I’ve been hampered by a virus for the last several days, creating a backlog at work as well as this site. Work comes first, obviously, but soon enough I’ll start catching up on the books shown in the pile here.
Actually I reviewed the Bruen & Starr book already, and Anarchaos just came in the mail. It is Donald Westlake’s only science fiction novel, so I’m not sure how it will read. I expect to have good things to say about all of the others, however.
Haven’t read the Aldiss anthology–I’ve mainly neglected him (I was probably a bit put off by the deliberately garbled prose of Barefoot in the Head, the Sound and the Fury of Science Fiction novels). Just ordered a copy. I appreciate the advance notice. Can take a break from Ron Chernow’s mammoth biography of U.S. Grant. Even Grant took breaks sometimes.
The question with Anarchaos is this–are we reading a science fiction novel patterned after hard-boiled detective stories? Or a hard-boiled detective story with an SF gloss, that allows Westlake to do things he couldn’t get away with in what was by then his preferred genre?
As the latter, it stands in a league all by itself. As the former–well, you tell me.
Very eager to learn what you think of Stapledon. A unique voice in world literature. His two most human and emotionally accessible books (which is, when you think on it, ironic), and closely linked in theme.
Though really, his theme in all his novels–no–you’ll pick up on it, and it’s spoiler-ish for me to say now. 😉
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PS: Not an alien virus, I trust?
Though that would be pretty cool.
I’ve avoided the flu thus far, but had a nasty bout with bronchitis.
Nah, just something in that weird spectrum between “bad cold” and “minor flu”.
Aldiss is an interesting author. I wouldn’t be able to explain how I managed to get through Barefoot in the Head, but I’ve enjoyed most his books that I’ve read. I found the stories in The Neanderthal Planet pretty interesting, and very, um, Aldiss. I don’t think of them as merely stories that failed to be novels. As a whole, it’s probably one of his underrated efforts, like Cryptozoic or The Malacia Tapestry.
Looking over his bibliography on Wikipedia, I really can’t recall reading any of his novels, other than Barefoot in the Head. I was fairly young at the time, and may have confused it with Barefoot in the Park. (Probably intentional on his part.)
I read a lot of general SF anthologies then, and certainly came across a number of his short stories there. I don’t think I’m going to become a fan, but may at least develop a newfound appreciation for him.
Of that generation of Brit SF writers, I’m much more of a fan of Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale. Who mainly wrote teleplays, and bristled when you referred to his work as bearing any relation to SF. Manxmen can be so touchy.
I reviewed Sirius last year. Not the same experience as The First And The Last Men. Curious what you’ll think of it ..
Last and First Men is written as a history book, only the history hasn’t happened yet.
To some extent, most of Stapledon’s work is written that way, but these two books are much more personal, and focused around a most singular protagonist.
I wrote a rather lenghty analysis of that on my blog too, nearly 4000 words. Surprisingly, it’s one of my most read reviews. I haven’t read Odd John, but at the moment I don’t feel like reading any more Stapledon – there’s only a limited amount of time I like to invest in reading with my meta-glasses on, and Stapledon used up his credits.
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I think on the whole that Sirius is Stapledon’s best book, but of course I’m a dog person (and in particular a shepherd dog person), so I would. It has many other admirers, though. If it’s so dated, how come people keep reading it?
I scanned your review, and think you entirely missed the point. It’s not Frankenstein, because that’s about a monster abandoned by his creator, who sticks out in any crowd, because he’s nine feet tall and hideous. He can’t have sex, because no woman could survive an erotic encounter with him (this assumption was briefly challenged in a racy pastiche entitled “The Cross of Frankenstein”).
His conflicts are entirely different from those of a dog who has high level human intelligence, but is still a dog, body and soul.
Honestly, you might as well say Shelley ripped off Genesis. To a certain extent, she did. Nobody owns such a basic story, and how many other brilliant retakes on that story have there been?
If you don’t like the philosophy in the book, that’s one thing. But to say Stapledon wasn’t famous as a philosopher is a bit of a low blow. Who would have cared about Tolstoy as a philosopher if he hadn’t written several brilliant novels first? A lot more people are reading Stapledon now than just about any English philosopher of that era–as even your own blog stats prove.
As I love to say, there’s no accounting for taste–the books never balance.
