Science fiction has its immortals - authors whose impact was so tremendous that they belong in a class by themselves. Olaf Stapledon extended the boundaries of science fiction to the infinite, and there are few of the major authors who do not directly or indirectly owe him a great debt. This volume of his short science fiction and fantasy includes in addition to the five stories, an uncollected radio script from which this volume takes its title and an uncollected 1948 address to the British Interplanetary Society.
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 276
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Far Future Calling
Shelley successfully merged the Gothic tradition with science fiction; Poe established the importance of an atmosphere of scientific validity in the story; Verne accepted that precept and gained recognition for science fiction as a distinct and continuing literary form; and Wells proved that works could be written in that form which were true art.
Stapledon was a better stylist than Shelley or Verne, but it was the power of his imagination that made him great. He extended the boundaries of science fiction to the infinite, in terms of physical distance, time, evolution, philosophy, religion, “human” relationships, sex and virtually every area which our present civilization considers important, not excluding the arts. There are few of the outstanding modern authors who do not directly or indirectly owe him a great debt: Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Eric Frank Russell and Murray Leinster, to mention a very few.
His splendid saga of the entire history of the human race from the year 1930 to its end two billion years later in Last and First Men (1930), to be followed by the entire history of the universe in Star Maker (1937), are possibly the greatest feats of controlled imagination exhibited by any human to date in fiction or scientific speculation. His justly praised novels Odd John (1935), trying to establish the place of a true mental superman in a world of ordinary humans, and Sirius (1944), poetically and evocatively delineating the plight of a dog of truly human intelligence who physically could not hope to find a place among men and mentally did not belong with the canines, demonstrated that Stapledon was something more than just the possessor of a magnificent imagination.
His other excellent works of science fiction and fantasy all elaborate on some of the ideas or approaches found in the four basic works mentioned. Each is precious, because Stapledon left no great volume of fiction: Last Men in London (1932), Darkness and the Light (1942), Old Man in New World (1944), Death into Life (1946), The Flames (1947) and A Man Divided (1950). In 1976, an early draft of Star Maker in brief focus was published as Nebula Maker in England. A growing group of enthusiasts and scholars eagerly seek all of these books out as valued extensions and elaborations of Stapledon’s imagination and philosophy.
That is why this book takes on special importance. To put into book form five previously uncollected short stories and one uncollected radio script—all science fiction or fantasy—is a literary event. One of the stories, “The Man Who Became a Tree,” is published for the first time anywhere. It is a beautifully written fantasy in Stapledon’s best philosophical vein. “Modern Magician” is a tale of strange powers that can be classified as science fiction, published for the first time in 1979 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “Arms out of Hand” is a well-done fantasy of different personalities controlling one each of a man’s arms, which was originally published in the book Transformation No. 4, edited by Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece. “A World of Sound” was contributed to a volume titled Hotch Potch, edited by John Brophy in 1936 to raise funds for the Council of the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital, and tells of a man psychophysically entering the world of musical sounds as one would a human bloodstream or the second dimension. “Far Future Calling” was written as a radio script for the BBC and never produced, but it is actually a very condensed version of Last and First Men and a quite remarkable literary effort.
The most complete nonfiction codification of the imaginative philosophy that Stapledon expressed in Last and First Men appeared in a carefully prepared speech delivered from memory at the October 9, 1948, meeting of the British Interplanetary Society in London. The formal text of that talk, titled “Interplanetary Man,” was published in the November, 1948, issue of The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society and later included in an abbreviated form in Arthur C. Clarke’s anthology The Coming of the Space Age (1967). Mrs. Stapledon feels it contains a succinct embodiment of her husband’s outlook and felt it would offer an excellent idea of the scope of his thinking to those unacquainted with his master works.
My critical essay “Olaf Stapledon: Cosmic Philosopher,” which was included in my book Explorers of the Infinite (1963), contains an appraisal of Stapledon’s major works, not excluding his books on philosophy and ethics. I had always felt that there was too little known about a writer of such stature, so in 1976 I made a trip to England with the primary purpose of visiting Agnes Stapledon and securing the basic information toward a biography and a better understanding of so important a writer as Stapledon. The result, “Olaf Stapledon: The Man Behind the Works,” appears in this book and is in every sense an authorized biography, checked for accuracy by Mrs. Stapledon (who did not intrude upon my own opinion) as well as by Wolfgang Brueck, a friend of the family who lived with the Stapledons almost like an adopted son.
By circumstance, I was a personal witness to Olaf Stapledon’s only trip to the United States as a delegate to the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions’ Cultural and Scientific Conference for Peace at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, in March, 1949, and was present when he appeared as one of their speakers in Newark, N.J., on March 28, 1949. Knowing the background of the man, living the excitement of the moment, attending the actual meeting and then converting it into an editorialized report while it was fresh in my mind, succeeded in capturing the atmosphere of the moment in a manner that could never have been done as a retrospective. The result makes possible an intimate understanding of this pivotal event that altered the direction of his thinking and engendered a deep suspicion of the motives and nature of the revolutionaries who called him “comrade.” Previously published only as a pamphlet with a distribution of 112 copies for The Fantasy Amateur Press Association in 1949, it is here made generally accessible for the first time.
This volume is unified by the fact that all of its contents are previously uncollected science fiction or fantasy by Olaf Stapledon and an article by him dealing with the basis of such themes. The introduction, biography and special report are all written with the intent of illuminating the character and life of Olaf Stapledon. Collectively they form an essential link in the enjoyment and understanding of the works of Olaf Stapledon.
THE DAY WAS A SCORCHER. THE SHADE OF A GREAT solitary beech tree, lord of its field, invited the man to rest. He had been walking for some hours, and he felt ready for his sandwiches.
