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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.

Compare All Tomorrows.


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.
  • Amazonian Beauty: The women of the Second Men share the chiseled features, towering height and heavy frames of their brothers, but it's stated that the First Men would have still found their vitality and expressiveness to be beautiful.
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  • America Takes Over the World: The Americans' success was what led to the First World State.
  • And Man Grew Proud: The primitive people of the First Dark Age come to believe that their ancestors, the people of the First World State, were struck down for growing arrogant and trying to equal or oust the gods.
  • Anti-Intellectualism: This mindset also contributed to the collapse of the First World State, as the rioting masses not only grew disillusioned with the Gordelpus cult but also turned on the elite and intellectuals. By the time it was finished, the survivors were almost wholly ill-equipped to rebuild civilization, further exasperated by the depletion of easily accessible metals and a species-wide Despair Event Horizon.
    The population was derived almost wholly from the agriculturists of the old order, and since agriculture had been considered a sluggish and base occupation, fit only for sluggish natures, the planet was now peopled with yokels. Deprived of power, machinery, and chemical fertilizers, these bumpkins were hard put to it to keep themselves alive.
  • 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:
    • The Early First Men often suffer Urban to Regional and occasionally Continental Extinction events, mostly due to the use of advanced chemical weapons — nerve gas on steroids, for instance, wipes out most of Europe's population in its war with America, while an engineered plague designed to destroy higher nervous functions later devastates China. The First World State later falls in a Planetary Societal Collapse resulting from a catastrophic energy crisis and ensuing starvation and mass rioting, in addition to accidental releases of the ancient nerve plague which quickly spreads all over the world, effectively sending humanity back to the stone age.
    • 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 Earth life only surviving in a few isolated areas, mostly in the Arctic, where humanity hung on through twenty-seven survivors.
    • The Second Men, who are especially 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. Similar collapses are also caused by an extensive ice age and a single world war.
    • The Fifth Men's exodus to Venus is prompted by an eventual Planetary Annihilation event, as the Moon's decaying orbit causes it to fragment and bombard the Earth into uninhabitability. The Fifth Men later undergo a near-total Social Collapse as imperfect adjustments to Venus' environment, an incurable gastric disease and a degenerative neurological affliction devastate their race and reduce them to scattered island-dwelling barbarians.
    • The Eight Men's era is ended by an event edging the line between Planetary and Stellar Annihilation, as a mass of gaseous materials from interstellar space enters the Solar System, annihilates Saturn, Earth and Venus as it collides with each in turn, and merges with the Sun to turn it into a giant star whose heat renders everything closer to it than Neptune uninhabitably hot.
    • Humanity's history ends with a full-scale Stellar Annihilation event, as a stellar "disease" that causes stars to expend their energy in vast outbursts of light and heat powerful enough to annihilate their entire systems spreads through the local stellar neighborhood and will infect the sun too quickly for mankind to be able to escape.
  • 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.
  • 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, as they greatly valued and enjoyed the creation of new forms of life.
    • 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 supplant 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 Gordelpus 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 in the case of the Last Men, who treat ritual cannibalism as a sacred death practice.
  • Designer Babies:
    • Several species of Man design their own successors, most notably the Third Men creating the Fourth Men, which then design the Fifth Men.
    • This 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.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The narrator posits that a species-wide sense of existential despair as the First World State collapsed helped prolong the barbarism of the First Dark Age, while a similar mindset among the Second Men after their Pyrrhic Victory over the Martians finally brought an end to their civilization
  • 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. Which it probably is, considering that Neptune has a rocky surface and Venus Is Wet in this story.
  • 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!)
  • Downer Ending: Humankind is wiped out every time and gets worse every time civilization rebuilds. Even if the Last Men are the most advanced human civilization, they too are wiped out along with (possibly) the last traces of Humanity.
  • 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.
  • Expanded States of America: The United States grows to encompass all of North and South America. Japan is incorporated at one point, but later overthrows them and joins the Chinese bloc.
