Science Fiction Studies

#28 = Volume 9, Part 3 = November 1982


Robert Branham

Stapledon's "Agnostic Mysticism"

Abstract .--The works of Olaf Stapledon offer a chronicle of personal struggle with revelation and expression. His non-fictional works describe both the importance of spiritual vision for personal and social development and the utter impossibility of adequately conceptualizing or expressing the substance of these perceptions. Stapledon's fictions feature a staggering array of visionary experiences, including a confrontation with the Star Maker, a cosmic view of human history over a span of two billion years, and an exploration of spirit and mind among a cast of characters that includes stars, nebulae dogs, flames, and the cosmos itself.

The uniqueness of Stapledon's fiction lies not simply in the grandeur of his visions, but also in his development of a literary style that enforces a certain attitude toward these insights. Stapledon's simultaneously held beliefs regarding the importance of spiritual discovery and the complete unreliability of attempts to describe its nature or meaning led him to adopt an outlook he termed "agnostic mysticism." This twinning of vision and skepticism also characterizes the rhetorical stance of his fiction, mythic constructions that are heavily qualified and are masterpieces of indirection. Through his fiction Stapledon sought to refine his personal vision, communicate some aspect of it to others, and yet maintain the sense of mystery that inspired and sustained his spiritual quest.

Robert Casillo

Olaf Stapledon and John Ruskin

Abstract .--In assessing Stapledon's social criticism one is struck by its great debt to Ruskin. Indeed, in many ways it is unoriginal, being a restatement of ideas which Ruskin (and numerous others) had first presented and which had become more or less intellectual commonplaces in the early decades of this century, particularly within the broad tradition which Ruskin had inaugurated. And even when Stapledon is hostile or negative towards Ruskin's thinking, his objections seem either commonsensical, as in his defense of the machine, or else derivative of well-known Marxist doctrine, as in his critique of nostalgic medieval paternalism and capitalist exploitation. Nor does Stapledon on the whole exhibit anything comparable to the texture of Ruskin's prose, its varied rhythms, troubled imagery, bold and problematical metaphors, abrupt transitions, sometimes uncontrollable emotion, above all its rich and fully dramatized tension of conflicting attitudes and ideas--features which have barely even been suggested in this essay. Generally speaking, Stapledon is by contrast an abstract and schematic writer; his characters too often seem like text-book illustrations, embodiments of Stapledon's ideas. So too, Stapledon, a daring adventurer into man's future history, was generally carried on the wings of a sober, conventional, and essentially Victorian style, a style most suitable to the expository essay. And yet in spite of these limitations, one cannot fail to be struck by the scope of Stapledon's works, not just his imaginative leaps into the future but his liberalism, tolerance, and compassion, qualities in which, even if he sometimes manifests them a little too easily, he exceeds his Victorian master. These make Stapledon an admirable figure in his own right and a writer of continuing interest.

Robert Crossley

Politics and the Artist: The Aesthetic of Darkness and the Light

Abstract .--Although Star Maker has sometimes been perceived as a Miltonic book, Stapledon's affinity with Milton may be even clearer in Darkness and the Light, for it contains, along with a large measure of Miltonic didacticism, a vision of personality-in-community that Milton would have instinctively grasped, powerful images of paradise betrayed and paradise attained, and not least of all a summons to what Michael calls "one Faith unanimous" (Milton, XII.603). Perhaps no other English writer since Milton has been more determined than Stapledon to make spiritual politics the foundation of an aesthetic which is at once propagandistic, psychologically liberating, and committed to the creative envisioning of an integrated cosmos.