Last and First Men is a bit pedantic, but that’s sort of what Stapledon is going for. All the characters are schematic, because that’s how they’d be in a history book encompassing a long period of time. Not because Stapledon couldn’t write good characters.
Stapledon as a failed philosopher matters, as I think he shows dated, muddled and sloppy thinking in Sirius. Low reading numbers for English philosophers don’t prove this book’s quality, and moreover I’d say Wittgenstein (if you’ll think of him as British) still has far, far more readers today.
You are right that there are still people enjoying it, and big part of that is obviously taste indeed. My tastes tend to be very critical towards books that pretend to be deep (“essential spirit” etc.) but are dated in their conception of humanity (“civilization as veneer”) and/or muddled conceptually, ending up communicating a superficial mess (heaping up “love” and “essence” and “spirit” in this case). To me, all that turns characters into silly mouthpieces. So I’m not sure if I missed the point: what point would that be? The emotions of the protagonist?
I don’t agree on Frankenstein. Obviously there are differences, but the similarities I listed are too numerous and too specific to justify by “it’s a basic story nobody owns”, and it’s not Genisis either.
Well, I’ll have to get to Sirius first to weigh in on it, obviously. I do know that Stapledon wasn’t famous as a philosopher because he wasn’t famous at all: he was the first recipient of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award… http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/cordwainer_smith_rediscovery_award
Kidding aside, that’s an intriguing list of obscure authors to seek out. I can vouch for Lafferty, but (like Stapledon) he’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Also, I could put my newly-arrived copy of Herbert’s “Soul Catcher” on the stack of books, thanks to bormgans’ review.
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I only know eleven of the names on that list (obviously, if you know Henry Kuttner, you know C.L. Moore. Package deal.).
I would say many were quite well-known in SF circles in their day, but not names to conjure with outside that circle, no. (Of course, neither was Heinlein, for most of his career. Arthur C. Clarke owes most of his fame to Stanley Kubrick (and I strongly suspect they both owe Nigel Kneale for some ideas used in 2001, but that’s an old complaint of mine, everybody steals from Nigel). Isaac Asimov would have been famous no matter what he did in life, if only by dint of sheer brute persistence. Even Westlake found his work ethic intimidating.)
Similarly, everybody who really gives two shits about the history of speculative fiction (as opposed to ‘sci fi’, blech) is going to make Mr. Stapledon’s acquaintance, sooner or later. When I started reading up on SF, I came across his name often, and sought him out. He is pretty much always in print, so I’m not convinced he was all that neglected–please note, he was the first to get that award. (More of a hall of fame for smart people who are only famous to other smart people.)
No, he never achieved the fame of H.G. Wells as an author, activist, and popular personality, but he took a lot of Wells’ basic ideas and ran further with them than even Wells could have dreamed possible. I think he’s the better writer, though far less prolific, and the movies have never known what to do with him. (Wells never liked what the movies did with him, so maybe that’s just as well.)
Some writers are destined to become household names–including some very bad ones, though usually for just a short time. And some very great ones are destined to just persist, finding new devotees in every generation, to keep the torch lit. Until humanity matures to the point where they can be fully understood. If indeed that ever happens. One does wonder, at times. Stapledon did.
Hmmm. You say low reading numbers don’t prove anything, but on what other basis do you call Stapledon a failed philosopher? You haven’t read his works of philosophy, and the fact that you don’t like what you see of it in his fiction doesn’t prove anything, since many others do. I do.
As to Wittgenstein, all I know about him, I read in an alternate history novel by Terry Eagleton, where he ends up in a little cottage with the Irish revolutionary James Connolly, and Leopold Bloom from Ulysses (and there’s a mad Russian in the mix too, because why not?).
I really don’t see what he’s got to do with whether Olaf Stapledon is a good science fiction writer. But reading over his life story, I find myself thinking he’d like Stapledon better than you do (being a bit of an Odd John himself). Wittgenstein, reportedly, thought nobody understood his work, or would for a long time to come (he also thought Mozart and Beethoven were Sons of God). Funny, since I just told Pete that Stapledon might not be understood for a long time to come.
Your objections are really about style, not ideas, but literary styles change–even geniuses can seem dated now, if you don’t allow for that. Stapledon came from a generation of Britons who were trapped in what seemed like an endless cycle of devastating wars, cutting down whole generations. They were influenced by earlier forms of romanticism (so was Wittgenstein, no doubt). And yes, love mattered to them. I don’t fault them for that. I don’t know of a better love story in all literature than Sirius/Plaxy.
