There is a type of science-fiction writer whose work glances off the solar system, as it were, in the philosophical dazzle of an authorial eye. That is, the planets are not so much beings for their own sake of being, as stages or exemplars of psychological states or patterns of history that are the author's own special interest. And then it is a case of passing on to the next item (perhaps sadly, from the reader's point of view), for the worlds have fulfilled the particular intention, their purpose of being, for the author. They are staging-posts in a philosophy - and the over-all philosophy comes first.
Two such authors I revere, in this connection, are Olaf Stapledon and Philip K. Dick, both primarily authors of ideas working through physical environments as stage-settings for the ideas. The physical details of these worlds might be extremely well worked out, vivid and convincing. But there is a higher consideration: that of pure ideas.
Last and First Men – a book by Olaf Stapledon - but what kind of a book?
A 'psychoanalytic-mythic-history' –? Well yes, perhaps this may cover it, just. But it is not solely upon the epic scale: there is the intimate too. The ability to zoom far and near through time, from the general to the particular (such as, to the few survivors after the Fall of Patagonia, or the poignant tragedy of the Fourth Men). Stapledon is science-fiction's Magician of the zoom lens. In and out, far and near, the particular and the general, through the barely imaginable swathes of time. Most of all, it is the pathos and the depth – sometimes harrowing, sometimes amused - of empathy which is attached to the general and panoramic and collective treatments of history, in often such an intimately human way, however analytical and remote the ideas may often seem.
As we follow the 'career' (as Stapledon puts it) of Man, through the Martian Wars to the dying Earth and the destruction of our moon, and thence to humanity on Venus and the migration to Neptune – and so to the last of Man – through periods of eclipse and triumph, tragedy and stoic acceptance - the reader may have a sense of the great pillars of Stapledon's work, which give it such imposing structure. I think they are the supreme Aesthetic and the supreme Fatalism – and between these pillars are a myriad of sensitivities, as advanced Man finds out, with the discovery of how to journey back into the minds of the past, not just of Man but of all creatures.
The Aesthetic is a striving for a cosmic beauty through millions upon millions of years of history – and the inevitable failure of Man at each stage is the Fatalism which is, tragically, necessary to the beauty (according to Stapledon's philosophy). The pillars of Stapledon's work – with the historical sweep of each conception – define a genre of mythic history which overlaps that of science-fiction, and include such works as Tolkien's The Silmarillion as well as Asimov's Foundation novels. But Stapledon's stoicism – and his idea of the beauty that this brings – focus in and out through the harness of time, the result being both refreshing and tantalising to the reader: a unique contemplative history of mankind. As for the frustration - for instance, in the case of Patagonia, one sees what might have been, if only the Patagonians had realised that wind-and-wave-power was all they needed to attain utopia! In the case of the Second Men, there is a haunting loveliness (it has haunted me ever since I first read of the Second Men) which, however, could only emerge out of the chaos of the transition between two human species:
In the earlier species, indeed, the nervous system had maintained only a very precarious unity, and was all too liable to derangement by the rebellion of one of its subordinate parts. But in the second species the highest centres maintained an almost absolute harmony among the lower. Thus the moral conflict between momentary impulse and considered will, and again between private and public interest, played a very subordinate part among the Second Men. (Last and First Men, V11, 1)
There is a gentleness, as well as a detachment, conveyed through the style in this account which is very typical of Stapledon's work. This gentleness, this humanity, is reinforced by the habitual gathering into a point of intimacy and concentrated significance along the epic story, usually at those points when the author says something akin to: “It might all have gone well, had not one of those (dratted) accidents occurred!” (Sorry - I couldn't resist the exaggerated rendition of what is so effectively an understated refrain in Last and First Men!). Perhaps the most dramatic and moving of such points of intimacy is the decision of the Flying Men of Venus to plunge into a volcano, rather than go through the squalid agony of their own historical demise. And – back in time, some millions of years – there is the bronzed woman at the dawn of the First World State. What an extraordinary example of Stapledon's 'zoom lens', at the very beginning of such an historical quantum leap! And, when the secret of time-travel is revealed, the intimacy between past and present nearly dislocates Man's career through the solar system entirely – and this cataclysm is threatened because of one beautiful (and, in Stapledon, tragic) human attribute: that of empathy.