  • 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.
  • Failed Future Forecast: The immediate future concerns regional conflicts (World War II never occurs) and the mutilation of Europe at the hands of the United States.
  • 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 and considered it to be a very useful source of historical knolwedge.
    • At the end of the book, when the Last Men are facing destruction from the Sun's imminent death, they create specially tailored subatomic particles meant to combine to form primitive life more prone to developing intelligence than normal, which they then send out upon the solar winds in the hope that at least a small fraction might reach suitable environments and cause thinking life to arise again.
  • 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.
  • Formerly Sapient Species:
    • After the fall of the late First Men and their one surviving band splits into two groups, one crosses the Atlantic, losing most of its members in the attempt. Three survivors are shipwrecked into the barely habitable jungles of Labrador and, through inbreeding and the hostile climate, evolve into animals that, on encountering the Second Men long after, have come to resemble giant baboons more than anything else and often become livestock to the sapient descendants of the original crew's pet monkeys.
    • On the mostly oceanic Venus, where the Fifth Men's descendants became highly reliant on the sea for sustenance, some actively evolved into seal-like sub-men with sharp teeth, streamlined bodies, legs shrunken into rudders, and arms and hands transformed into flippers still retaining the thumb and forefinger.
    • After the Ninth Men's civilization collapses due the harsh conditions on Neptune, they degenerate into a number of animal species, most quadrupedal to deal with Neptune's high gravity and including hoofed grazers, predators, seal- and later porpoise-like aquatic forms and minute flying humans descended from a bat-like glider. This remains the nature of humanity until a rabbit-like species redevelops sapience and evolves into the Tenth Men.
      Nowhere did the typical human form survive. There were only beasts, fitted by structure and instinct to some niche or other of their infinitely diverse and roomy world.
  • Future Primitive:
    • After the fall of the First World State, a combination of the sheer devastation of the collapse of civilization, the indolence induced by millennia of decadence and the exhaustion of all metal deposits cause mankind to regress to a barbaric existence, spending millennia afterwards as struggling, tribal farmers, petty warlords and roving bands of raiders and brigands, equipped with stone tools cruder than even the ones of the Neolithic, before the eventual rise of the Patagonian civilization.
    • After the Patagonian civilization's own collapse, the small band of survivors in northern Siberia descends into another period of savagery, due to a combination of inbreeding and an early tradition of dogmatism rendering them mentally inflexible, as well as the Earth's ravaged state blocking both population growth and technical advancement. This lasts for about ten million years until some of these survivors are able to spread beyond their refuge, gradually redeveloping mental vitality and evolving into the Second Men, who in turn remained hunter-gatherers for a long time after before rebuilding agricultural civilization.
    • Over the rest of humanity's history, most of the future human species cycle through stages of barbarism and civilization numerus times — the Second Men, for instance, are thrown back to the stone age numerous times by devastating pandemics — but these are largely skimmed over as the narration covers greater and greater stretches of time.
  • 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 Group Marriage thereof.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Fourth Men had complete control over the Earth and could have dominated it forever, but they still couldn't get past their intellectual brick wall that stopped them from discovering any new sources of knowledge. They decided that what they lacked was the human quality of connection to life through lived experience, so they engineered the Fifth Men to engage in this activity as their servants. Unfortunately they treated the Fifth Men with the same callousness as the Third Men, yet their own creations were far more advanced and capable of opposing them than the Third Men ever were. The author utterly glances over the ensuing events where the Fifth Men Turned Against Their Masters, treating it as a foregone conclusion.
  • 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: A work dedicated to exploring this trope, detailing 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 the various Neptunian Men, genera, families or even orders descended from the human lineage).
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes:
    • The Martians, being essentially sapient clouds of gas whose sub-microscopic components communicate through radiation, mistake the Second Men's radio devices for Earth's dominant lifeforms.
