Kelvin Long and Richard Osborne have seen to it that the British Interplanetary Society’s conference on the highly influential science fiction writer and philosopher Olaf Stapledon has gone off without a hitch. Here is their report from the event, a conference evidently as rife with speculation and far-future musings as anything the author himself ever penned.
by K.F. Long & R. Osborne, Symposium Chairmen
During the summer the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) played host to a symposium on World Ships, possibly the first such dedicated conference ever on these grand, long-term planning concepts. However, the most recent BIS symposium is on a topic that covers eons. There was no one who thought bigger and over longer timescales than the philosopher and writer Olaf Stapledon. Once again, the BIS has organized another first in history. On the 23rd of November members and visitors gathered to discuss the philosophy and literature of Stapledon in the context of today’s current space exploration activities. The session was organized for the purpose of facilitating wider exposure to his ideas and as a way to invite those who may never have heard of him to discover a gem in the literature of space exploration and science fiction.
William Olaf Stapledon was born in Seacombe, Wallasey, on the Wirral Peninsula near Liverpool, England, on the 10th of May 1886. He died on the 6th of September 1950. He spent much of his childhood growing up in Egypt. He obtained a BA Modern History, 1909, from Balliol College, Oxford and a PhD Philosophy University of Liverpool, 1925. His thesis was “A Modern Theory of Ethics”, later the subject of a book. He had worked as a teacher at the Manchester Grammar School and served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium during World War I. He was married to Agnes Zena Miller and together they had two children — their daughter Mary Sydney Stapledon and a son, John David Stapledon, whose nephew Jason Shenai attended the BIS symposium, much to the delight of all those present. Imagine having an actual Stapledon in the room. Many of the attendees felt elevated to a higher state of humanity this day. During the lunch Jason was presented with a small gift from the Society by Stephen Baxter, a well known science fiction author who has followed in the tradition of Stapledon and Clarke. Jason said he was really enjoying the day and found the experience moving. He said his entire family were appreciative for the event and the respect shown to his distant relative.
The BIS and Stapledon already have a long history together. On the 9th of October 1948 Stapledon gave a wonderful lecture to members of the society at the invitation of Arthur C.Clarke. It took place at St.Martin’s School, 107 Charing Cross Road, London. The BIS advert read: “In his opening lecture Dr.Stapledon will discuss the profound ethical, philosophical and religious questions which will undoubtedly arise from interplanetary exploration, the possibility of finding intelligent life on other worlds, colonization of planets, interstellar communication, and the possibility of telepathic communication”. Stapledon wrote many books in his life, including Odd John, Sirius, Worlds of Wonder, Darkness and Light. But it is for Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) that he is most famous. From these incredible books sprang a range of ideas such as planetary terraforming, genetic engineering, human evolution, transcendence, Dyson Spheres, interplanetary genocide, and the cosmic mind, to name just a few. Arguably the daring works of Stapledon are as important an influence on our culture as the works of William Shakespeare, and yet Stapledon is not very well known throughout the world.
Image (top): Olaf Stapledon. The second image is of Jason Shenai, a Stapledon relative, accepting a gift from the British Interplanetary Society as presented by Stephen Baxter. Credit: Kelvin Long.
Consciousness and Convergence
To discuss his work some Stapledon thinkers came together on this special day. Kelvin Long (co-Chairman) discussed the concept of “universal mentality” and asked if it was at least credible. He pointed to possible physical limitations in the human brain due to the way neurons and axons were ‘wired’ and said this had been foreseen in Stapledon’s literature. Long argued that to become more intelligent we would converge further with technology, Homo Sapiens becoming Homo Electronicus, as Clarke had called it. Long said this would bring about a coupling to the extent that minds could join and the idea of a group mentality or cosmic union would become feasible. He discussed our own self-awareness that we are conscious and indeed aware of each other. He referred to work by the physicist Freeman Dyson who had argued in his book Disturbing the Universe that mind does appear to play a role in reality. This includes the observer dependence in the quantum description of reality and the potential for all our observations being represented by the analogue of a quantum wave function. He discussed the Hawking-Hartle wave function of the Universe. Long also talked about the various cosmic co-incidences in the universe, such as the many physical constants just being right for life, or even intelligent life to form, so-called anthropic reasoning. He ended with a discussion on the laws of physics and in particular the special theory of relativity, which demands the constancy of the speed of light. He said this would place fundamental limitations on any universal mentality or indeed the Star Maker, on how ‘it’ communicates with those that inhabit the universe. He said this law would have to be broken in order for the ‘Supreme Moment of the Cosmos’ (a term from Star Maker) to ever be feasible for all of the inhabitants of the universe simultaneously.
