilate themselves, but proved biologically just a bit tougher than they predicted. That's how deeply the Second Men hated the Martians after 350 thousand years of utterly-senseless attacks on Earth!)
  • 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.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: An all-too-common type of genius among the nastier and more ruthless of the Third Men. This is their racial downfall, when they create the Fourth Men.
  • 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.
  • Forever War: Most notably the Martian Invasions, which last some 350 thousand years of intermittent attritional conflict, during which neither Second Men nor Martians manage to even communicate or understand one another in any significant way.
  • 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.
  • Hive Mind: Two examples, one malign, the other benign.
    • The Martian clouds, and the racial mind they form. Subverted in that the racial mind is actually less intelligent, and is far less imaginative, than the individual cloud-minds.
    • The Racial Mind of the Eighteenth Men, which was both benevolent and much more intelligent than any single Eighteenth Man, or even Group Marriage of them.
  • 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 (also note that in several cases these are distinct species, and in the case of Neptunian evolution genera, families or even orders descended from the human lineage).
  • 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 condescending. 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 occasionally stumbled upon by Man's descendants.
  • Mars Needs Water: Which is part of why the Martians try to colonize Earth.
  • Medieval Stasis: Happens repeatedly to many races after the Early First Men, because only them (us) had access to immense reserves of coal and oil all over the planet. These exhausted, it was difficult for successors to rise above a pre-industrial level of technology; generally, most cultures never got beyond a sophisticated version of the Early Modern Era (1500-1750 AD equivalent).
  • Mind Link Mates: Normal in one of the 96-fold Group Marriages of the Eighteenth Men.
  • Modern Stasis: Happens to many cultures which manage to get past Medieval Stasis, because in the Stapledon Verse nuclear energy is very difficult and dangerous to achieve, usually requiring super-intellect to attain without self-destruction. Generally this leads to a World State, which endures for some millennia before collapsing due to civil war, plague or more exotic problems.
  • My Brain Is Big: A frequent theme of the higher Races of Man, for the reason that their vast intellects require larger brains than ours to produce. Stapledon sees some of the problems with this as well.
    • The Second Men have bigger brains, and are smarter on the average than the First Men, but suffer from physiological problems related to their large brains.
    • The Third Men deliberately create the Fourth Men, who are essentially brains so big that they require whole towers to house them and the associated life-support apparatus. The Fourth Men have huge extensible eyes and hands as well.
    • The Fourth Men create the Fifth Men, who are basically larger Second Men with better materials and designs, enabling their big brains to function with far fewer difficulties.
    • The same basic process occurs on Neptune, where the Sixteenth Men engineer the Seventeenth, who engineer the Eighteenth Men, each larger and with bigger and better brains (among other things).
  • 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.
  • Ominous Message from the Future: The whole novel is this, both on the relatively small scale (there are going to be some really horrible World Wars to come), the moderate scale (our own civilization is doomed in a matter of millennia), and the longest term human scale (the Sun will fatally flare in 2 billion years). The Last Man narrator is part of a project which hopes to alter history in ways that will make it more likely that something of humanity will survive this last event.
  • 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 superseded 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.
  • The Plague: A fairly frequent civilization-wrecker and sometimes species-ender. Particularly the bane of the Second Men, who have relatively weak immune systems.
  • Planet Looters: The Martians colonize earth during the reign of the Second Men seeking our plants, water, and diamonds.
  • Ragnarök 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 dominant species, which the Martians also mistakenly think are the humans' radio devices.
  • Space Age Stasis: Happens to the more advanced Races of Man, such as the Fifth, Eighth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Men. They generally attain atomic energy (including fission, fusion and antimatter power), a fair degree of robotics, and miles-long interplanetary spacecraft, but can't push beyond the Solar System or easily establish permanent homeworlds on other planets. The last two problems may be connectected with the tendency of the Fifth and Eighteenth Men in general to value telepathic communion, which cannot be achieved far from home.
  • 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: Succeeds twice.
    • To escape a doomed Earth, the Fifth Men have to enrich Venus's atmosphere with oxygen. Too bad this means killing the whole native population.
    • The Eighth Men intend to terraform Mercury to survive the shrinking of the Sun which will render their homeworld of Venus uninhabitable, but discover too late that the incursion of another star is going to cause the Sun to flare, wiping out both Mercury and Venus. (The Earth has already been rendered uninhabitable by the crash of the Moon, and Mars hasn't been habitable for a long time). They wind up quick-and-dirty terraforming Neptune, on which they are personally unable to live, planting the tragically-doomed Ninth Men there.
  • Transhuman Treachery: Three times results in the destruction of a species of Man.
    • The Third Men engineer the Fourth Men, who conquer and eventually exterminate them.
    • The Fourth Men engineer the Fifth Men, who wind up rebelling against their cruelty and exterminate them.
    • The (winged) Seventh Men create the (flightless) Eighth Men, originally as an act of kindness toward their own cripples, The Eighth Men soon monopolize all the land and exterminate most of the Seventh Men; the survivors commit mass suicide rather than surrender.
  • 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.
  • What Happened To The Species?: Stapledon never explains what happened to the Sixth Men, who endured 250 million years on Venus, and whose last and greatest culture created the Seventh Men. They are obviously gone 100 million years later, when the Seventh Men create the Eighth Men (else the Eighth Men couldn't have conquered the land areas), but Stapledon never says what happened to them.
  • 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.
  • World-Wrecking Wave: Happens at least three times to humanity.
    • The titanic mining accident that puts paid to the Late First Men.
    • The nova flare that destroys Mercury and Venus, wiping out the Eighth Men.
    • The final eruption of the Mad Star that sterilizes the Solar System, wiping out the Eighteenth Men and (possibly) all Humanity forever.
  • 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.


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