You really did miss the point, and the point is sentience–what’s it for? It only seems to exist to make us miserable. Always reaching for something that’s always beyond our grasp, like the stars. We love dogs so much because they’re sentient enough to form a relationship with, but not so sentient as to be mad like us. So much like us, and so utterly different–they try, harder than any other species, even our primate cousins, to figure us out. We yearn, those of us who love them, to be able to talk with them, as we would a person, to make them understand us better.
But what if they did? What would that do to them? How would their sentience differ from ours? What might they see–or smell–that we can’t?
Sorry, but none of that is in Frankenstein. Which I’m sure Stapledon read, and who hasn’t? Very good article about it in The New Yorker, btw.
If you like, we can discuss it further, once Pete’s review is up. And maybe then you can get a bit more specific about what it is you don’t like about it.
One thing a critic needs, above all else, is honesty, We all have our prejudices, and that’s unavoidable.
But you have to see and acknowledge them, so they don’t have power over you. Orwell said that.
Another Briton of that strange doomed thoughtful sensitive generation, whose style can sometimes grate today, but we go on reading him anyway.
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My reply is below, I’ve seem to misplaced it.
>Hmmm. You say low reading numbers don’t prove anything, but on what other basis do you call >Stapledon a failed philosopher? You haven’t read his works of philosophy, and the fact that you >don’t like what you see of it in his fiction doesn’t prove anything, since many others do. I do.
I meant “failed” as he has had virtually no significance in the history of philosophy, as I wrote in my review. Totally agreed that his fiction is not necessarily an indication, but also there I don’t see a lot of convincing ideas.
>I really don’t see what Wittgenstein’s got to do with whether Olaf Stapledon is a good science fiction writer.
Nothing, I brought that up since you started talking about the current number of readers of English philosophers contemporary to Stapledon. It is exactly my point that that’s not relevant.
>But reading over his life story, I find myself thinking he’d like Stapledon better than you do (being >a bit of an Odd John himself). Wittgenstein, reportedly, thought nobody understood his work, or >would for a long time to come (he also thought Mozart and Beethoven were Sons of God).
Wittgenstein had a knack for pulp detectives. I’d be surprised if he would have liked the “pedantic” tone of Stapledon, as you described it. I found Sirius generally to be pedantic too, one of the reasons I picked the first two quotes in my review. I’m also pretty sure Wittgenstein would find Stapledon’s ideas (see my next paragraph) highly problematic.
> Funny, since I just told Pete that Stapledon might not be understood for a long time to come.
The broad lines of Stapledon of Last And First Men is perfectly understandable: transcendentalism and a very dubious “cosmological aestheticism as a consolation for war, famine, loss, injustice, and mortality” as I wrote in my review of that book. Writing “mystical gibberish” is not the same as not yet being understood because too smart or whatever.
>Your objections are really about style, not ideas, but literary styles change–even geniuses can >seem dated now, if you don’t allow for that.
No, my objections are about both. I don’t think his philosophical ideas are solid (civilization is not yet a mere veneer, and I do not buy transcendentalism) and I don’t think his speculative ideas in Sirius are solid (dogs can’t write, fold and post letters, not even super-super-super-dogs, that’s basic anatomy). I think the idea-problems are much worse than the dated prose style. The dated prose makes reading Sirius worse obviously, but it is not my main issue.
>Stapledon came from a generation of Britons who were trapped in what seemed like an endless >cycle of devastating wars, cutting down whole generations. They were influenced by earlier forms >of romanticism (so was Wittgenstein, no doubt).
Yet the war is strangely absent in Sirius. I have no problems with romanticism in its context.
>And yes, love mattered to them. I don’t fault them for that. I don’t know of a better love story in all >literature than Sirius/Plaxy.
Love matters to almost everybody, I have no problem with that side of the book. But for me, the love story didn’t come across as Stapledon didn’t manage to suspend my disbelief for one second, because of all the reasons I already gave.
>You really did miss the point, and the point is sentience–what’s it for? It only seems to exist to >make us miserable. Always reaching for something that’s always beyond our grasp, like the stars.
