May 12, 2018

Our turbulent world against a background of stars: Why Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is essential reading, even today

For a book admired by H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf & Jorge Luis Borges, one that influenced Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling, and which first spoke of Dyson Spheres, Star Maker remains relatively unknown.

BYGautham Shenoy

You don’t often hear Olaf Stapledon’s name much anymore. A crying shame, given the vast influence of this British philosopher and writer’s books and ideas on science fiction. His writing has inspired so many authors that the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction says that his influence on the development of science fiction is second only to that of H.G. Wells. If the authors of today are influenced by masters such as Virginia Woolf, Arthur C. Clarke, Jorge Luis Borges, Brian Aldiss, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, just to name a few, Stapledon was the writer who influenced these greats.
And his 1937 masterpiece – Star Maker – sees Olaf Stapledon at his most sweeping, ambitious, influential and cosmic best, a book in which we get a glimpse into one vision of a future through the eyes of eternity. It’s the book that that Borges called ‘a prodigious novel’, one which Clarke said is ‘probably the most powerful work of imagination ever written’, and upon reading which, Virginia Woolf wrote to Stapledon saying, ‘you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can’t help envying you – as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.’

Left: The cover & blurb from the dust jacket of the 1937 first edition of Star Maker. Right: Olaf Stapledon.

Star Maker begins with an unnamed narrator standing atop a hill thinking about the tumultuous and bitter currents of the world, and who inexplicably gets swept away into the cosmos, his consciousness transported light years away with each page, seeking out and meeting extra-terrestrial lifeforms, recognisable and humanoid at first, but getting progressively different and more ‘alien’. He combines psychically with every successive individual he meets, a cosmic entity that is one with each new form of life it encounters – as the scale of the book gets progressively larger, going from planetary and galactic, to intergalactic scales until the scale is universal and as cosmic as it can get. Billions of years come to pass until this combined entity meets the creator itself, the Star Maker. Creator but not god, omnipotent but imperfect, a maker who is dispassionate and who indulges in the creation of multiple universes, ours being just one of them, and not a very good one at that. And this contact of the cosmic mind with the Star Maker begins a stupendous climax (‘the supreme moment in the cosmos’), that the writer and devout Christian, C.S. Lewis called ‘sheer devil worship’.
And for all of this Star Maker is not a novel in the strictest sense. In fact, the blurb on the original dust jacket explicitly states that it can ‘hardly be called a novel’. Stapledon himself – in the preface to the book – says that ‘it is no novel that all’. There are no characters, no heroes, villains, no plot, no twists, and turns. But what it has is a grand tour of the universe, sweeping ideas, a vast panoramic perspective of a future, a cosmic myth.
There is no room for individual characters amidst all the psychic interstellar travel, and descriptions of the alien races, artificial habitats, planets and worlds encountered, and notes on their politics, philosophy, science and technologies. Speaking of which, in Star Maker was written descriptions of terraforming, genetic engineering, and of megastructures that encompass a star to capture its energy output, what we now call Dyson Spheres. The physicist Freeman Dyson, after whom the Dyson Sphere is named got this idea from Star Maker, and has gone on record stating that a better name for it would really be ‘Stapledon Spheres’.
Covers of various editions of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker over the years. The cover for the Gollancz SF Masterworks (right) is by Les Edwards, & a private commission based on this is the lead image.

What Star Maker lacks for in terms of any plot, Stapledon makes up for with boundless invention and imagination, and exploration of ideas, be it of communal world minds, symbiotic species, interplanetary communication, stars that partake in consciousness, and of galactic empires and their wars, another staple of science fiction that he was the first to describe: ‘In time there grew up several great rival empires of the mad worlds, each claiming to be charged with some sort of divine mission for the unifying and awakening of the whole galaxy. Between the ideologies of these empires, there was little to choose, yet each was opposed to the others with religious fervor. Germinating in regions far apart, these empires easily mastered any sub-utopian worlds that lay within reach. Thus they spread from one planetary system to another, till at last empire made contact with the empire. Then followed wars such as had never before occurred in our galaxy. Fleets of worlds, natural and artificial, maneuvered among the stars to outwit one another and destroyed one another with long-range jets of sub-atomic energy. As the tides of battle swept hither and thither through space, whole planetary systems were annihilated. Many a world-spirit found a sudden end. Many a lowly race that had no part in the strife was slaughtered in the celestial warfare that raged around it. Yet so vast is the galaxy that these intermundane wars, terrible as they were, could at first be regarded as rare accidents, mere unfortunate episodes in the triumphant march of civilization.’
Or when speaking about the collective entity’s journey: ‘As we searched up and down time and space, discovering more and more of the rare grains called planets, as we watched race after race struggle to a certain degree of lucid consciousness, only to succumb to some external accident or, more often, to some flaw in its own nature, we were increasingly oppressed by a sense of the futility, the planlessness of the cosmos.’
That’s why Kim Stanley Robinson said of Stapledon’s work, ‘Every few pages contain all the material of an ordinary science fiction novel, condensed to something like prose poetry; and their profound view of our place in the scheme of things is a joy to experience’.
The philosophy and metaphysics that permeates Stapledon’s work is where a lot of the profundity comes from. And Star Maker is no different. Physics weaved into metaphysics. Spirituality and science. The twain meet in Star Maker. Which, in the words of Brian Aldiss makes it ‘too challenging for comfort. The scientifically minded mistrust the reverence in the book; the religious shrink from the idea of a creator who neither loves nor has need of love from his creation’. But it’s not religion the way we know it. Says Stapledon in his preface to Star Maker, “At the risk of raising thunder both on the Left and on the Right, I have occasionally used certain ideas and words derived from religion, and I have tried to interpret them in relation to modern needs. The valuable, though much damaged words “spiritual” and “worship,” which have become almost as obscene to the Left as the good old sexual words are to the Right, are here intended to suggest an experience which the Right is apt to pervert and the Left to misconceive.”
Speaking of modern needs, Star Maker still remains a very relevant read for our times 81 years after it was written, and proof of the maxim that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. When Olaf Stapledon wrote Star Maker in 1937, it was under the cloud of a war to come, with extreme ideologies on the rise, and he saw his books as a way of addressing not just this issue, but also the ones that deeply bothered him, be it private ownership, the division of people into narrow categories, of ideologies that divided people, the injustice of social orders, or an outworn economic system that dooms millions to frustration. Stapledon wanted to show with his books that the only way to understand ourselves is to go beyond ourselves, and by way of looking at ourselves from the vantage point of the grandest of magnitudes, we would see amongst us more things in common than not. To quote Stapledon again from Star Maker’s preface, “perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity toward one another.”
For all this and more, Star Maker is an essential read for anyone who wishes to be swept up in a flood of ideas. Rare would be the person who can read Star Maker beyond a few pages without taking a break to digest all that’s going on and to ruminate on thoughts provoked. And while I would highly recommend the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition, with a foreword by Brian Aldiss, a complete glossary and diagrammatic notes on Time Scales by Stapledon himself, you can begin your grand tour of the universe in Star Maker right away. With the rights having lapsed into public domain, a PDF of Star Maker is readily available via Wikimedia Commons, or if you prefer an epub or a want a Kindle-friendly version, you can download it via the University of Adelaide’s online ebook library. Go ahead, and immerse yourself in the universe. What better time to begin reading Star Maker than today, two days after his 132nd birthday. Read, because not all mind-expanding substances are illegal.
Live long and prosper!

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.