Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Star Maker
Olaf Stapledon
Orion Millennium Books, 273 pages

Star Maker
Olaf Stapledon
Olaf Stapledon was born in 1886 on Merseyside and spent much of his childhood in Egypt. After an education at Abbotsholme School and Balliol, he taught in the Manchester Grammar School for a year. He went on to be a tutor in W.E.A. with classes up and down the North-West. In WWI, he served on a motor convoy of the Friends' Ambulance Unit, attached to the French army. After the war he went back to W.E.A. work, taking up philosophy/psychology and lecturing at the University of Liverpool. He died in 1950.

ISFDB Bibliography
Olaf Stapledon Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

This is one of those works that are revered by critics and studied in academia, but largely unread even by serious readers (a "serious reader " being defined as someone interested in intellectual engagement beyond entertainment). While Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf may have sparked general interest in the oldest of English long poems (and forebear of sword and sorcery fantasy) beyond lit majors who have to read it, I have to doubt that the Millennium SF Masterworks reissue of Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker will have similar results.

When the likes of Jorge Luis Borges blurb the book as a "prodigious novel," you know you're in for some tough sledding. It's not because the book is overly long (272 pages including a glossary and miscellaneous addendum), or that the language is difficult or archaic (written by an Englishman in the late 30s). It's just that it can be a bit, well, plodding. That's because this really isn't a novel -- there is little characterization and not much of a plot -- but a philosophical treatise in the tradition of Thomas More's Utopia or Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward in which the focus is on expounding ideas, not developing a story. In my graduate school science fiction seminar taught by the noted critic H. Bruce Franklin, Star Maker was left off the syllabus because it would take too long to read -- not because of its length, Franklin explained, but because every couple of pages you'd have to stop and think over for a while what you'd just read.

A lecturer in psychology and philosophy at Liverpool University and author of a number of fictional and non-fictional philosophical works, Stapledon was purportedly surprised to have his work identified as science fiction, perhaps because at the time the genre was synonymous with less-than-literary tales of Flash Gordon heroics and "babes in space." Certainly it is science fictional in the sense that it deals with then current concepts about the origins of the universe and Einsteinian physics which, at least to my limited understanding, seem more or less grounded in actual scientific thinking. It is philosophical in that it attempts to marry science with religion (though this of course is also an SF tradition dating back to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein) to come up with mutual areas of agreement. Indeed, Stapledon's thesis tracks with current intelligent-design theory (the Star Maker is God, though not the Father-God of traditional Christianity), which postulates some sort of rule-making authority for how the universe works.

It also contains spider-like creatures and interstellar travel, galactic empires and telepathic communication, also the stuff of pulp fiction. As Kim Stanley Robinson puts it, "Every few pages contain all the material of an ordinary science fiction novel, condensed to something like prose poetry." The problem, at least from a story-telling point-of-view, is that this material rarely rises above the level of a sketch. That's because Stapledon isn't interested in developing narrative about his fantastical (although it start outs with Darwinian notions of adaptation and survival of the fittest, Stapledon's aliens aren't any more scientifically sophisticated than pulp models that giants must live on giant worlds and have big noses to breathe methane) aliens, but to metaphorically meditate on the state of humanity. Given that the book was written by an English pacifist in the darkening days of Nazism and fascism spreading throughout Europe, it's not surprising that his depiction of the predilections of so-called intelligent life forms for war and strife isn't overly gracious. That said, there is an underlying optimism about the inherent capability for humanity to overcome its baser inclinations and the role it plays in the larger spiritual meaning and machinations of an immense universe of multiple universes.

This is all conveyed to us by an unnamed narrator who, musing one late night alone on his discontent about his small town life and marriage, is somehow or another (it's not clear why or how) telepathically transported to not only other worlds, but other galaxies and parallel universes. For each realm that he visits, the narrator is telepathically merged with one of the inhabitants, who then collectively proceed to visit and experience other parts of the universe, thus becoming a snowballing sort of immanent Borg that travels not only across galaxies and universes, but back and forth in time. (Interestingly, in what may be tellingly typical of the attitude of those who lived at the time of the British Empire, the inception of this vast intellectual/spiritual entity begins with a single Englishman.) Thus, the narrator is able to observe not only the beginning of the universe, but also its evolution and climax. Eventually, he meets the Star Maker, an intelligence that observes the distress of much of his creation, but has no motivation to intervene to correct it. Indeed, the torments of existence seem to be necessary to form its eventual, presumably planned, transcendence. Once returned to his human form, the narrator realizes that despite his infinitesimal insignificance to the immensity of creation, he nonetheless is a part of it, and is inextricably linked to what, even given his gift of time and space travelling, remains a wonderful, if ultimately ineffable, mystery.

So, who should read this book? Well, it's not the sort of thing you take to the beach. But if you have any interest in the history of science fiction or, more broadly speaking, the history of ideas, Stapledon and Star Maker is a must for your required reading list.

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide