Olaf Stapledon

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Olaf Stapledon
Olaf Stapledon.jpg
Born (1886-05-10)10 May 1886
Seacombe, Wallasey, Cheshire, England, UK
Died 6 September 1950(1950-09-06) (aged 64)
Caldy, Cheshire, England, UK
Occupation Novelist, philosopher
Genre Science fiction, philosophy
Notable works Star Maker, Last and First Men, Odd John

William Olaf Stapledon (10 May 1886 – 6 September 1950) – known as Olaf Stapledon – was a British philosopher and author of several influential works of science fiction.

Life[edit]

Stapledon was born in Seacombe, Wallasey, on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire, the only son of William Clibbert Stapledon and Emmeline Miller. The first six years of his life were spent with his parents at Port Said, Egypt. He was educated at Abbotsholme School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he acquired a BA in Modern History (Second Class) in 1909 and a MA in 1913.[1][2] After a brief stint as a teacher at Manchester Grammar School he worked in shipping offices in Liverpool and Port Said from 1910 to 1913.

During the First World War he served as a conscientious objector with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium from July 1915 to January 1919. On 16 July 1919 he married Agnes Zena Miller (1894–1984), an Australian cousin. They had first met in 1903, and later maintained a correspondence throughout the war. They had a daughter, Mary Sydney Stapledon (1920–), and a son, John David Stapledon (1923–). In 1920 they moved to West Kirby.

Stapledon was awarded a PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1925 and used his thesis as the basis for his first published prose book, A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929). However, he soon turned to fiction in the hope of presenting his ideas to a wider public. The relative success of Last and First Men (1930) prompted him to become a full-time writer. He wrote a sequel, Last Men in London, and followed it up with many more books of both fiction and philosophy.[3]

In 1940 the family built and moved into Simon's Field, in Caldy, in the Wirral. After 1945 Stapledon travelled widely on lecture tours, visiting the Netherlands, Sweden and France, and in 1948 he spoke at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wrocław, Poland. He attended the Conference for World Peace held in New York City in 1949, the only Briton to be granted a visa to do so. In 1950 he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement. After a week of lectures in Paris, he cancelled a projected trip to Yugoslavia and returned to his home in Caldy, where he died very suddenly of a heart attack.

On Stapledon's religious views, he was an agnostic.[4]

Stapledon was cremated at Landican Crematorium, and then his widow and their children scattered his ashes on the sandy cliffs overlooking the Dee Estuary, a favourite spot of his that features in more than one of his books. Stapledon Wood, on the south-east side of Caldy Hill, is named after him.[5]

Works[edit]

Stapledon's writings directly influenced Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Stanisław Lem, Bertrand Russell,[6] John Gloag,[7] Naomi Mitchison,[8] C. S. Lewis, Vernor Vinge,[9] John Maynard Smith and indirectly influenced many others, contributing many ideas to the world of science fiction. The "supermind" composed of many individual consciousnesses forms a recurring theme in his work. Star Maker contains the first known description of what are now called Dyson spheres. Freeman Dyson credits the novel with giving him the idea, even stating in an interview that "Stapledon sphere" would be a more appropriate name.[10] Last and First Men features early descriptions of genetic engineering and terraforming. Sirius describes a dog whose intelligence is increased to the level of a human being's.

Stapledon's fiction often presents the strivings of some intelligence that is beaten down by an indifferent universe and its inhabitants who, through no fault of their own, fail to comprehend its lofty yearnings. It is filled with protagonists who are tormented by the conflict between their "higher" and "lower" impulses. According to Gregory Benford, it also reflects his Marxist political views,[11] (though Stapledon himself explicitly rejected Marxism)[12] as well as then-contemporary intellectual fashions (e.g. the belief in extrasensory perception).

Last and First Men, a "future history" of 18 successive species of humanity, and Star Maker, an outline history of the Universe, were highly acclaimed by figures as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Algernon Blackwood,[13] Hugh Walpole, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf (Stapledon maintained a long correspondence with Woolf) and Winston Churchill.[14] In contrast, Stapledon's philosophy repelled C. S. Lewis, whose Cosmic Trilogy was written partly in response to what Lewis saw as amorality, although Lewis admired Stapledon's inventiveness and described him as "a corking good writer". In fact Stapledon was an agnostic who was hostile to religious institutions, but not to religious yearnings, a fact that set him at odds with H. G. Wells in their correspondence.

