Friday, 26 October 2001

Olaf Stapledon: Last Men in London (1932)

Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 977

Stapledon's second book about the last generation of humanity is not a sequel to First and Last Men, which was a history of the human race from the 1930s across millions of years to the end, when the solar system is destroyed. What it is instead is a companion piece, describing the thoughts of the Last Men on the history of the early twentieth century.

The epic sweep of the earlier novel is replaced by human interest. The narrator from the future targets one man for his investigations, chosen for his sensitivity. Paul is observed (from inside his mind) and influenced from hie early childhood in the 1890s, though to his participation in the First World War, which is seen as the pivotal event which makes the eventual downfall of our civilisation inevitable.

As a novel, the human scale of Last Men in London makes it more immediately appealing than its predecessor. The device of showing the view that the Last Men take of contemporary society allows Stapledon to include parallels and commentary not normally accessible to the novelist writing about a time close to the date of composition; this does not always work (the story of the gentle lemurs is frankly silly), but can produce interesting effects. The best use of this is the major parallel between the Great War and the catastrophe foreseen in the last days of the human race, but the transfer of early twentieth century sexual taboos to a later culture's attitude to eating is also effective.

The purpose of Last Men in London is clearly to express a critical view of thirities culture; from a science fiction point of view, the problem with it is that the criticism is very much that of the intelligentsia of the time, as parodied, for example, in several Lord Peter Wimsey novels. A lot of it reads like sub-Aldous Huxley, without Huxley's own insight and unwillingness to just accept a fashionable idea. So Lost Men in London is easier to relate to than Last and First Men, but ultimately has less to say.

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