Science Fiction Studies

#28 = Volume 9, Part 3 = November 1982

Patrick McCarthy

Editorial Introduction

The current flurry of interest in the SF novels of Olaf Stapledon may be traced to a chapter in Sam Moskowitz's Explorers of the Infinite (1963). Entitled "Olaf Stapledon: Cosmic Philosopher," the chapter began with the bold assertion that Stapledon's imagination was the "most titanic. . . ever brought to science fiction" and proceeded to support that description with information about Stapledon's life and summaries and analyses of novels that for the most part had been out of print for a decade or more. Within a few years there was a trickle of studies devoted to Stapledon's work, and that trickle may soon begin to approach flood level: my own Olaf Stapledon, published earlier this year as part of Twayne's English Authors Series, will be followed by John Kinnaird's monograph in the Starmont Reader's Guide series, Leslie Fiedler's Oxford University Press volume, and an exhaustive primary and secondary bibliography compiled by Harvey J. Satty and Curtis C. Smith for G.K. Hall of Boston. With the Stapledon centenary approaching in 1986, critical interest in the man and his works is likely to continue rising, at least for the next few years.

If Moskowitz deserves much of the credit for helping to rescue Stapledon's reputation, the prime mover for this Stapledon issue of SFS was Harvey Satty, who talked to me about the need for a collection of Stapledon articles while we were visiting Stapledon's home in Caldy, south of Liverpool. Although his work on the Stapledon bibliography and on other projects has precluded the collaboration that he and I originally planned for this collection, I would like to acknowledge his influence not only on this issue of SFS but on much of what is being written today about Stapledon. As President of the Olaf Stapledon Society and the foremost authority on Stapledon's life, Harvey Satty is a resource that should be tapped by anyone contemplating serious work on Olaf Stapledon.

The articles that follow are representative of the diversity of current critical approaches to Stapledon's fiction. Eric S. Rabkin surveys Stapledon's four best-known novels, Last and First Men, Star Maker, Odd John, and Sirius; in his study he locates themes common to these apparently diverse fictions and traces their sources in British SF, religious writing, and scientific discoveries. In contrast, John Huntington and Robert Crossley focus on narrative form in the novels. Drawing on Gérard Genette's important study of Proust, Huntington examines the function of Stapledon's narrative strategies in Last and First Men; and Crossley, in a strikingly original analysis of Darkness and the Light, demonstrates that the book's narrative structure grew out of ideas that Stapledon developed in a series of Scrutiny essays in 1939 and 1940. Two other essays are attempts to come to terms with central philosophical concepts in the novels: Robert Branham explores the paradox of Stapledon's "agnostic mysticism," and Amelia A. Rutledge shows that the irony of the "agnostic quest" in Star Maker sets a pattern that pervades Stapledon's fictional and non-fictional works.

Robert Casillo's is an extended study of Stapledon's use of, and reaction to, the ideas of John Ruskin. Inspired by Moskowitz's revelation that Stapledon's mother corresponded with Ruskin and admired his work, Casillo's article is an example of one kind of comparative study that will become increasingly important as critics examine Stapledon's complex relationships to other writers. Roy Arthur Swanson's analysis of Odd John and Sirius also draws on comparative methods to advance its paradoxical argument that the move from human to superhuman status results in a decrease of spirituality. Finally, Curtis C. Smith has undertaken the first significant study of Stapledon's revisions of a particular novel. Working with three draft manuscripts and the final printed text of Last and First Men, Smith provides illustrations of Stapledon's additions, deletions, and substitutions and shows that there are consistent patterns in the kinds of revisions made in the manuscripts.

Whether they are concerned with Stapledon's themes or narrative strategies, with his relationship to another writer or his revision of a novel, these essays will provide other critics and readers of SF with further evidence of Olaf Stapledon's "titanic imagination." In this way, this special issue of SFS will, I hope, lead more readers back to the novels themselves, where they may experience anew, da capo, Stapledon's magnificent "attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values" (LFM 0:9).

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