Well, I’m happy about 90% of the time, and I’ve lived nearly 40 years. I see a lot of other happy people around me. Granted, I might be unhappy for the rest of my life if my kid dies tomorrow. Oh, the tragedy of existence: it’s romantic indeed, and there probably was a lot less joy in between the two world wars for Stapledon. Wittgenstein wasn’t happy either – he struggled with his sexuality for his entire life.
Anyway, that just goes to show why Stapledon doesn’t connect with me: I’ve stopped lamenting the curse of sentience a long, long time ago. A big part of being happy is to stop reaching for something beyond your grasp, and that insights is not something that was unavailable to English men back in the days. Even Wittgenstein new.
>But what if they did? What would that do to them? How would their sentience differ from ours? >What might they see–or smell–that we can’t?
>Sorry, but none of that is in Frankenstein. Which I’m sure Stapledon read, and who hasn’t?
Agreed not the entire book is Frankenstein. Never wanted to imply it was.
>If you like, we can discuss it further, once Pete’s review is up. And maybe then you can get a bit >more specific about what it is you don’t like about it.
I’m always willing to discuss matters like these further, but I’m afraid I can’t be more specific about what I didn’t like about it than I did in my review and in the comments here. I have discarded my notes about it after writing the review, as I sold the book to a second hand store. My memories alone don’t suffice to say anything more meaningful.
>One thing a critic needs, above all else, is honesty, We all have our prejudices, and that’s >unavoidable. But you have to see and acknowledge them, so they don’t have power over you.
Fully agreed, and that’s one of the reasons why I linked to 2 positive reviews of Sirius in the comments to my review.
One by one–
1)Stapledon died in 1950. Anybody who knows anything about the history of ideas knows that’s an inadequate time frame to determine whether Stapledon’s philosophical writings will have any impact. How many philosophers we now revere were largely unknown for a long time after their death? But I don’t know anything about his nonfiction, nor do I think that’s what he’ll be remembered for. I do know his ideas as expressed in his fiction had a very profound impact on SF, and SF is about ideas. (Sometimes too much, but that’s another discussion.)
His fiction remains influential, precisely because of the philosophy it represents, and therefore I have to dismiss your argument as tendentious. He was better at expressing himself through stories–and I question whether more people read Wittgenstein, if you discount people who are required to read him in philosophy courses. To impress your colleagues in a tight little academic clique is one thing. To have a lasting impact on posterity, quite another. Stapledon’s achievement is all the more remarkable, in that he did not make a great impact with his fictional or philosophical writings in his lifetime, but he somehow still endured, and is, if anything, more popular now than he was in life. Wittgenstein the wunderkind, knew very well he was preaching to a very tiny choir, and thought (correctly) that most people would have no idea what he was talking about. Most still don’t. Doesn’t mean he’s wrong. But my impression is that it’s never going to be very clear–to anyone–what the fuck he was saying. Too abstracted. Too much of a navel-gazer. Stapledon was a star-gazer. I like them better. Sue me.
2)I don’t read Last and First Men (or its more focused reflective sequel, which I’m wondering if you read) the way you do. I don’t think you got it. At all. You just impose a few philosophical filters over it, to dismiss it. To dismiss him. (And never mind that you could do the same for any number of writers you don’t dismiss, like Shelley.) But he won’t be dismissed. He’ll still be around when both of us are gone. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the actual Last Men are reading him.
3)It’s not Frankenstein in any sense, at any point, unless the mere idea of a well-meaning scientist creating a singular being who is tormented by loneliness can be construed as copying off Shelley’s paper. You really shouldn’t even have brought that up, because it’s nonsensical to say that any of the innumerable books influenced by Frankenstein can be disregarded because they were influenced by it. Writers influence other writers, and all writers have influences they react to. We’d end up dismissing EVERYTHING. And Shelley’s style and ideas are more dated than Stapledon’s, at points–given her age when she wrote it, how could they not be? But she brought something new to the table, and for that one book she’ll be remembered. For that and the horror movies I don’t think she’d have appreciated much. 😉
4)”The war is strangely absent in Sirius.” Are you quite sure you read it? Remind me what happens to the Dr. Frankenstein in this one. Or shall I remind you?
5)There’s no point arguing about love stories, since we all have different ideas about what constitutes a good one. As the list of most popular romcoms demonstrates better than I ever could.
6)I’ve just celebrated (well….) my 57th birthday. So mere chronology must be considered to favor me. Want to trade places? 😉
7)I have to worry about anyone who says he’s happy 90% of the time.