    • The narration has shades of this when discussing the various human species, given that it's coming from the most distant descendant of mankind as we know it.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: 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.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: The achievements of the First World State — a civilization based in massive tower-cities, obsessed with aircraft and destroyed by mass riots and plagues — quickly fade to dim myth during the First Dark Age, whose barbaric inhabitants recall the past as a time of flying palaces, winged men and arrogant people who were struck down for trying fly to the stars to oust the gods.
  • Logical Weakness: A recurring theme. Each species and culture tends to develop weaknesses related to their strengths. For example, the Second Men were so strongly spiritual and high-minded that they ultimately sank into a species-wide depression that prevented them from recovering from their Pyrrhic Victory over the Martians, and were replaced by the feral Third Men.
  • Long-Lived: Several future human species develop extremely long lifespans. The Fifth Men were created with three thousand-year lifespans and later increased their life expectancy to fifty thousand years. The Eighteenth Men typically live for a quarter of a million years.
  • 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.
  • Maniac Monkeys: The sapient monkeys are possessed of a large selection of unpleasant traits, including immense avarice, high aggressiveness and bellicosity, a delight in chaos and mischief and an almost sociopathic inability to process the experiences of other beings. They consequently tend to be very cruel to theie subhuman livestock, which they routinely force into humiliating, obscene or painful situations, and react with offended rage when they lash out. They also often bait, trick and harass each other in gleeful and sometimes deadly confrontations.
  • Mars Needs Water: This one of the reasons 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).
  • Metal-Poor Planet: Earth itself becomes this due to the Early First Men (meaning modern-day humanity up until the collapse of the world state four thousand years hence) exhausting all metal deposits in the shallow crust (alongside all coal and oil deposits, for that matter). Thus, after the collapse of global civilization, humanity has no readily accessible sources of workable metal and remains stuck in a stone-age agricultural state for millennia. This is eventually resolved when the devastating eruptions that destroyed the last First Man civilization scatter layers of metal-rich debris throughout the Earth's surface.
  • Mindlink 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. He also avoids the common early sci-fi misconception that evolving a giant brain will necessarily result in an atrophied body to go with it; while the Fourth Men have gigantic brains and atrophied vestigial bodies, they also have enormous factory-sized life support systems to provide them with oxygen and nutrition. When they design the Fifth Men to be their tools, they give them large brains (compared to the baseline First Men standard) and they understand that they will need giant-sized bodies to carry and sustain them.
    • 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 Fifth Men 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" Remark: Towards the end, the narrator admits that for all the immense technological and mental superiority of the Last Men, they find themselves having more in common with the First Men than they realize.
  • 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's 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 First World State. It lasts for four millennia; yet its downfall rapidly leads to a new dark age.
    • The Second Men create three global civilizations over their history, each lasting for millennia.
    • The Third Men likewise form three global governments, whose lifespans measure between fifty thousand years for the least-enduring to a quarter million years for the most.
  • 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.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Second Men managed to finally win their Forever War against the the Martians by attacking them with an Artificial Plague that drove them extinct - and almost did the same to the Second Men themselves and all other life on Earth.
  • 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.
  • Planet of Hats: Defied. The narrator makes it clear that while he describes the different human species in a way that makes them seem stereotypical (e.g., the Third Men were all about manipulating life), from the perspective of those species themselves they were extremely diverse and encompassed the full breadth of human activity and experience. Only when viewed over extremely long time periods do the dominant themes of each one become visible.
  • 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.
  • Regional Redecoration: The World State of the First Men came to an end due to a combination of a catastrophic energy crisis, the ensuing starvation and mass rioting, and the accidental releases of the ancient nerve plague. The most extreme case, however, happens millennia later during the Patagonian civilization, when a riot in a mine leads to a colossal explosion. The resulting radiation then triggered an underground chain reaction that snaked its way up from Patagonia into North America and then across the Bering Sea into Eurasia and Africa. Global volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, the melting of the ice caps and atmospheric contamination resulted in the death of all but thirty-five members of the human race, who were at a research station in the North Pole.
