Olaf Stapleton
(Wesleyan University Press)
Part I
I wasted a good part of my wasted youth reading science fiction. As a teenager, I could actually tell one of A.E. Van Vogt's "Weapons Shops" stories from another, or specify which of Groff Conklin's umpteen anthologies contained this or that classic story by Robert Heinlein or Theodore Sturgeon. However, in all this I somehow overlooked the novels by the British writer Olaf Stapleton (1886-1950). They were the classics of an earlier generation. Written mostly during the 30s, they lie between H.G. Wells (who, together with Jules Verne, could be credited with inventing science fiction) and the explosion of the genre after WWII.

Now that I am happily settling into second childhood, I am remedying this gap in my miseducation, and have just finished Stapleton's The Starmaker. It was originally published in 1937 has been recently reissued by Wesleyan University Press with a typically thought-provoking forward by Freeman Dyson, who obviously loved Stapleton's fantasies in his own youth. It also contains fawning, idiotic footnotes by another enthusiast named Patrick McCarthy.

Stapleton's writing style is not what one would call page turning, but it is serviceable: grave, old-fashioned without being too ornate, like Victorian scientific writing. What draws one in is the breadth of his imagination, and his visionary seriousness. (The aesthetic impact of The Starmaker reminds me a little of the music of his contemporary Havergal Brian.) It is also tinged with a political subtext straight out of the Red decade of the 1930s, like a museum piece of that era.

Stapleton's concerns are at once psychological and metaphysical. To pose questions about the nature of mind and the nature of society, he invents an immense galactic history of a jillion different planets, surveyed by a narrator who simply floats into them by some ill-defined kind of telepathic tourism. We forgive this clunky fictional gimmick because these histories are so interesting. One of my favorites is the world inhabited by "nautiloids," a species which evolved as follows:

    A mollusk-like creature, living in the coastal shallows, acquired a propensity to drift in its boat-like shell on the sea's surface, thus keeping in touch with its drifting vegetable food. As the ages passed, its shell became better adapted to navigation. Mere drifting was supplemented by means of a crude sail, a membrane extending from the creature's back. In time, this nautiloid type proliferated into a host of species. Some of them remained minute, but some found size advantageous, and developed into living ships. One of these became the intelligent master of this great world.

    The hull was a rigid, stream-lined vessel, shaped much as the nineteenth century clipper in her prime, and larger than our largest whale. At the rear a tentacle or fin developed into a rudder, which was sometimes also used as a propeller, like a fish's tail. But though all these species could navigate under their own power to some extent, their normal means of long-distance locomotion was their great spread of sail. The simple membrane of the ancestral type had become a system of parchment-like sails and bony masts and spars, under voluntary muscular control. Similarity to a ship was increased by the downward looking eyes, one on each side of the prow. The mainmast head also bore eyes for searching the horizon.

    ...It may seem strange that a species of this kind should have developed human intelligence. In more than one world of this type, however, a number of accidents combined to produce this result. The change from a vegetable to a carnivorous habit caused a great increase of animal cunning in pursuit of the much speedier submarine creatures. The sense of hearing was wonderfully developed, for the movements of fish at great distances could be detected by the underwater ears. A line of taste-organs along either bilge responded to the ever-changing composition of the water, and enabled the hunter to track his prey. Delicacy of hearing and of taste combined with omnivorous habits, and with great diversity of behaviours and strong sociality, to favour the growth of intelligence.

    It was a strange experience to enter the mind of an intelligent ship, to see the foam circling under one's own nose as the vessel plunged through the waves, to taste the bitter or delicious currents streaming past one's flanks, to feel the pressure of air on the sails as one beat up against the breeze, to hear beneath the water-line the rush and murmur of distant shoals of fishes, and indeed actually to hear the sea-bottom's configuration by means of the echoes that it cast up to the under-water ears.

    The tale continues with the nautiloid ship-men developing a technology ---something Stapleton views with deep ambivalence---and with that a social order: "It was in this world that we found in its most striking form a social disease which is perhaps the commonest of all world-diseases --- namely, the splitting of the population into two mutually unintelligible castes through the influence of economic forces." Like H.G. Wells in The Time Machine, Stapleton imagines the masters and workers, although members of the same species, diverging drastically.

      In appearance the masters were very different from the workers, quite as different as queen ants and drones from the workers of their species. They were more elegantly and accurately stream-lined. They had a greater expanse of sail, and were faster in fair weather. In heavy seas they were less seaworthy, owing to their finer lines; but on the other hand, they were the more skillful and venturesome navigators. Their manipulatory tentacles were less muscular, but capable of finer adjustments.

    At this part of the story, Stapleton's allegorical intention becomes even more obvious. Amongst the ruling caste, a few of the masters make the revolutionary discovery that the two hereditary castes are, in fact, biologically identical, and differentiated only by means of childhood upbringing. "An attempt was made by the masters to prevent this knowledge from spreading to the workers, but certain sentimentalists of their own caste bruited it abroad, and preached a new-fangled and inflammatory doctrine of social equality."

      During our visit the world was in terrible confusion. In backward oceans the old system remained unquestioned, but in all the more advanced regions of the planet a desperate struggle was being waged. In one great archipelago a social revolution had put the workers in power, and a devoted though ruthless dictatorship was attempting so to plan the life of the community that the next generation should be homogeneous and of a new type, combining the most desirable characters of both workers and masters. Elsewhere, the masters had persuaded their workers that the new ideas were false and base and certain to lead to universal poverty and misery."

    Guess which society of the 1930s Stapleton has in mind, one in which the description "workers in power" has to be modified just a little by the phrase "a devoted though ruthless dictatorship."

    If you have guessed correctly, then you will not be surprised by the next part of the story. "I must not stay to tell of the desperate struggle which broke out between these two kinds of social organizations."

      In the world-wide campaigns many a harbour, many an ocean current, flowed red with slaughter. Under the pressure of a war to the death, all that was best, all that was most human and gentle on each side was crushed out by military necessity. On the one side, the passion for a unified world, where every individual should live a free and full life in service of the world community, was overcome by the passion to punish spies, traitors, and heretics. On the other, vague and sadly misguided yearnings for a nobler, less materialistic life were cleverly transformed by the reactionary leaders into vindictiveness against the revolutionaries.

    Notice that the noble impulses of guess who's "devoted though ruthless dictatorship" are deformed only by "the pressure of a war to the death."

Go on to
Part II

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