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.