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Star Maker - The Ex-Communicator

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September 2nd, 2010


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11:22 am - Star Maker
Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon is an SF novel first published in 1937. Stapledon was a Philosophy lecturer at Liverpool University, a lefty and a pacifist, active in anti-fascism and anti-apartheid. Unusually for someone of the left (ETA - let us say 'hard left') in the thirties he was quite sympathetic to the values which underpin religion, though he was hostile to the religious institutions of the day. This tension structures all his work, which could be seen as either as bleak as Lovecraft or as spiritually optimistic as Le Guin.

Star Maker is I think a very good example of an SF novel which confounds and explodes all traditional literary values. It has no characters, no plot, no human interest or adventure. It's not trying and failing to be like a literary novel, and it's not a galactic potboiler. It is a catalogue of all possible SF stories ever conceived, organised not chronologically or as a story, but according to a spiralling outwards of scale, where each circle is greater than, and encompasses, the entire revolution of the circle below it, becoming progressively farther and stranger and bigger than the human.

The story begins with a man standing on a hill at dusk on the Wirral Peninsula in the late 1930s. He has a fit of some kind and his consciousness leaves his body and floats out into infinite space.

Rereading it this last week I think it falls naturally into three parts, each of which deals with a different aspect of science fiction.

After wandering for ages in empty space the disembodied consciousness encounters a planet, which at first is banally human. He comments that the cities are like human cities, with the exception that the 'cylinders of cloth' which are worn on the legs of the males 'have creases at the side instead of the front as in our world'. Is he taking the piss? Yes, yes he is. A catalogue of all SF must include those stories where the alien world inexplicably resembles the author's own. This joke turns hollow as within a page or two the civilisation destroys itself in a pointless world war, based on the bitter and sour tastes of ethnic groups and social classes.

Section 1 of the novel presents a series of progressively more alien biologies, each one stretching the definition of what it is to be an individual and part of a community. There are starfish bathed in telepathic pollen, swarms of birds united (as Vinge's Tines are) by ultrasonic sound, symbiotic spiders embedded in the heads of fish, colonies of termites, plant-men. I don't know how many of these stories had been written before he gathered the ideas together in this catalogue, but I know they have been written (and all variants on them) since. How much he influenced, how much he simply reports a conversation which was going on anyway, I don't know. In this section the focus is on the balance between individual and community, some species destroying or perverting themselves.

Section 2 leaves biology largely behind, and moves on to the clash of interstellar, galactic, and inter-galactic empires. He may mention in passing that a civilisation is 'bipedal' or 'arachnoid' but this isn't really the issue. This section is more 'about' state politics, with fascism appearing in various disguises as a perversion both of individuality into selfishness, and of community into group-think. In one poignant section a civilisation which by chance is situated on an 'island' (I presume the Clouds of Magellan) separated by a channel from the 'Continent' of the galaxy, sees an evil empire grow up to lay waste to the main continent of stars. Only after three great civilisations have been destroyed do the island people intervene, launching a great assault on the 'Insane Empire'. I do not need to labour the analogy to Britain in the thirties, and the great pain a pacifist like Stapledon must have felt in coming to realise that war against the Nazis was now inevitable and necessary. All galactic empire books to come are foretold in this section of Star Maker, as are books like Stephen Baxter's which trace the massive history of a Universe coming into being and running down until the last artificial heat is exhausted.

Section 3 is the most problematic, and could alienate some readers. Here he moves from looking at our Universe, to considering the Pleroma of all possible Universes. In my opinion this section is more of a catalogue of philosophy than SF, with universes that reflect various metaphysical systems from Leibniz's monads, Pythagorean harmony, the endlessly splitting trousers of time, unified galactic consciousness, a battle of good and evil gods, and so on. I almost saw an intelligent shade of the colour blue in there.

This book has been extremely influential, being loved by writers as diverse as Borges, Woolf and Brian Aldiss, and hated by CS Lewis. I think it's worth reading, on its own terms, and perhaps more as poetry than SF prose.

(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:fjm
Date:September 2nd, 2010 10:55 am (UTC)
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The British Left has never been either particularly anti-clerical or particularly aetheistic. Christian Socialism was the heartland of much of the left for the nineteenth century, and Methodism its Church. (Church or Chapel told you as much about someone's politics as well as their religion well into the 1970s). A large portion of the money for Spain in the 1930s went through the Quakers. (Stapledon served with the Friends Ambulance Service in the First World War). In the 1960s CND was heavily indebted to this tradition. Even recently, the large marches against the Iraq war were full of Church banners. My favourite was a Quaker one, "Individuals against the war".
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:September 2nd, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
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The modern left do emphasise the non-conformist protestant tradition, and de-emphasise communism ('More Methodist than Marxist'). But I feel that Stapledon is engaging with communism rather than with the religious left. I haven't got it with me but in his glossary at the back for example, he talks about how his political allies will criticise him for valuing some aspects of religion.
[User Picture]
From:fjm
Date:September 2nd, 2010 01:17 pm (UTC)
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But Communists were the (very vocal) minority, so yes, he may have been addressing Communists, but as a left wing religious person he wasn't that uncharacteristic.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:September 3rd, 2010 07:36 am (UTC)
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PS I guess 'the left' is a pretty loose category up to half the country so I changed the text to 'the hard left'
From:huskyscotsman
Date:September 2nd, 2010 11:11 pm (UTC)
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There was a meme a while back where people had to guess books based on Amazon's "statistically improbable phrases". Star Maker was the only one of mine that nobody guessed, even though it seemed like the most blatantly obvious:
cosmical mind, telepathic exploration, symbiotic race, cosmical time, telepathic intercourse, cosmical spirit, ultimate cosmos, cosmical history, disembodied flight, galactic mind, symbiotic society, galactic society, great nebulae, communal mentality, communal mind, artificial planets, mutual insight, minded worlds, awakened worlds, own cosmos, galactic community, galactic history, lucid consciousness, human rank, intelligent worlds
What an awesome book, in every sense of the word.

That was a fun meme, I might try reviving it.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:September 3rd, 2010 07:39 am (UTC)
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Yes, good list. Have you read 'Last and First Men' which he wrote in about 1930? It's more chilling, I think, and equally strange. It predicts the fall of our civilisation in an orgy of pointless air travel; people come to believe that Jesus will return when we've used up all the oil.
From:huskyscotsman
Date:September 3rd, 2010 11:19 am (UTC)
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I have! And yeah, the society obsessed with flight is a really striking and bizarre image, but it also rings true.

I read L&FM because Arthur C Clarke recommended it, and had no idea Star Maker existed. When I later heard that the same guy had written an even bigger, stranger novel about the entire universe, I felt like Scooby Doo getting a scooby snack. I love unexpected sequels.

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