Sitting on the russet carpet of leaf mold and beech-mast, with his back against the great trunk, he looked up into the lucid, dappled green above him. Small birds appeared and disappeared among the branches, aerial mice. He laid a hand on a projecting root beside him. It was molded like muscle, a giant limb that gave the great trunk its grip upon the ground.
He took out of his pocket his little parcel of food. There were sandwiches of cheese and lettuce, cucumber and tomato, and a slab of fruitcake. Devouring the green stuff, he had a sudden, mildly disturbing fantasy that he was eating the flesh of his distant cousins. He smiled, and continued to relish his food.
The thought of cannibalism still haunted him when he had finished his cake and was lighting his pipe. The act seemed to him a cannibalistic burnt offering to the inhuman God.
He watched the smoke floating up toward the green ceiling. A squirrel, presumably an invader from the neighboring woods, finding its retreat cut off by the great human beast, began chattering and scolding, and scuttering from branch to branch overhead. Finally it ran out along a far-reaching bough and a precarious branchlet that bent under its weight. Thence it dropped groundward at the tree’s perimeter, to bound hurriedly toward the wood. Somewhere a woodpecker was tapping. When the man tapped the ash from his finished pipe, the bird desisted.
The man luxuriously stretched himself out full-length on the brown carpet and gazed upward. Minute patches of blue sky were little more than stars in the green heaven. Lazily he brushed away the gnats that hung in a tenuous cloud above his face. Then he thrust his fingers deeply into the leaf mold, pretending that they were roots. Profound peacefulness seemed to bathe his happily tired limbs. How much better to be here than sitting on an office stool or threading one’s way along crowded streets! This, he felt, was how he was meant to live, alone, unmoving, drinking in at every pore the quiet influence of nature, much as the tree was drinking sunlight through its leaves.
What would it be like, he wondered, to be a tree? Drowsily he tried to figure out the possible features of a tree’s consciousness, if indeed a tree was conscious at all. It might perhaps have sensations all over its vast and intricate surface. When the wind rocked it, it might feel its internal stresses. Of visual perception of form, it presumably knew nothing. And could it in any sense have desires, purposes, thoughts?
Musing thus, the man fell asleep at the foot of the tree. He did not know that he was asleep, for he went on thinking about the tree, forgetting his human status. Little by little, however, he realized that something queer was happening to him.
Strange sensations began intruding upon him. At first they were intermittent and incoherent, but presently they flooded him with novel experience, and gradually formed a coherent pattern. He realized that the quality of these sensations was not, after all, so very strange. He recognized pressures and warmths. But these familiar qualities were all a bit odd, and they grouped themselves into configurations wholly novel to him and inconsistent with the familiar configurations of his own body. These last he still vaguely felt, when he made an effort to attend to them. He knew that he was still lying on his back. He felt the soft gritty earth about his fingers and the gnats stinging his face. But in addition there was this other, separate system of sensations, and it was becoming increasingly obtrusive.
Little by little he became able to interpret the new experience under the influence (as he now realized) of his participation not only in the present but also in the past of the tree. Humanly, the whole life of the tree was entirely novel to him; yet arboreally, so to speak, it was familiar and intelligible to him through his present sharing in the tree’s past. Thus a mass of mild strains, rhythmically occurring, was at once recognized as located in the tree’s tossing and quivering topmost branchlets and foliage. There occurred warmth and light. Yes, he was intensely aware of light; though only as a diffuse radiance that afforded him nothing of spatial form save a vague perception of the general direction from which the sunlight impinged upon his leaves.
Concentrating his human attention on this or that feature of his arboreal experience, he was able to distinguish the large and mild strains and swayings of his upper branches and the internal compressions of his monumental trunk. On one side of his foothold on the ground, he felt an unusual slight pressure on his submerged roots. This his human intelligence inferred to be the weight of his prostrate human body. His attention was presently drawn to an exasperating irritation on one of his branches. Probably some wood lice, or other vermin, were at work under the bark. Humanly, he had a great desire to scratch the irritated member, but this was of course impossible. There were other such irritations here and there on his branches. One of these was quickly brought to an end by some rough but welcome external agency. Perhaps a woodpecker had devoured the vermin.
After a while, an increased agitation of his leaves was followed by a sudden end of warmth and a great reduction of light. Humanly he inferred that the wind had risen, and that the sun had been obscured by cloud. Then a few random chilly blows upon his windward leaves told him that it was beginning to rain. Presently the whole population of his leaves was receiving a downpour of these little blows, and an invigorating coolness was spreading over all his surface.
Humanly he decided that he had better rise and put on his mackintosh; but to his surprise he found that he had forgotten how to move. And more surprisingly, he did not care. Vaguely he felt the big drops falling on his face, but it was increasingly difficult to attend to his already remote human existence. Soon he ignored it entirely, for he was wholly concerned with the experiences of the tree. The wind had now risen to gale force, and his great branches were violently tossing. Even the mighty shaft of his trunk was laboring. And in his anchoring roots he felt considerable strain. He noted now a confusion of new sensations throughout his branches, a steady tremor in his leaves and twigs which his human intelligence attributed to the vibrations set up in them by the impact of rain and wind. In fact, in a strange arboreal way he was hearing the uproar of the storm. Meanwhile, leaves and twigs, and even a small branch, were torn from him causing a prickling irritation that rose here and there to mild pain. One more considerable branch broke under the strain and crashed to the ground. Sharp pain reverberated through all his members, and in his roots he felt the thud of the fallen branch upon the topsoil.
Torrential rain battered on his leaves. With a great effort he attended to his prone human body at the tree’s foot, an. . .
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