Saturday, May 18, 2013

Before the Golden Age-Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon
Author, Philosopher, Lecturer, Pacifist
Born May 10, 1886, Seacombe, Wallasey, Wirral Peninsula, Merseyside, England
Died September 6, 1950, Caldy, Wirral Peninsula, England

William Olaf Stapledon was older by a generation than John Russell Fearn, yet he arrived in the world of science fiction only in 1930 with his novel Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Stapledon did not write for pulp magazines. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he was unaware of genre science fiction. Instead he wrote a series of philosophical science fiction novels published between 1930 and 1950. In other words, he was a writer who had little in common with Fearn and other pulp writers and perhaps more in common with someone like C.S. Lewis. On the other hand, Stapledon, though he served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in World War I, studied ethics and philosophy, and spoke on pacifist causes, was not religious like Lewis. He seems to have been a complex man possessed of complex thoughts and ideas.

I said that Stapledon arrived in the world of science fiction in 1930. It might be truer to say that he never really arrived, that in fact he remained an outsider and that science fiction claims him rather than the other way around. It's worth noting that he was born and died on the far fringes of an island.

As he was wont to do, Sam Moskowitz dug up a work by Olaf Stapledon and published it in his revival of Weird Tales in the Winter issue of 1973. The poem "Time" is from a collection, Latter-Day Psalms, Stapledon's first book, published just before Christmas 1914 in the first year of World War I. That war, along with its sequel, can be counted among the worst disasters ever to befell Western civilization (and thereby, civilization itself). Stapledon took the long view in his psalms, treating war generally in the poems "Strife," "War," and "Peace," and asking larger questions in poems such as "The City" ("Does the Most High God delight in the sacrifice of souls?") and "Time" (below).

A few days ago I posted a poem by Stanton A. Coblentz about the end of the world. Below is another by Olaf Stapledon. Time is indeed fleeting, but do all things come to nought? Isn't it that kind of despair that leads men to fight "one with another, as monkeys over a straw," or that makes "men and women . . . loathsome" because "they [have] forgotten love"? (Lines from "The City.") Maybe each man chooses his own brand of despair. I think we can all agree that poems are preferable to murder.

Time
by Olaf Stapledon

Wherefore hast thou made the world that it shall die, and the heavens 
      that they shall burn out like a flame? 
What wilt thou do when the stars are all extinguished, and there is no 
      place for life? 
The sons of men have builded for themselves a house of beauty. It is 
      continually embellished. 
The last of the generations shall dwell therein and die; and the beauty 
      that was builded shall be no more. 
A lover and his beloved have met together in the evening. Evening 
      shall return, but they return not. 
The home that seemed eternal is broken up and scattered. The 
      children remember it; they die; it is no more. 
I am heavy of heart because of fleeting time, and because all things 
      come to nought. 

Olaf Stapledon may not have been aware of genre science fiction, but genre science fiction was aware of him. I wonder what he would have made of this cover of Odd John from 1959. (Cover art by Robert Stanley, Jr. [1918-1996]).
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley

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