None of Stapledon's novels or short stories has been adapted for film or television, although George Pal bought the rights to Odd John. Castle of Frankenstein magazine reported in 1966 that David McCallum would play the title role.[15]

Together with his philosophy lectureship at the University of Liverpool, which now houses the Olaf Stapledon archive, Stapledon lectured in English literature, industrial history and psychology. He wrote many non-fiction books on political and ethical subjects, in which he advocated the growth of "spiritual values", which he defined as those values expressive of a yearning for greater awareness of the self in a larger context ("personality-in-community").

In nations with "life + 70 years" copyright regimes, Stapledon's published works will be in the public domain from 2021.

Bibliography[edit]

Fiction[edit]

Non-fiction[edit]

  • A Modern Theory of Ethics: A study of the Relations of Ethics and Psychology (1929)
  • Waking World (1934)
  • Saints and Revolutionaries (1939)
  • New Hope for Britain (1939)
  • Philosophy and Living, 2 volumes (1939)
  • Beyond the "Isms" (1942)
  • Seven Pillars of Peace (1944)
  • Youth and Tomorrow (1946)
  • The Opening of the Eyes (ed. Agnes Z. Stapledon, 1954)

Poetry[edit]

  • Latter-Day Psalms (1914)

Collections[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kinnaird, John. Olaf Stapledon. Borgo Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-916732-55-4
  2. ^ Oxford University Calendar, 1915, p.182
  3. ^ "Olaf Stapledon". J. L. Campbell, Sr., in E. F. Bleiler, ed. Science Fiction Writers. New York: Scribners, 1982. pp. 91–100. ISBN 978-0-684-16740-4
  4. ^ Robert Crossley (1994). Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future. Syracuse University Press. p. 388. ISBN 9780815602811. "In a lecture to the New Renascence School in London, he reiterated the central paradox of his own spiritual life: "Agnosticism, far from destroying religion, is the gateway to live religion." ...In a 1949 anthology on religion, Olaf gave simple, precise expression to a problem he had wrestled with all his life: the emotional inadequacy of atheism and the intellectual unacceptability of theism. Spirit, for him, meant a character of aspiration, not a substance attributed to souls or deities." 
  5. ^ "Cheshire Now – Caldy Hill". Retrieved 16 January 2013. 
  6. ^ Mark Brake (2012). Alien Life Imagined: Communicating the Science and Culture of Astrobiology. Cambridge University Press. p. 225. ISBN 9781139851091. "Stapledon's writings greatly influenced not only key players in our own story on pluralism, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Stanislaw Lem, but also figures as diverse as jorge Luis Borges, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, and Winston Churchill." 
  7. ^ Ruddick,Nicholas, "Science Fiction", in Brian W. Shaffer, John Clement Ball, Patrick O'Donnell, David W. Madden and Justus Nieland, The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction. John Wiley & Sons, 2010 ISBN 1405192445,(p. 333).
  8. ^ "Mitchison, Naomi", in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature A Checklist, 1700–1974 : with Contemporary Science Fiction Authors II. Robert Reginald, Douglas Menville, Mary A. Burgess Detroit – Gale Research Company. ISBN 0810310511 (p.1002)
  9. ^ Menon, Anil. "Article: Interview: Vernor Vinge". Strangehorizons.com. Retrieved 24 November 2013. 
  10. ^ "MeaningofLife.tv". MeaningofLife.tv. Retrieved 24 November 2013. 
  11. ^ "His Marxism, which remained his only irrational faith throughout his life, told him that surely the United States could never be a positive influence." Benford, Gregory (1999), Forward to: Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (Series: SF Masterworks); London: Gollancz Books; pg x.
  12. ^ "I am not a Marxist, but I have learned much from Marxists, and I am not anti-Marxist... Marxism and Christianity spring from the same emotional experience, but each in its way misinterprets, falsifies." quoted in Geoghegan, Vincent, Socialism and Religion: Roads to Common Wealth.
  13. ^ Blackwood, Algernon. "Cosmic Thrillers",(Review of Last and First Men, Time and Tide, 20 December 1930. Reprinted in Fantasy Commentator magazine, 6(2):134–136. Fall 1988.
  14. ^ Benford,Gregory, "Foreword" in Last and First Men. London, Millennium, 1999. ISBN 1-85798-806-X pp. ix–xi .
  15. ^ "Article: "The Man from M.O.N.S.T.E.R." Castle of Frankenstein, volume 2, No. 4 (1966)". David McCallum Fans Online. Retrieved 25 January 2008. 

External links[edit]