essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
The other day I finished re-reading a book I first read nearly 20 years ago, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. I am just as amazed at its imaginative scope as I was 20 years ago. Re-reading it now I recognise many of my basic ideas, probably derived from a first reading of the book: the value of community; the idea of sentience applied to other life forms; the ‘livingness’ of all creation; the idea of harmony as essential to an approach to ‘god’.
Stapledon’s book has been compared to Dante’s. I find the language beautiful, the thought intricate and marvelously well-constructed: at once a deeply felt work of spiritual vision, a work of incredible imaginative scope, a detailed reasoning of the possible construction of reality, a work of fiction that carries the reader along despite its complexity, and a work of poetry.
Star Maker was written in 1937. It caused a sensation at the time (H G Wells was still alive, a potent example of philosopher-opinion shaper-novelist). After a few years it was forgotten, until in the 60s academics took up ‘popular culture’ and a canon was constructed for science fiction. Neither Wells nor Stapledon would have been interested in science fiction…
Stapledon uses the dream metaphor, just as ambiguously as Dante. Dante in the middle of his life finds himself in a dark wood (a metaphor which becomes ‘real’ to form the poem). Stapledon lies on a hill top, thinking of mortality and looking at the stars. He falls asleep and dreams/has a vision/is transported through the solar system. Travelling from star to star he finds another earth, where similar but distinct beings to humans go through many of the struggles, disasters and triumphs which have marked human history. So Swift might have written, though Stapledon is philosophically detached.
Soon he is caught up in a spiritual union with a member of this other species and finds he is part of a group mind, in itself more than its two components can contribute to it.This new ‘I’ voyages further and finds many other species in the galaxy with some of whom the group ‘I’ melds to form a greater, more perceptive ‘I’ which is able to see and understand much more. Soon not merely a world mind, not merely a galactic mind but a cosmical mind is possible. This new mind becomes aware of the mode of being of suns and the galactic clouds themselves. The cosmical mind has inkings of the nature of the Star Maker, and through these inklings conceives of other creations and of their possible nature. The act of creation gives it some idea of the nature of the Star Maker, seen as an evolving being for whom creation and all possible cosmos is merely a stage.
Star Maker combines two modes used in other books by Stapledon, most notably Last and First Men. One is the concept of the group mind with powers of perception and realisation much greater than any single being. The other is that of scope, whereby what is seen is gradually revealed in a larger and yet larger context. Stapledon often uses this scale, playing up and down it as it were to create points by making a rapid change of perspective. And yet…as modern astronomy and nuclear physics confirm, the further one sees the more one realises how much more is unseen. The end of all this realisation is to see that the most that is possible of a cosmically united mind is to accept one’s part in the life of the Star Maker. Acceptance becomes joy. By realising to the extent of one’s power the possibilities inherent in community, in living and striving for a whole greater than one’s own needs, one can align oneself in the activities of ‘god’ as he ceaselessly (to us) creates himself.
Stapledon realises that much of this can become perverted and gives space to analyses of this. He also attempts to deal with the primary conflict caused by our perception of evil. His answer is that evil is a relative value (as when good comes of evil – temporal scale, or when evil to some results in good to the whole – spacial scale). He also sees evil as part of creation, serving some unknown purpose. The Star Maker is beyond good and evil, one of the many ways he is unknowable.
The book stimulates while it satisfies. Both a completed work of art, formally unified, it is also an exploration of concepts which can never be known. Its scope is such that it powerfully urges its readers to continue that exploration.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.