Andy Sawyer had visited from the Science & Science Fiction Library Special Collections and Archive of the University of Liverpool. He spoke about “The Future and Stapledon’s Visions” and quoted from Last and First Men directly: “The romance of the far future, then, is the attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values”. He talked about many of the books and ideas that had influenced Stapledon’s work in some way, such as The March of Intellect (1829) which depicted fantastic modes of transport such as balloons and steam transport. He referred to George Griffith’s images from The Angel of the Revolution (1893) and Olga Romanoff (1894). Charles Green had even set a major long distance record in a balloon by flying a distance of 480 miles, a record not broken until 1907. These sorts of developments would have found their way into Stapledon’s perspective on the world. Sawyer said that Stapledon showed that the idea of flight was linked to that of change. The culture of the First Men’s 24th-century World-State is based, technologically and spiritually, on aircraft. Sawyer impressed the audience by putting up a time chart that Stapledon had constructed for Last and First Men, complete with colored lines. Later, Andy would talk about the good work being done by the University of Liverpool Science Fiction Foundation, founded in 1971 and supporting 30,000 books and magazines in the fields of science fiction and related genres. The collection includes the Olaf Stapledon Archive and the Eric Frank Russell and John Wyndham Archives.
Patrick Parrinder, a former Professor of English at the School of English & American Literature, University of Reading, discussed “The Earth is My Footstool: Wells, Stapledon, and the Idea of the Post-Human”. Parrinder referred to Stapledon’s early life in Egypt and suggested that his mythical avatar was the Sphinx. His fiction was the portal to the mysteries of cosmic existence, unraveling the Sphinx’s riddle of the transformations of the human animal, and it does this with a Sphinx-like abstraction from domestic emotions and personal relationships. He said the Eighteenth Men whose outlook dominates in Last and First Men and Last Men in London are, we are told, both human and animal in nature, like the old Egyptian deities with animal heads. He said that later H.G.Wells had also taken the Sphinx as his symbol in a substantial work of fiction, The Time Machine, which stands alone among Wells’ novels for its unremittingly bleak view of human destiny. Stapledon apparently claimed not to have read this book when he wrote Last and First Men. The talk covered so much ground and in such a scholarly way it is impossible to do it justice in this brief article and the above is merely a snapshot of what was covered.
Kelvin Long presented a paper on behalf of Greg Matloff, Emeritus Associate Professor and Adjunct Associate Professor, New York City College of Technology. This talk was one of the most fascinating presentations of the day and was on the subject of “Star Consciousness: An Alternative to Dark Matter”. Matloff had looked for an alternative to explain the dark matter problem and proposed the hypothesis that stars may be conscious, as an exercise in philosophical speculation in the spirit of Stapledon’s literature. He pointed to models of stellar radiation pressure and stellar winds which failed to account for the anomalous stellar velocities and instead proposed psychokinetic action, a principle claimed to be now demonstrated in quantum fluctuations. He also pointed towards Parenago’s discontinuity to explain how stars can adjust their galactic velocity. Cool, red stars were said to move around the galaxy faster than hot, blue stars. Molecules were also said to be rare or non-existent in the spectra of hot, blue stars. If stars were ever found to be conscious, this would present a problem for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in terms of how we communicate with them. The presentation ended by saying that Descartes argued in favor of a separation of consciousness from the physical world but possibly, the entire universe may be conscious.
Technology and Paradox
After lunch Richard Osborne (co-Chairman) and a member of the BIS Council, spoke about “Dyson Spheres”. These are hypothesized artificial habitats built around a star by a civilization with sufficiently advanced technology, able to capture as much as possible of the power output of the star. Osborne said the idea had originated in 1927 from J.D.Bernal but Stapledon had included a reference to the concept in his book Star Maker: “Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated, and rifled of their prodigious stores of sub-atomic energy.” The physicist Freeman Dyson, after whom the concept was named, worked on the idea in some detail in 1960, in a paper published in Science titled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation”. Osborne described the various other spin-off concepts that had evolved from the original idea, including Dyson Swarms, Dyson Statite Bubbles and Dyson Shells. Other astroengineering megastructure concepts were described including Matrioshka Brains, Shkadov Thrusters, Klemplerer Rosettes, Alderson Disks and of course Ringworlds, now made famous by Larry Niven’s excellent novel of the same name.
Image: Richard Osborne presenting his work on Dyson Spheres. Credit: Kelvin Long.