  • Self-Deprecation: At the end, the narrator complains that the story they sent back in time was flawless, but that numbskull they're telling it through has made a complete mess of it.
  • Sense Freak: The extremely sharp senses of the Third Men made them relish all physical experience to the point of getting lost in it. Beautiful music, in particular, could practically hypnotise them.
  • Servant Race: The Fourth Men use genetic engineering to create from their Third Man predecessors a new strain linked directly to their will through wireless communication routed directly into their nervous systems, thus creating from the third human species a breed of entirely subservient slaves.
  • 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, allowing them to reach the Earth.
  • Space Age Stasis: This happens to the more advanced Races of Man, such as the Fifth, Eighth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Men. They generally attain atomic energy (including 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 connected 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: The creation of a world state, the removal of modern cultures and nations from consideration, the cyclic rise and fall of empires and humanity facing its final fate are all duly explored, although the cycle of empires happens across entire species rather than cultures or governments.
  • Starfish Aliens:
    • The Martians are sapient, airborne clouds of sub-microscopic organism held in contact by electromagnetic radiation. Their bodies are subdivided into units specialized for different tasks (such as gathering energy, or seeing by turning clusters of their components into lenses to focus light into globules of water held in midair) and their entire species works as a single interconnected organism based on the same principles. They spend a long time assuming that the radio transmitters of the Second Men are in fact Earth's dominant life-form.
    • The Venerians are a race of trilaterally symmetrical swordfish-like creatures that move by corkscrewing through the water and do not actually feed. Rather, they are powered by radioactive decay of heavy atoms within their tissues; they obtain years' worth of these in infancy and, when their stock runs out, are buried in mines of radioactive elements to rejuvenate. They are also marked by numerous alien behaviors, including feverish production of items which are them discarded or destroyed and a ritual where three individuals tear one another to pieces for no observable reasons, whose purposes the Fifth Men are never able to discover.
  • Strolling on Jupiter: Neptune is terraformed by the Eighth Men, with the only concern being the higher gravity, for which the Ninth Men are created. There's no indication whether it had a solid surface beforehand or if it was somehow added. The Eighteenth Men are mentioned to use the gas giants as agricultural colonies as well.
  • Terraform: Happens 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.
  • The Resenter: What leads the Fourth Men to finally enslave the Third Men, killing them off and turning the rest into mindless slaves. The Great Brains aleady had de facto control of the world, but they reached an upper limit to their imagination in pursuing new intellectual problems, and they started to crave the ability to find pleasure in life in the way their mobile ancestors did. Since they could not revert to mobile forms capable of experiencing recreation, out of self-denied yet obvious jealousy they restricted and oppressed the Third Men until destroying them completely.
  • Transhuman Treachery: Three times, this 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.
  • Tree Top Town: The sapient monkeys who coexist with the Second Men live in woven cities built into the treetops of tropical forests.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The bestial baboon-humans, who had for centuries been enslaved and tormented by the sapient monkeys, eventually revolt against them and quite literally devour their oppressors.
  • United Nations Is a Superpower: Or rather, the League of Nations of the Early First Men, 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 buffeted by fierce storms and torrential rains, covered in thick banks of clouds, stewing in temperatures so high that only the poles were just barely habitable to the Fifth Men and home to its own sort of aquatic lifeforms. As part of their terraforming process, the Fifth Men also seeded it with island-sized masses of floating marine plants.
  • 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.
  • We Will Not Have Appendixes in the Future: The Second Men are noted to lack several of the First Men's "useless excrescences"; for instance, they have no toes, tonsils or appendixes.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: 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:
    • Among the various myths that arose in the First Dark Age about the glories of the bygone global civilization was one claiming that ancient men had been winged and capable of flight.
    • 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: This 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": 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.