An Olaf Stapledon Reader

Syracuse University Press
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Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) - philosopher, novelist, educator, and social activist - had an imagination unlike that of any other author. Along with H. G. Wells he is remembered as one of the most original pioneers of twentieth-century science fiction.
This anthology of Stapledon's work offers many of his fictional gems, including sections of his best-known novels, Last and First Men, Darkness and the Light, and Star Maker, and the complete test of a novella, The Flames: A Fantasy and the story "Old Man in New World." Many previously unpublished writings, such as Stapledon's essays, poems, memoirs, and letters round out this collection.
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About the author

Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) was born near Liverpool and educated at Balliol College, Oxford and Liverpool University. After spending eighteen months working in a shipping office in Liverpool and Port Said, he lectured extramurally for Liverpool University in English Literature and industrial history. He served in France from 1915 until 1919 with the Friends Ambulance Unit and then lectured again for Liverpool University in psychology and philosophy. His novels include First and Last Men, Last Men in London, Star Maker and Odd John.

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Additional Information

Syracuse University Press
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Published on
Dec 31, 1997
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Biography & Autobiography / General
Literary Collections / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
Literary Criticism / Science Fiction & Fantasy
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An introductory note seems called for to explain to the reader the origin of the following strange document, which I have received from a friend with a view to publication. The author has given it the form of a letter to myself, and he signs himself with his nickname, "Cass," which is an abbreviation of Cassandra. I have seldom met Cass since we were undergraduates together at Oxford before the war of 1914. Even in those days he was addicted to lurid forebodings, hence his nickname.
My last meeting with him was in one of the great London blitzes of 1941, when he reminded me that he had long ago prophesied the end of civilization in world-wide fire. The Battle of London, he affirmed, was the beginning of the long-drawn-out disaster.

Cass will not, I am sure, mind my saying that he always seemed to us a bit crazy: but he certainly had a queer knack of prophesy, and though we thought him sometimes curiously unable to understand the springs of his own behaviour, he had a remarkable gift of insight into the minds of others. This enabled him to help some of us to straighten out our tangles, and I for one owe him a debt of deep gratitude. He saw me heading for a most disastrous love affair, and by magic (no other word seems adequate) he opened my eyes to the folly of it. It is for this reason that I feel bound to carry out his request to publish the following statement. I cannot myself vouch for its truth. Cass knows very well that I am an inveterate sceptic about all his fantastic ideas. It was on this account that he invented my nickname. "Thos," which most of my Oxford friends adopted. "Thos," of course, is an abbreviation for Thomas, and refers to the "doubting Thomas" of the New Testament.

Cass, I feel confident, is sufficiently detached and sane to realize that what is veridical for him may be sheer extravagance for others, who have no direct experience by which to judge his claims. But if I refrain from believing, I also refrain from disbelieving. Too often in the past I have known his wild prophesies come true.

The head of the following bulky letter bears the address of a well-known mental home.


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William Olaf Stapledon is best remembered for the extraordinary works of speculative fiction he published between 1930 and 1950. As a novelist, he was known as the spokesman for the Age of Einstein and has influenced writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Arthur C. Clarke, and Doris Lessing. This biography is the first to draw on a vast body of unpublished and private documents - interviews, correspondence, archival material, and papers in private hands - to reveal fully the internal struggles that shaped Stapledon's life and reclaim for public attention a distinctive voice of the modern era. Late in his life in an unpublished "letter to the future" Stapledon unwittingly provided the rationale for his biography: "It is just possible that my very obscurity may fit me to speak more faithfully for my period than any of its great unique personalities". A pacifist in World War I, an advocate of European unity and world government, one of the first teachers in the Workers' Educational Association, and an early protestor against apartheid, Stapledon turned utopian beliefs into practical politics. With roots in the shipping worlds of Devon, Liverpool, and the Suez Canal, he was transformed from a self-described provincial on the margins of English literary and political life into a visionary idealist who attracted the attention of scientists, journalists, and novelists, and, given his left-wing political affiliations, even the F.B.I. Stapledon's novels - Last and First Men, Star Maker, Odd John, and Sirius - have gathered a passionate following, and they have seldom been out of print in the last twenty-five years. But the personal experiences and political commitments that shaped this creativework have, until now, barely been known. Robert Crossley's work reveals how, in public and in private, in his social activism as in his fiction, Olaf Stapledon embodied many of the modern era's anxieties and hopes that allow his works to continue to speak to and for the future.
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