But then, there is surely hope in the sheer irony, the like of which I recently came across in the Rennaissance Stoic, Montaigne, by way of a wonderful study by Sarah Bakesell, which is, that from a philosophy of acceptance – Montaigne's 'amor fati' – there may come renewal, a rebirth. No where in Stapledon is this seen more clearly than in the account of the Fifteenth Men of Neptune:
At the close of the six hundred million years after the first settlement of the planet, unaided nature produced, in the Fifteenth human species, that highest form of natural man which she had produced only once before, in the Second species. And this time no Martians interfered. (Last and First Men, X1V, 3)
Exactly -! no Martians were cast into the game this time, Man was given another chance. Wonderful and noble indeed were the Second Men, and fortune (despite all the aeons of heartache) was able to provide another throw of the dice!
Stapledon's Aesthetic, and his Fatalism – and the very Physics of his science-fiction – come neatly together in his account of Venus and the Fifth Men:
. . . But again and again the very foundations of their science were shattered by some new discovery, so that they had patiently to reconstruct the whole upon an entirely new plan. At length, however, with the clear formulation of the principles of psycho-physics, in which the older psychology and the older physics were held, so to speak, in chemical combination, they seemed to have built upon the rock. In this science, the fundamental concepts of psychology were given a physical meaning, and the fundamental concepts of physics were stated in a psychological manner. Further, the most fundamental relations of the physical universe were found to be of the same nature as the fundamental principles of art. But, and herein lay mystery and horror even for the Fifth Men, there was no shred of evidence that this aesthetically admirable cosmos was the work of a conscious artist, nor yet that any mind would ever develop so greatly as to be able to appreciate the whole in all its detail and unity. (Last and First Men, X1, 4)
Here we have the essentials of Stapledon's thought: but the mystery is never solved, the horror never exorcised definitively. Life, the author avers (Last and First Men V, 3), is a game: “a terribly serious game, no doubt, but none the less a game.” The planets have fulfilled their turn, Earth no less than Venus and Neptune. We are left with truly awe-inspiring images: the soaring towers of the First World State of Earth, the seas of Venus, the vast spaces of Neptune. But they are stages for the ideas, for the troubling philosophy of this great genius of literature – not only of SF, but all literature.
Passing smoothly (or so I hope) to another genius, and one who – as regards style and general approach - could hardly be more different than Stapledon – Philip K. Dick. And yet, there is a similarity – and I would argue a vital one.
Both are primarily authors of ideas and are working through physical environments as stages for their ideas. For both authors, one could equally write a critique of their philosophy as for their fiction. Dick's work ranges by degrees – sometimes mundane and sometimes spiritual – towards the disclosure of a transcending reality. Hence the bewildered, the vulnerable, the questing characters of Philip K. Dick; and hence the sometimes hidden logic of the science - the organic working-out of a Dickian physical/mystical science, beneath the technologies of special effects (such as the robotic Lincolns and Stantons of We Can Build You). What is reality? How do we know it? What are the signs? Does it exist? Does it matter?
Dick's empiricism - as Stapledon's stoicism - is played out on other worlds – and, in Dick's writings, other dimensions with no obvious structure – but it is the ideas that count, always. To a greater extent than Stapledon's solar system, Dick's worlds are ironies, impressions of worlds that pass fleetingly, even more fleetingly than those along Stapledon's vast time-stage. In Solar Lottery, the inhabited part of the moon is a glorified pleasure-ground. However, the cold reality is experienced perhaps more starkly than in any other tale of this author when the telepath Wakeman, encased in his moon-suit, is feverishly scrawling in the dust of the moon's surface the information to Bentley that he has been duped by Herb Moore. What a sublime irony that, amidst all the technology of Man, he is reduced to writing in the dust!
The uniqueness of Philip K. Dick is the subtle balance which is held, with such an apparently easy intensity, between the Common Man and the Dilemma of the Unknown. There is never exegesis that shatters the soul, nor is there a glib accommodation towards extraneous concepts, in the form of aliens or pure ideas – for all remains on the human scale. Through the vividly realised characters, and the author's unstrained ability to get inside their innermost thoughts, there is one of the most emotionally moving explorations of science-fiction of any writer, and this I think is because the balance in Dick equals human dignity.