John Huntington

Remembrance of Things to Come: Narrative Technique in Last and First Men

Abstract.--  Last and First Men has not received the attention it deserves as a work of art. Behind much of the praise of Stapledon's novel lies the somewhat naive idea that the novel works by the brilliance of its ideas and the enormous reach of its imaginative scope. These dimensions exist, of course, but without the art of Stapledon's narration they would be much less impressive. In this article, I suggest some principles of Stapledon's narrative technique that I think account for Last and First Men's effect. My terminology comes from Gérard Genette's Narrative Discourse, itself a study of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

Eric S. Rabkin

The Composite Fiction of Olaf Stapledon

Abstract .--More explicitly than anyone writing before him, Stapledon saw SF as a tool for philosophic inquiry and as an agency for moral growth. In prosecuting this ultimately serious aim, Stapledon gathered into his writing some of the key threads of English SF, English religious literature, and English science. From these he wove a dense and continuous fabric of fiction, a set of novels which may be best seen as chapters all of the same spiritual novel, each work a thing of power, the whole cycle a composite fiction of staggering scope.

Amelia A. Rutledge

Star Maker: The Agnostic Quest

Abstract .--The SF writings of Olaf Stapledon, taken with his social philosophy. represent a complex intellectual quest after an adequate philosophical grounding for the concept of community. " The quest is complicated by Stapledon's allegiance to the concept of "spirit." This term--always difficult to define in his works-- at times seems congruent with its traditional religious meanings, but at other times it seems to be an idealized abstraction of human moral qualities. Stapledon was always cautious never to exceed what he assessed to be the boundaries of human perception and knowledge; and to him religion--at least as popularly promulgated--was a snare and a delusion. On the other hand, the merely human seemed at times inadequate as a basis for argument or as the philosophical ground for a cherished ideal. Between skepticism and strongly felt desire he maintains a tension in all of his works; but he also struggles, by way of rational argument and fictive stratagems, to bring reason and desire into some congruence. In his approach to the problems presented by the concepts of spirit and community, there is great consistency; and although his later expositions, such as can be found in Saints and Revolutionaries (1939), New Hope for Britain (1939), and Beyond the "Isms" (1942), are clearer and more refined, the structure and content of his best work of fiction, Star Maker (1937), are a lapidary instance of his own struggle with rigorous agnosticism and his urgent need of a praiseworthy object that would validate "true community." In short, the dream-quest of his protagonist in Star Maker mirrors his own quest.

Curtis C. Smith

The Manuscript of Last and First Men: Towards a Variorum

Abstract .--This article examines in detail the original manuscript of Stapledon's Last and First Men, housed in the archives of the University of Liverpool. A large number of the author's changes, additions, and deletions to the original draft are analyzed. A commonplace of Stapledon criticism since the first reviews of the 1930s has it that Stapledon is a philosopher but not a novelist, his style being haphazard and crude. The care with which Stapledon handles his manuscript revisions contradicts this view, and demonstrates a strong concern for nuances of style, including diction, tone, and organization.

Roy Arthur Swanson

The Spiritual Factor in Odd John and Sirius

Abstract .--It seems logical that spirituality, as the human experience of the divine, should decrease in proportion to the achievement of superhumanity. Demigods may be less spiritual than humans, and gods may not be spiritual at all. Spiritual beings are usually humble before their gods, and humility may not be a trait of the gods. The hypothesis is pessimistic because it posits the limitation of spirituality and implies that arrogance and indifference are attributes of the divine. The limitation of spirituality must hold that to be spiritual is to be human, and to be human is to be spiritual: these corollaries appear in works as remote from each other as John Scotus Erigena's De Divisione naturae (9th century) and Vercors' Les Animaux dénaturés (1952), and they inform Olaf Stapledon's dyed of disaster, Odd John (1935) and Sirius (1944). In Stapledon's companion-pieces, Sirius, a dog coming into human status, achieves and welcomes spirituality, and John, a human coming into superhuman status, reluctantly and even tearfully sloughs spirituality. The superman, John Wainwright, and the superdog, Sirius, appear to warrant our admiration because each has transcended his species; but Stapledon directs our concern to the dangers of transcendence and shows us how easy it is to applaud our own imminent destruction as a species.

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