8)You don’t like the part about civilization being a mere veneer. That’s hardly an idea Stapledon originated, and it’s hardly an idea without some currency in the present era. Or any era.
What you wish to be true–what actually is–not the same thing. But if you think Stapledon didn’t value civilization-and sentience–above all things–then I’m sorry to say, you’ve never really read him. No need for notes. Just read the closing lines of Sirius. Which make the very points you’re trying to make here. Better than you did.
9)This probably would have been better reserved for Pete’s review. 🙂
Please don’t think that I fault nothing in Stapledon. Even the best writers (and I’ve read many a better one) are basically just the sum of their flaws. Their strengths are bound up in their weaknesses. Can’t have one without the other. I think he was particularly bad at dialogue. He had a hard time curbing the pedant in him (or rather, the philosopher, as if there was a difference.)
One reason Sirius may be his best book is that its focus is on a protagonist who had a hard time speaking in a manner intelligible to most people, due to certain innate structural handicaps. So much to say, so hard to say it. Well, who can’t relate to that?
Like so many of his general era, he had a naive faith in socialism–by which I don’t mean that he wanted social justice. But rather, that you can, at least in theory, find some perfect social order that will remedy all injustices, and endure into the future. I think his fiction, at its best, questions this faith. Life is too mutable. There is no perfect formula. You have to adapt with the times, while still holding to basic values, finding ways to make them work in whatever new order you find yourself in. Which will invariably fail, because life is failure. All life ends in death. Entropy always wins. But our true victory is in the striving towards something better. And towards self-understanding. Which ‘isms’ invariably cloud.
I was looking for that veneer quote you hate so much, and turns out Google books doesn’t have a searchable edition of Sirius. But I found this, from a short story (more of a dialogue), entitled “Old Man in New World” that Stapledon wrote for Arthur Koestler. It’s this aging curmudgeon, arguing with an optimistic young buck, after a successful world socialist revolution. The young man thinks everything is peachy. The old man knows better.
“You young people are so fortunate in your world,” he said, “that you probably can’t realize how thin the veneer of civilization is, and how easily it may break down again unless it is very jealously preserved.”
I’m sorry, but who the hell can read this in Trump’s America–made possible in part by young people who didn’t vote, or voted the wrong way?–and not nod his/her head in weary acquiescence? We may not have had The Revolution, but we were more than fortunate in our world–and we act like everything that was gained by the sacrifice of past generations is ours by right.
Honestly, I don’t think that’s Stapledon’s major theme. But it’s the truth. Perhaps a truism, even. But so many ignore it at their peril. It is a very thin veneer–and who the hell said veneer doesn’t matter? Not Olaf Stapledon.
Incidentally, if Arthur Koestler asks you to contribute to his anthology–then concludes you’re the only one who wrote anything worth reading–you’re not a failure, even in your own time.
I think you owe the man an apology.
1) Agreed, Stapledon’s true value as a philospher might be discovered later on. I agree that my argument about Stapledon’s philosophy in his fiction is tendentious, as I tried to explain, I do not agree with some of his viewpoints, or to rephrase that in a safer way, I do not agree with how I interpret what he tried to communicate – not in Sirius, nor in Last And First Man.
Lets not dwell on Wittgenstein any further, as you said, you read Wikipedia only, and the argument is not about him, nor his popularity – although judged by how many of his books are on the shelves of the bookstores I frequent, and those of Stapledon, Wittgenstein is a clear winner.
2) I haven’t read the sequel. For you to dismiss my thoughts on them as “just” “a few philosophical filters” with which I dismiss him, is a low blow itself. I tried to argue at length, with numerous quotes. For me these “filters” are the core of what Last Men tries to convey, and all the more it’s obvious that Stapledon values philosophy: how else to read that book? I have no interest in getting in a “you didn’t get it”-fight. If you have actual criticisms of my arguments, I’m more than willing to engage in a discussion about those.
I don’t have the feeling I could simply do the same with Mary Shelley, as I feel her viewpoints are more in sync with my own understanding of the world. This is no mere sophistry for me.
3) Let me quote my review: “Like the monster, Sirius ponders why he was created. Like the monster, Sirius seems unintelligent & illiterate. Like the monster, Sirius wants a mate that is like him. Like the monster, Sirius feels lonely in the world of humans. Like the monster, Sirius feels unacknowledged. And like the monster, he kills in a rage of self-defense.”
