Review- Stapledon, “Star Maker”

Olaf Stapledon, “Star Maker” (1937) – Do people still say that things “blow their minds?” I feel like you get a lot less of that sort of rhetoric now that it’s associated with online goobers and the hucksters who fleece them. Maybe it’s just an artifact of when I grew up. I knew teens and very young adults who were into getting their minds blown and expanding them in the various by-then traditional countercultural ways. Maybe it makes sense, in my thirties, I know fewer such enthusiasts. Seemingly every surprise since 9/11 has sucked pretty hard and I think this has made my generation skeptical of the idea you’re going to surprise them in a good way, which seems pretty basic to the concept of having one’s mind blown.

So, did Olaf Stapledon “blow my mind” with “Star Maker?” To a certain extent, yes, he did. I don’t know if I can still manage the sort of feeling of a thirteen year old seeing “The Matrix” for the first time, but I did feel a certain degree of awe. Perhaps the feeling could be compared to finding an old holy text in your tradition that is new to you. None of it was truly new to me but seeing it in its original form was an interesting and even moving experience.

The feeling is both tempered and encouraged by the simplicity and starkness of the text. As Stapledon himself put it, by most literary standards, it fails as a novel. It’s closer to a fictional report. An anonymous Englishman is standing on a hill in the 1930s when all of a sudden his consciousness is flying among the stars. After a few chapters of learning to control his flight, the narrator finds intelligent life somewhere and learns to cohabitate the brains of its inhabitants. After learning of these “Other Humans” and their ways, he teaches a local philosopher how to also zoom his consciousness around and they go exploring the galaxy. By and by, they form a group mind with representatives of all of the intelligent life they find. They realize that with their minds, they not only travel faster than light, but that they travel back and forth in time. They use this to bear witness to the struggles of life in the cosmos.

And struggles there are, as the group’s mental travel, at first, only takes them to worlds experiencing something like “the crisis” as understood by someone like Stapledon, a pacifist and (non-communist) progressive of the 1930s. Industrial society leads to class and national conflicts, scientific progress undermines old spiritual verities, ideologies of both extreme individualism and extreme collectivism run rampant. In many respects, what Stapledon is getting at is a lack of balance, a concept that will become important to this sort of thought later in the century but seems wasn’t part of the vocabulary at the time. The narrator reports on various planets full of varying life forms, including plant-folk and what amount to big sentient boats, and how they cope with crises that sound a lot like what was going on on Earth at the time.

But this is a story, for much of its run anyway, about ascendance- a sort of secular scientific/spiritual “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Eventually, the group mind learns how to contact more advanced civilizations. Lead among them are a symbiotic race of fish and aquatic arachnids that seem to have both their technological and their spiritual game pretty well figured out. They can do space travel, and their minds are clear of “attachments” and distractions and aware of the interconnectedness of things- that appears to be what Stapledon means by “spiritual,” missing out in the western Buddhism craze by a few decades. But at every level of ascendance, there are pitfalls- technological disaster, the temptation of interstellar empire. The group mind witnesses terrible wars, all the more terrible as they force the enlightened civilizations to become warlike and de-civilize themselves. But advancements in technology and in spirituality, including telepathy, eventually do away with war and lead to a galactic utopia.

This is very much a story of the apotheosis of mind. Stapledon values peace and love but sees neither as necessary properties of mind. As it turns out, even the stars have minds, and have violent objections to being manipulated by the planetary powers, which nearly leads to galactic catastrophe. The nebulae have minds. Everything has a mind!

In the end, the group mind (Stapledon switches between “I” and “we” pronouns for it) encounters the titular Star Maker at the end of the cosmos. The group mind has now spent millions of years contemplating the cosmos, the way the design of it seems to point towards higher and higher complexity and unity. Stapledon makes much of how the simple human mind of the narrator, separated from the group mind, can’t even adequately describe the utopian societies (or even the more highly advanced dystopian ones). This might seem like a cop-out, but together with what Stapledon does get across, it convincingly conveys a sense of scale and grandeur. But at the same time, the group mind has witnessed untold pain and misery. For every intelligent race that made it into the galactic utopia, hundreds more got close and perished, and thousands or millions more never got beyond their own planet. Moreover, the galaxy is dying. Energy is running out, the laws of thermodynamics doing their thing. It won’t be possible for all of the galaxies of the cosmos to commune, reaching that final level up. What was the point?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away. We’ll just say the Star Maker sets the mode for the cosmos, as Stapledon understands it- mind, all the way down. Not love and not life- mind. The answers the Star Maker gives to the group mind narrator prove both deeply unsatisfactory but entirely consistent, and while the narrator briefly protests, he/they ultimately accept. He then gets beamed back to England. He knows what’s going to happen to Earth and our species and knows it’s not the happiest (or worst) story, but he’s determined to play his part in it anyway. In 1937, the light was dimming throughout the world with the rise of fascism and the threat of world war, but he ends with the two lights to guide us: the inner light of love and creativity, and the outer light of the stars, pointing to infinity, or, anyway, as close as our finite minds can get.

This book is dated in a lot of ways. Seemingly everywhere, even with the fish-sea-spider-symbiosis people, there are two sexes and two genders and they more or less map onto human men and women as understood by a (progressive) man of the time. While Stapledon respects the speed of light limit on physical travel, his mental travel is pretty magical. He gets a lot of tech stuff ahead of his time — Freeman Dyson more or less ganked the “Dyson sphere” from him — but Stapledon completely whiffs on computers or anything digital, understandably enough for 1937 I suppose, but there’s not even Capek-style robots anywhere.

Most of all, there is the more or less unquestioned hierarchy of joint technical and spiritual achievement that structures the entire book. He doesn’t shit on “primitive” people, good liberal that he was, but does pity them and consider them less than in terms of complexity. This is a stupid idea. Yes, pre-industrial people would have trouble understanding the internet if you explained it to them. But I have trouble understanding agriculture and the woods, certainly in the way people who lived their lives by them understood them. The idea that earlier times were simpler, for better or for worse, is a fallacy. Complexity comes in a lot of guises. Of course, fans of science and space exploration insist their enthusiasms are the most specialest — I mean complex! — of all things, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy it.

Still and all- I couldn’t help but be impressed and even moved by this small, strange book. I don’t quite belong to the faith tradition — space utopianism, more or less — of which it is a foundational text. It sounds nice and if life goes that way I’ll happily go along, but I don’t quite believe in it. Among other things, I think values other than mind alone have some claim on us, even if I mostly live the life of the mind myself. But I’m not a Christian (anymore) and some parts of the Bible are pretty impressive, too. As various vernacular editions of the good book laid the foundation for their respective languages’ literary traditions, so did “Star Maker” set out many of the tropes and priorities of far-future “ideas” scifi, including Ursula Le Guin, Iain Banks, Vernor Vinge, and so on. That the ur-text of the genre was set out in this simple, report-liturgy way, makes it all the more poignant, to me anyway. ****’

Review- Stapledon, “Star Maker”

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