Stephen Baxter then took the stage for an interesting discussion on “Where was Everybody? Olaf Stapledon & The Fermi Paradox”. He opened with a quote from Stapledon’s ‘Interplanetary Man’ lecture: “If, by one means or another, man does succeed in communicating with intelligent races in remote worlds, then the right aim will be to enter into mutual understanding and appreciation with them, for mutual enrichment and the further expression of the spirit. One can imagine some sort of cosmical community of worlds”. Baxter said that Stapledon had communicated with both H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke although it doesn’t appear that H.G. Wells had any influence on the work of Stapledon’s two key publications, Last and First Men and Star Maker. He described the Fermi paradox first presented by the Italian born physicist Enrico Fermi in the summer of 1950 and pointed out it is unlikely Stapledon heard of the paradox, as he sadly passed away in September of that same year. Baxter said that the Fermi Paradox had turned out to be a good organizing principle and a great plot generator for science fiction whilst also being a deepening paradox. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence had seen the discovery of exotic biologies on Earth, habitable realms in the solar system, the discovery of many exoplanets, the invention of multiple contact strategies, and yet there had been 50 years of silence. He said that most of the Fermi Paradox solutions tended to fall into one of three categories; ETI is here; ETI exists but has not communicated; ETI does not exist. Baxter said that both Fermi and Stapledon were cosmic thinkers but the visions of Stapledon were still not found to be consistent with the paradox that Fermi had seen that one afternoon in 1950.
Finally, Ian Crawford, a Reader in Planetary Science & Astrobiology from Birkbeck College, London, gave a masterful exposition on “Stapledon’s Interplanetary Man: A ‘Commonwealth of Worlds’ & The Ultimate Purpose of Space Colonization”. Crawford described the three main futures that Stapledon had defined; speedy (self-inflicted) annihilation, creation of a world-wide tyranny (implied stagnation), and the founding of a new kind of world where every body works for the good of the common human enterprise. But he said there are other possibilities Stapledon had not considered, such as the creation of tyrannies that may not result in technological stagnation and may still be compatible with space exploration. He said space exploration can still proceed without the prior creation of social or political utopias and pointed to Project Apollo as an example of how nation state competition had still led to progress in space.
Crawford also said that Stapledon appeared to downplay the economic and scientific motivations for space exploration, yet the former is important for maximizing human well-being and the latter is a key component of human intellectual development. He spoke about the race we appear to be in now, between cosmic fulfillment and cosmic death. A situation echoed by our current dilemma, to become a spacefaring civilization or face stagnation and decay. Crawford made the important point that in thinking about space exploration we had to justify why we want another planet and what we are going to do with it, given that we already have a planet and have not treated the Earth very well. He asked whether before we consider this question, we should consider what man ought to do first with himself. Crawford ended by pointing towards the September 2011 publication of “The Global Exploration Roadmap” by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group and said that if Stapledon were here today he would have approved of this as a sign of positive progress that humanity is starting to work together as a global community in the exploration of space.
Image: Ian Crawford discussing the possibilities in Stapledon’s fictional futures. Credit: Kelvin Long.
Kelvin Long rounded up the day with two quotes that he thought Stapledon would have approved of. The first was from Carl Sagan: “The Universe is not required to be in harmony with human ambitions”. The second was from William Hartmann: “Space exploration must be carried out in a way so as to reduce, not aggravate, tensions in human society”. In a foreword to an Orion Books reissue of Star Maker, science fiction writer Brian Aldiss said of Stapledon: “He is too challenging for comfort. The scientifically minded mistrust the reverence in the work; the religious shrink from the idea of a creator who neither loves nor has need of love from his creations”. It is well known that Arthur C. Clarke was influenced by Stapledon’s Last and First Men and he said: “No other book had a greater influence on my life…[It] and its successor Star Marker are the twin summits of [Stapledon's] literary career”. Clarke’s work had embraced hard science fiction but with an almost mystical tone to some of his stories. Long speculated that perhaps this is a good place to be for a writer, at the boundary between what we know to be true and what we can only speculate may be possible, the boundary between reality and imagination. As C.S.Lewis once said of Stapledon, he was a corking good writer. Now is the time for others to discover the literature of Olaf Stapledon, and the imagination that sprang from the dreams within his grand philosophy. It is fitting and proper to end an article on Olaf Stapledon by giving him the final word:
“Is it credible that our world should have two futures? I have seen them. Two entirely distinct futures lie before mankind, one dark, one bright; one the defeat of all man’s hopes, the betrayal of all his ideals, the other their hard-won triumph.”
Dr. William Olaf Stapledon, Darkness and the Light (1942)
A full article on the BIS symposium will be submitted to the society’s magazine Spaceflight. The papers from the symposium will appear in a special issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Stapledon’s work, especially Star Maker and Last and First Men, remains widely available.