To me this is more than the “well-meaning scientist creating a singular being who is tormented by loneliness” you make of it. In my own overview, I didn’t even included “well-meaning scientist”. These things are not mere coincidences or mere thematic similarities, but most of those are even plot devices.
I don’t see why I should not have brought it up. It’s not the novel’s biggest problem, at all, and I agree obviously that artists influence each other. I never wanted to imply “any of the innumerable books influenced by Frankenstein can be disregarded because they were influenced by it”. So I’m not sure why you try to frame it like that. I never even said that people should disregard Sirius. The only thing I said that, for my tastes, important parts of the plot were stolen by Stapledon.
I also do not agree Shelley’s ideas are more dated than Stapledon’s. Why do you think so? Which of Shelley’s ideas?
4) Please remind me, yes. When I wrote ”The war is strangely absent in Sirius.” that was a bit of a hyperbole, as I wrote in my review it is “hardly” present. .
8) I never said that Stapledon originated the idea about veneer, and obviously lots of people still think so today. That’s not the issue. The issue is that from what I’ve read of sociobiology and anthropology this idea is not true. As most speculative fiction, Sirius is a novel of ideas. If the ideas don’t ring true (to me), I feel criticism on these ideas (and as such on the book) is justified. I clearly stated why I criticize the idea, so I’m clear and upfront about my own position/prejudices. That’s what criticism does, so I’m not sure what you mean with “What you wish to be true–what actually is–not the same thing.”
I’ve never implied “”Stapledon didn’t value civilization-and sentience–above all things”, I’m not sure why you bring this up.
I’ve checked the free online version, and I don’t think the closing paragraph tries to make the same points I try to make here, I haven’t been a mystic in these comments. So I’m not sure what you mean. I’m not opposed to mysticism, by the way, if done well, it can be great. The final chapter of Sirius isn’t bad by the way – it’s just that it didn’t have that much of an emotional effect on me because of all the problems I experienced before.
I’m going to abandon the numbered system now, getting clunky–
Since Wittgenstein is required reading for those studying philosophy, and Stapledon’s continued presence in bookstores is based almost entirely on people still enjoying him, in their free reading time, we’ll agree to disagree about who ‘won’.
I’ll try reading your review again, but suspect that your way of analyzing a book and my own may be too incompatible. I’m bemused by the notion that if you strongly disagree with certain ideas an author presents, that means you must dismiss the book, or even the author, out of hand. You do realize you’ve pretty much decimated western literature by this method, do you not? Isn’t one of the main points of it to acquaint us with radically differing ideas?
And you don’t really think Stapledon wasn’t aware of conflicts in his thought, do you? Part of the reason the philosophically inclined write fiction is to deal with such conflicts on a less pedantic plane. “I can’t appreciate this writer because I don’t agree with him/her.” Okay. Nobody made you read him, did they? Let alone review him. To find fault is one thing. He bothered you on some level I don’t think you’re honestly looking at.
(Pete, beware spoilers on this thread of discussion).
Unlike the monster, Sirius has a lifelong relationship with his creator, who is his friend, a father figure, and (as a dog) his master (to the world around him, his owner). Unlike the monster, Sirius’ creator listens to him, sympathizes, tries his best to help him adjust, watches him fall in love with his daughter, raises no objection to a trans-species relationship.
Unlike the monster, Sirius goes to freakin’ university, goes to church, works at a job, forms many lasting friendships. His conflicts are different, because he wasn’t created to be a man. He has a species of his own, which he is alienated from, because they are at a different level of consciousness. To humans, they are frightfully clever dogs, but to him they’re morons.
I see the points you’re making, and I can make another–like Frankenstein, there is an overarching POV to Sirius, as there is in Frankenstein, through the ship’s captain who finds Victor, who is relaying the narrative to us. I will say, Stapledon’s execution of this device is more skillfully rendered than Shelley’s. At times in Frankenstein, we’re hearing the monster tell his story to Victor, who is telling his story to the captain, who is telling his story to us. It’s a problem. But it still works. So does Sirius.
Shelley had sources as well (no such thing as perfect originality in literature)–it’s been suggested in some quarters that she said her monster came to her in a dream because she’d borrowed things from little known ghost stories (and no doubt improved on them)–but when you borrow ideas from one of the most famous books ever written (which was several famous movies by the time Stapledon wrote it), and radically rework them, to talk about theft is really a bit much. It’s not any kind of plagiarism. I’m amazed you’d even suggest that. Writers ‘steal’ from each other all the time. It’s how you do it that counts.
