As an eighth grader, I was required to watch the short film “Powers of Ten” (here). Though the opening scenes and graphics are beginning to show their age, there is no replacing the sense of wonder its nine minutes leave the viewer with. Continually expanding, and expanding, and expanding from Earth, to solar system, to galaxy, to universe, and beyond, it is a great parallel to Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 Star Maker. The novel taking the reader on a philosophical and spiritual trip of similar perspective, infinity seems the only limit.
Future history at its most representational, plot is scant in Star Maker. The “story” of a man who disembodies himself, the narrative takes his mind, and the reader, on a journey from the English heath to the depths of time and space. Starting in minutes and seconds and gradually shifting into aeons and aeons of time and thought, the cycles of existence and humanity’s place within that movement are what is at stake as the nameless protagonist attempts to come to existential terms with the breadth and meaning of the galaxy, and whether, after all, there is an omnipotent Star Maker.
As such, the idea of ‘transcendent’ only scratches the surface of Star Maker. Stapledon continually extending and expanding his disembodied observer’s viewpoint, the novel’s scope never fails to top itself. And not only spatially, the author also challenges the idea of mind—communal mind, galactic minds and the cloud of time permeating all. Allegory rather than realistic speculation, the narrator’s quest for understanding swells to proportions that seem fit to make the mind itself explode. It was J.R.R. Tolkien who championed the idea of eucatastrophe, yet Stapledon seems to have taken it to the nth level, leaving the reader to shake their head in wonder at the degree to which one can ‘overcome’ despite the odds.
Stapledon trained in both philosophy and English literature, the book is eminently quotable on the nature and quandaries of existence. Hefty doses of indirect Daoism, questions regarding monotheism, application of the Eternal Return, hints of Spengler’s Decline of the West, and many other ideas and concepts inform the novel. Not atheistic rather agnostic, the book remains open, questioning, even yearning for the unknown and an answer to it. With the cosmos removed to symbolic status, Stapledon comes to an individual philosophy of metaphysical spirituality (not an oxymoron) which integrates itself fully with the man’s view from the heath.
To this point I have given short shrift to the imagination invested in Star Maker. Stapledon’s creative powers likewise formidable, the worlds, alien races, and universe—tangible and otherwise—come fully to the mind’s eye under the author’s guiding descriptions. Some fleet across the page for a brief moment while others stick around the majority of the book, but all are described in vivid, original terms that lend the book a mark of palpable imagination—no small feat given the publishing date.
In the end, Star Maker is existential transcendence like no other sci-fi. Undoubtedly a descendant of Edwin Abbott and H.G. Wells (that is, opposed to Jules Verne), the philosophical questions asked, and sometimes answered, hearken back to turn of the century genre. At the same time, Stapledon puts his stamp on matters that remain relevant to this day. Applying smoother prose to the proceedings, the thematic angle of the novel is one more along personal, rather than societal lines. Certainly cycles of humanity and life are in play, but deep within the milieu lies a deeper searching for personal, spiritual meaning. Never taking the easy road out, the conclusion Stapledon comes to is one of this world in mind only, no wise sage in Western religion able to put the realism of ambiguity into such finite terms. Arthur C. Clarke, Iain Banks, Brian Aldiss, and a host of other writers, in turn, owe their respects to this timeless work from Stapledon. Top ten science fiction novels ever written...
I leave the reader with a quote—not an exceptional quote, but a quote which hints at the portent of the novel, Laozi nodding his head in agreement:
“He looked down once more upon the ruined city, then continued, ‘And if after all there is no Star Maker, if the great company of galaxies leapt into being of their own accord, and even if this little nasty world of ours is the only habitation of the spirit anywhere among the stars, and this world doomed, even so, I must praise. But if there is no Star Maker, what can it be that I praise? I do not know. I will call it only the sharp tang and savour of existence. But to call it this is to say little.’”