Considering the convulsing world of 1937 on the eve of World War II, Olaf Stapledon introduced Star Maker with a powerful rationale for science fiction in a time of crisis:
“…[P]erhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis. …. In this belief, I have tried to construct an imaginative sketch of the dread but vital whole of things.”
I doubt any writer before or since has taken so literally the task of sketching “the whole of things” as a myth of the cosmic mind or done it so effectively.
Writers as diverse as Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf, among many others, have praised Stapledon’s work, especially Star Maker. Considering that Stapledon trained as a philosopher and had little acquaintance with science fiction before writing his novels, he had an enormous influence on the field. Star Maker proved to be a sourcebook of ideas for the work of countless writers.
It is easy to see why. Even though Stapledon does away with conventional plot, his narrator describes in mesmerizing detail a journey across the cosmos. It begins in the midst of a personal crisis when a man walks out on a hill near his home.
The Search for Meaning
He is overwhelmed by a sense of unreality and futility in daily life as well as the delirium of the world. Yet as he reflects on the littleness of life in the vast emptiness of space, his vision suddenly changes, first sweeping across the whole extent of the earth and then lifting him into space. Beneath him, the dwindling earth appears as a pebble in the vast expanse of stars. In this disembodied form, he finds himself traveling through space with bewildering speed.
So begins an epic journey in search of the source of being itself and the community of other minds that may be able to make sense of life in the context of a seemingly infinite universe. Though Stapledon was agnostic on religious beliefs, he felt strongly the yearning to grasp the mysteries of existence. He made this essentially religious impulse the driving force that impels the journey forward to its ineffable climax in a glimpse of the supreme creative force of the cosmos.
A Community of Psychic Travelers
The narrator travels as a psychic entity from world to world in search of sentient beings across the galaxy. He finds a way to infuse himself into their minds and even to communicate with them while sharing their mental space. As the number of these psychic travelers increases, they sense a common purpose as galactic explorers.
They realize that their journeys are not simply personal adventures but part of a larger force of consciousness. They feel a separate awareness emerging that sets aside the cultural uniqueness of each individual and focuses on “those attributes that were essential to the spirit.”
Thus emerges a cosmic mind that exerts an attractive force toward other intelligences that are also seeking a wider understanding. This psychical force comes to determine the direction of travel, as they are drawn toward like-minded beings in different worlds.
The narrator, while participating in this larger consciousness, records his own impressions as the journey continues across hundreds of worlds. He finds civilizations at all stages, from the primitive level of poorly evolved creatures to advanced societies of beings more accomplished than humans. While many of the peoples he encounters are humanoid in form, though sharply different in appearance, others represent life forms based on totally different species.
There are “human echinoderms” evolved from a creature like a star-fish that had developed elaborate sense organs and specialized brains in multiple arms and eventually moved onto land and formed industrial civilizations. There are the nautiloids who evolved into ship-like structures of great intelligence that built their own civilization. Avian species on one planet combined in great swarms to form a single mind and consciousness, though the body remained multiple.
But the most advanced are symbionts who have combined advantageous features of radically different life forms. One of these combines the meditative nature of intelligent plant life with the active impulses of an animal nature. Another combines the abilities of an ichthyoid, submarine existence with a crustacean or arachnoid species that learned to live on land. They adapted physically to one another to form lifelong pairings with their bodies fitted together and sharing a joint intelligence.
Technologies and Civilizations
All of these species that achieve advanced intelligence must grapple with the problems of industrial production and its planetary effects. Their societies reach crisis points when they abuse the power that advanced technology brings with it.
One society develops a version of the internet and virtual experience through pocket radio sets and radio-brain-stimulation. Many use these sets for sexual broadcasting. The passion for “radio-bliss” becomes a drug for the lower classes as a substitute for economic reform.
Not only do the advanced societies achieve space travel. They also learn to manipulate the energy of stars by surrounding them with energy conversion spheres. They build swarms of artificial planets and move existing planets to new locations to make them more livable.
Perhaps the greatest feat of the most advanced beings is the merging of individual consciousness across whole populations, then worlds, then an entire galaxy, to form a cosmic mind.
Galactic Society of Worlds
The telepathic skill of this expanding cosmic mind in the most advanced culture becomes an irresistible force that embraces all the “awakened worlds.” Through telepathic communication, they call upon minds throughout the galaxy to form a utopia.
As they embrace a vast “galactic continent” in a Society of Worlds, these beings make radical changes. They take apart dying stars to use their energy for space travel and even move stars to new locations. But in the midst of the drive to advance even beyond one galaxy, they encounter unexpected setbacks.
The stars themselves have their own form of consciousness and begin to rebel.
The Minds of Stars and Galaxies
Some stars explode, obliterating all the planets and artificial worlds surrounding them. The Society of Worlds comes to realize that the stars are themselves alive and tries to communicate with them to enable the separate forms of life to live together.
Stapledon keeps pulling back from his mental map of the cosmos to vaster scales and perspectives that embrace ever grander levels of being and consciousness.
And there is always consciousness. Even the nebulae share the impulse of all forms of mind to reach out to create a mental union and understand whatever source they have come from.
They communicate with each other through gravitational stress. Messages take eons to spell out and millions of years to reach their destinations. “When the nebulae were at their prime, the whole cosmos reverberated with their talk.”
The Star Maker
The narrator and his group of galactic explorers, sharing in the expanding awareness, gain a new sense of time. Eons become minutes, as they perceive the whole life of the cosmos as a brief race against galloping time.
In that state, the narrator, as part of the cosmic mind, perceives the ultimate spiritual being of the universe. But this is only a blinding flash of clarity that immediately disappears.
What the narrator can describe is the after-effect of his vision, “an echo, a symbol, a myth, a crazy dream” of the Star Maker that comes to him as his journey nears its end.
A Myth of Creation
He sees this creator spinning out not just worlds of great diversity but whole universes that operate on different principles. There are some where individuals experience multiple temporal dimensions. In one, they dimly perceive their own alternative selves in other realities. In another, they zig-zag among time dimensions at different periods of their lives.
There are other universes (anticipating the multiverse concept) where individuals generate multiple time lines at every moment when choices have to be made. Every possibility can be realized at once in different zones of being.
At times, in this vision the Star Maker seems to view all the created worlds and universes and the vast scales of civilization and destruction they entail with cool indifference. He is without sympathy for all the suffering of the highly evolved beings living on these worlds, seeing them only as so many beautiful strands woven into one grand tapestry. At other times, though, these creations seem infused with love.
In the end, the narrator is exhausted by the effort to capture something that lies far beyond human experience and language. He can only summarize what he has seen as a “dread mystery, compelling adoration.”
The narrator wakes on the hillside near his home and looks across the earth again at the terrible struggles then underway in the world of 1937. He sees a vast conflict between good and evil in which everything humans hold dear is at risk. He senses two sources of light and hope in this darkness. One is “the little glowing atom” of human community. The other the cold light of the stars and the “hypercosmical reality” they represent. So this cosmic journey ends where it began but having gifted the traveler with a vastly wider consciousness of life.
Stapledon turned away from writing academic philosophy because he wanted to reach a wide audience using simpler language. The incredible abundance of ideas and detailed descriptions of technologies and strange worlds are indeed easy to grasp. But what I find most powerful is the often lyrical clarity and rhythmic flow of his style. There are few conventional dramatic scenes, yet the sustained narration of a fantastical journey to comprehend the cosmos becomes a myth of creation that is more compelling than any conventional page-turner.