Shelley’s ideas are problematic in that she basically knows nothing about science (and in her era, that wasn’t a problem unique to her). She wasn’t terribly sympathetic to it either. (She also wasn’t completely writing about it, perhaps–her own tramatic experiences with motherhood may have been more what she was writing about).
But she presents Frankenstein as a scientist. Of a distinctly Byronic nature. (Again, influences.) So to this day, people read that book and say “There are things man was not meant to meddle with.” Which is not the central point of the book, but it is there. Frankenstein is to be condemned for what he did. Sirius’ creator is not condemned. Of course it was a problem worth looking at. He followed proper scientific procedure, and he did not abandon his creation–he was a bit too far ahead of the curve, and his results were hard to replicate. He didn’t fully understand the implications of what he was doing. And that is a problem with scientists.
Shelley’s take on it is far less believable. He worked all this time on this creature. He knew what it looked like, because he built it himself. And it wakes up and he just runs away!? It works as symbolism, but on every other level, none of it makes sense. Sirius works as both symbolism and as a person. Albeit a four-legged person with fur. Who does not repel everyone around him. Which is a huge difference. Dogs are only seen as monsters when they go mad, revert to their wolf ancestors Though at their worst, they can never match us primates, when we go mad, revert to our Chimp-like ancestors–with technology at our disposal.
Which this book talks about at some length. The war is everywhere in the latter section of the book. Major characters are in uniform. A major character is killed in an air raid. Sirius’ final breakdown is triggered, in part, by his dawning awareness of human madness, going on all around him. You’re wrong about t his. 2+2 = 5 wrong. The war is very well integrated into the story. If you can’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you.
Except that I think you let prejudice get in the way of enjoying a damn good book.
Also, I’m kind of wondering if maybe you’re a cat person.
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“But our true victory is in the striving towards something better. And towards self-understanding.” It’s exactly part of why civilization is not mere veneer. Our basic tendencies as humans is not a brutish, bloodthirsty, murderous behavior, but first and foremost we are a social species, with cooperation as our backbone. I’m reading Shaman by KSR at the moment, and that book is amazing in portraying how already early humans are in essence peaceful, cooperating creatures, not uncivilized, unempathic predators.
The fact that stuff like World War 2, Trump or whatever negative there is happens is not the essential core of our nature. If anything, also those occasional negative sides to society showcase tremendous amounts of organization and cooperation. Trump got to where he is because of Twitter, reality tv, etc., all wonders of science, technology, cooperation, in short, “civilized behavior”. Yes, there are ‘tribal’ disputes, and society faces tremendous problems today, but that does not mean society is a mere veneer.
Much as I can agree with that sentiment, that’s what it is. Sentiment. We are evolved from a species of simian very similar to the Common Chimpanzee–which is a social being, capable of acts of kindness and cooperation, but which is also frequently brutish, bloodthirsty and murderous–and so have we been throughout our entire history. Ask the Neanderthals, if you can find any.
Civilization is a great deal more than just cooperative behavior, or else we’d have to say wolves are more civilized than us (saner, definitely).
Civilization as such only goes back a few thousand years, and every discrete civilization to date has broken down and disappeared, followed by varying degrees of chaos, with a few islands of order scattered about. You are using the term incorrectly. And you are presuming, incorrectly, that the use of advanced technology precludes savagery. I’d say the AR-15 is a pretty advanced bit of tech, wouldn’t you?
Even if we don’t degenerate into Swift’s Yahoos, if we keep the trappings of civilization, and throw away the moral and intellectual perceptions at its heart, isn’t that even worse? At least the Yahoos seem happy in their horse-drawn republic.
Stapledon was writing in the wake of the rise of Hitler, and the outbreak of a massive war–he may not have known about the Nazi death camps when he was writing it, but he knew about what led up to them. Was there ever a more civilized nation than Germany? Is there now? We’re pretty civilized ourselves. And yet…..
Let’s agree that a ‘thin veneer’ was a phrase that would be on the lips of many in Stapledon’s time, and surely a critic has to allow for sentiments of the day a book was written in.