In the face of cosmic forces, this dignity – and the dogged integrity that is its force – is maintained, through thick and thin, in an often futile attempt to make some sense of what is going on.
In this, indeed, Stapledon's 'career' of man charts the same territory: human dignity, writ large over the boggling expanse of time, but very much sounding a similar note.
Dick, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – as in Ubik – reaches the rare articulateness between levels of science-fiction, psychological, technological, and mystical – a fluency which makes of the wondrous that which an be accepted. Stapledon has his 'zoom-lens' to bring intimacy and empathy amidst the huge sweep of time – and Dick has his deft irony and humour like a bridge between mankind and the beyond. But it is cumulative - the bridge-building is hardly a flash, but rather it is steady away. In the meantime the humour keeps us guessing:
“The road to the hell-layer is paved with second guessing.”
(The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Five)
“Let's talk about the lichen you brought back.”
“I obtained that legally; the Proxers didn't know I took any of it. They use it themselves, in religious orgies. As our Indians make use of mescal and peyotl . . .”
(The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Five)
With which, of course, we have presented to us the journeys of altered consciousness by way of the likes of Chew Z - similar to the restless experiences of the author himself - to find the ultimate reality.
This reaching out is one of the pillars of Dick's work, equivalent perhaps to Stapledon's Aesthetic. The other pillar in Dick is the idea of human dignity, equivalent to Stapledon's Stoicism. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is anchored to that reality by means of subtly developed relationships, such as that of Jason and Kathy, which recalls the older man-young girl relationship in Our Friends from Frolix 8. Jason and his world usher into being a great parody of Celebrity Culture, and the example of Jason suddenly not being recognised – in fact, becoming an 'unperson' – is an example of Dick's broad thematic sense of humour. The city with its disorientating lights and shadows, its decadence and crumminess, is more vividly evoked than in the rest of the Dick canon. Ah, technology! Has it ever been so lovingly and ironically dealt with by any other writer? The episode of the Great Celebrity appearing – to Heather – like a 'twerp fan' when he phones her again and again – such a refinement – even though almost a slapstick – of humour, and with that edge of tension and neurosis which is the stamp of Dick.
The fun poked at technology is sometimes gentle, with a certain whimsy, but the dystopias are real and terrifying enough - in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and Solar Lottery and The Penultimate Truth and others. One possible division of Dick's stories throughout his solar system is that of 'gadgets' and 'focus'. The gadgetry such as in The Zap Gun has the effect of centrifugal splattering that becomes a kind of poetry of effects, which arguably makes such tales as these the least profound. After all, whether indeed a 'retalwep' can retaliate against a 'sheep-dip Isolator' is of passing interest – and yet – and yet it takes on a being – dare I say a magic – of its own?
As do the glimpses of the solar system – who can forget the Venusian Wub, the telepathic roly-poly creature of this same novel, The Zap Gun? Maybe some readers can forget, but maybe they shouldn't! A soul inhabits a Venusian Wub, as it does those beings that come from beyond the solar system, too – as it does Lord Running Clam of Clans of the Alphane Moon – and it is the question of the soul, the ultimate and certain reality beyond all the ersatz realities, with which Dick is most concerned.
His work is the Baroque of SF, he lets rip, he hurtles, he meanders, he plunges – but he never really ever loses sight of the dignity of the puzzled, and the hurt, and the striving human being. He builds his stages, and then he moves on – as Stapledon's Fifth Men build their Venus and the Fifteenth Men build their Neptune, to work out, to fail – and then Man moves on, ever on, until the end.
Dick's journeys are more intrinsically chaotic – and there seems no inevitable end for Man – but still, there is the great journey of ideas and the great attempt to find out what on earth – and out of earth – life is all about?
In this, Olaf Stapledon and Philip K. Dick are akin. Not for these two writers is the permanent stage-set, the place-names and the roots and the adventures around these. For Stapledon and Dick veer crucially into a pure ideality. They desire to know, and they will paint any canvas, commit any outrage (in words), pass fleetly over any wonder, create any beauty, and destroy any beauty, in order to attempt their purest adventure in thought.