SF Masterwork of the Week: Star Maker

Although we have featured Star Maker before as Masterwork of the Week, we were prompted to do so again, following on from last week’s Last and First Men, after listening to the 200th episode of the always-excellent Coode Street Podcast (recorded live at LonCon 3), and hearing the legendary Robert Silverberg wax lyrical on the boundless imagination of Olaf Stapledon.

We therefore repeat last September’s post, where, courtesy of our good friends at SFX we republish their SFX Book Club article on the novel. And so, we turn to Gollancz‘s resident master of wide-screen SF, Stephen Baxter, multi-award-winning author, BSFA president and collaborator with Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Sir Terry Pratchett, to introduce us to Star Maker by the influential Olaf Stapledon . . .

Star Maker, which is about the quest for ultimate meaning, is one of the most ambitious and important SF novels ever written. But do you know anybody who’s actually read it?

Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), writer and philosopher, was born to well-off parents on the Wirral. Work in an ambulance unit in World War I and a family shipping agency in Port Said left him with a sense of pacifism and of the importance of community among races. It wasn’t until he was 44 that his first novel, Last and First Men, was published. He used fiction to explore his philosophical ideas – especially his conviction that humans are hopelessly ill-equipped to perceive ultimate truth (as anybody who has tried to read a mobile phone manual will know).

Stapledon’s masterpiece was published in 1937, “when Europe is in danger of a catastrophe worse than that of 1914,” he wrote. But, “perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars . . . may strengthen our charity towards one another.”

It opens: “One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out onto the hill . . .” The unnamed narrator, a man living somewhere outside London, is transported on a stunning psychical journey. Human history is fast-forwarded, “thousands of millions of persons… flashing into existence, one after the other.” The whole two-billion-year history of Last and First Men is dismissed in a paragraph.

And then there are the aliens. The wandering mind encounters many species, increasingly unlike us. Worlds unite telepathically, and grope towards utopia, or wage immense wars. Even the stars prove to be alive. A united cosmic mind sets out in search of the Star Maker, the architect of reality, “the very source of all cosmical light and life and mind”. It’s like Dante’s Divine Comedy, another journey beyond the universe in search of God.

But Stapledon out-Dantes Dante. In a sequence of staggering Egan-like invention we see an infinite “hypercosmical” series of creations, sketches by the Star Maker: a cosmos with more than one timescale, a cosmos with music as a space dimension. But the universes are “bright but trivial bubbles”, their purpose only to enable the Star Maker itself to grow. “That this should be the upshot of all our lives, this scientist’s, no, artist’s, keen appraisal! And yet I worshipped!” In the end the protagonist returns to a troubled Earth, our little human woes now placed in the context of “abysses that [open] up on every side”.

Stapledon didn’t actually know much about genre science fiction. He drew more on the science of his time, especially cosmology and biology. But his book, full of original thinking on such topics as the far future, time travel and terraforming, was very influential. Stapledon’s vision of races joining together in cosmic projects underpins the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, radio astronomers listening for friendly interstellar messages. And his work was a crucial link in the development of British SF, bridging the generations between H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur C. Clarke. In fact, Wells and Stapledon were lunch buddies. Wells, 20 years older, was impressed by Stapledon’s speculations about alien life. To Stapledon, Wells was like “one of those famous mythical beasts, like the lion and the unicorn, that no-one actually meets.”

As for Clarke, a 13-year-old Somerset farmer’s son, he discovered one of Stapledon’s novels in a Minehead library: “No book before or since ever had such an impact on my imagination.” Just as Wells met Stapledon, so Stapledon met Clarke, who encouraged Stapledon to join his British Interplanetary Society.

More than 70 years after its publication, Star Maker soars above almost all other SF. But why is it so little read? Well, it is a bit bracing. There are no real characters, no real plot. And you get a harsh sense of perspective. It’s like a gigantic arrow pointing to the basement of creation, marked: YOU ARE HERE. It was Clarke who rendered Stapledon’s huge ideas into human stories – a growing boy in The City and the Stars, a bereft mother in Childhood’s End. But without Stapledon there would have been no Clarke as we know him, and modern SF would be much diminished. Be the first on your block to read Star Maker, and be gobsmacked.


Star Maker is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Olaf Stapledon’s books at his author page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This piece was written by Stephen Baxter and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Stephen Baxter is the author of the acclaimed Xeelee sequence of hard SF novels, the Time Odyssey books with Arthur C. Clarke and the Long Earth books with Terry Pratchett. His latest novel is Proxima, which is available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook. Stephen Baxter’s website is www.stephen-baxter.com and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.