And to recognize the stark reality that history repeats itself. Until we finally begin to learn from it. Stapledon, from my perspective, is one of the better teachers his generation produced. Even if most of his history hadn’t happened yet. It’s still informed by what he sees going on around him.
Veneer is durable–when properly executed and applied–but still thin–and still subject to being worn away, if not maintained. It needs loving care. Or it deteriorates.
I have to revise my thinking about the presence of the war in the book: it didn’t register as you describe it, esp. for the reason of Sirius’ breakdown, as I have no problem admitting that near the end of the book I was prejudiced against it, and didn’t give it my full attention anymore, as I couldn’t care less what happened to the characters anymore, the book failed to click with me for all the reason I already gave. I’ll have to edit that part of my review.
Viz. Frankenstein: obviously both books differ, but for me there was too much stuff similar, and I was bothered by that. I can’t help that.
Gracefully conceded, and we need say no more about it. However, I hope you realize, if you’d published that review in a peer-reviewed journal, as opposed to a personal blog, there are those in the trade who would have gleefully ripped you to shreds.
(And me into the bargain, if anybody ever discussed Donald Westlake in peer-reviewed journals.)
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I want to backpedal a bit, and not call my feelings “prejudice”. I started the book with great, positive expectations (as I read two positive reviews of people I respect). What developed throughout my reading the book was simply a dislike for the story, the themes and the way Stapledon handled it all. That is not prejudice, but taste. The fact that I didn’t read the final 3/4th with utmost care anymore doesn’t deflect from my judgment, as I already stopped enjoying it at that moment. I do agree that a careful reading of the final part maybe could have redeemed my feelings on the book a bit – but I doubt it, especially as I reread the final pages today to check for those closing lines you mentioned.
Seems like we posted those last ones simultaneously, I didn’t mean to rekindle the fire. Anyhow, thanks for the discussion!
You’d already read some Stapledon, correct? (And I have by no means read all of him.) You were not thrilled with his earlier work. I don’t think it’s presuming too much to think that, whatever hopes you’d entertained about Sirius, you were prepared to be disappointed. That could be called prejudice. I’ve often entered a book with prejudiced feelings, and come away impressed by it, in spite of myself.
All of Stapledon’s SF is to some extent linked–Odd John has a cameo in Last and First Men, for example. I’ve had greatly varying estimates of his books that I’ve read, but I’ve never been repelled by any of them.
I did find Last and First Men a bit trying at points, precisely because it reads like a now-archaic form of history writing, which is intentional, and indeed satiric in its purpose. I don’t blame writers for hitting the target they aimed at. Even if I think there were better targets for them to shoot for.
I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between ‘prejudice’ and ‘taste.’ I suppose we call our prejudices taste, and other people’s tastes prejudice. That’s a sort of distinction. 😉
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I guess my experience with Last And First Men did color things indeed. I came in expecting a wholly different book, but soon hit that philosophical stuff again, so that’s prejudice, sure.
Fwiw, I overall liked Last And First Man, as it’s stunningly creative, just not the underlying philosophy.
Good distinction there, couldn’t agree more.
As what I trust will be my last contribution to this thread, I realized I’d never checked to see which Stapledon novels the library I work for has.
We have the Olaf Stapledon Reader, a collection of lesser known works by him. (Currently in circulation, not available.)
We have a collection of critical essays, that includes an unpublished manuscript.
We have a collection of love letters between Stapledon and Agnes Miller. (I’m going to guess she was an influence on Plaxy? Wonder how she felt about that. Or about her love letters being published, though of course that happened after they were both dead.)
And we have (ta-dah!) a 1929 edition of one of his philosophical works. “A Modern Theory of Ethics.” (As opposed to “Types of Ethical Theory”, which I mention for all the P.G. Wodehouse fans out there).
This is a problem with university libraries. I found a few years ago that we had several books ABOUT Alice Sheldon, (aka James Tiptree Jr.), including a very fine scholarly biography–and none of her fiction. I was moved to donate some books from my collection (tax deductible, but I never itemize), and a brand-new edition of the recent anthology “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” That last book circulated once, that I know of. Not my vintage paperbacks, that I still miss terribly. But I can always go up and visit.
So on the whole, I think this time I’m going to accept that a college library is not a good place to find science fiction. Books ABOUT science fiction, yeah. Plenty of those. Stapledon’s doing fine without my help. Now for those love letters. 😉
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