Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 14

Neptune

1. Bird’s-Eye View

I HAVE told man’s story up to a point about half-way from his origin to his annihilation, Behind lies the vast span which includes the whole Terrestrial and Venerian ages, with all their slow fluctuations of darkness and enlightenment. Ahead lies the Neptunian age, equally long, equally tragic perhaps, but more diverse, and in its last phase incomparably more brilliant. It would not be profitable to recount the history of man on Neptune on the scale of the preceding chronicle. Very much of it would be incomprehensible to terrestrials, and much of it repeats again and again, in the many Neptunian modes, themes that we have already observed in the Terrestrial or the Venerian movements of the human symphony. To appreciate fully the range and subtlety of the great living epic, we ought, no doubt, to dwell on its every movement with the same faithful care. But this is impossible to any human mind. We can but attend to significant phrases, here and there, and hope to capture some fragmentary hint of its vast intricate form, And for the readers of this book, who are themselves tremors in the opening bars of the music, it is best that I should dwell chiefly on things near to them, even at the cost of ignoring much that is in fact greater.

Before continuing our long flight let us look around us. Hitherto we have passed over time’s fields at a fairly low altitude, making many detailed observations. Now we shall travel at a greater height and with speed of a new order. We must therefore orientate ourselves within the wider horizon that opens around us; we must consider things from the astronomical rather than the human point of view. I said that we were halfway from man’s beginning to his end, Looking back to that remote beginning we see that the span of time which includes the whole career of the First Men from Pithecanthropus to the Patagonian disaster is an unanalysable point. Even the preceding and touch longer period between the first mammal and the first man, some twenty-five millions of terrestrial years, seems now inconsiderable. The whole of it, together with the age of the First Men, may be said to lie half-way between the formation of the planets, two thousand million years earlier, and their final destruction, two thousand million years later, Taking a still wider view, we see that this aeon of four thousand million years is itself no more than a moment in comparison with the sun’s age. And before the birth of the sun the stuff of this galaxy had already endured for aeons as a nebula. Yet even those aeons look brief in relation to the passage of time before the myriad great nebula themselves, the future galaxies, condensed out of the all-pervading mist in the beginning. Thus the whole duration of humanity, with its many sequent species and its incessant downpour of generations, is but a flash in the lifetime of the cosmos.

Spatially, also, man is inconceivably minute. If in imagination we reduce this galaxy of ours to the size of an ancient terrestrial principality, we must suppose it adrift in the void with millions of other such principalities, very remote from one another. On the same scale the all-embracing cosmos would bulk as a sphere whose diameter was some twenty times greater than that of the lunar orbit in your day; and somewhere within the little wandering asteroid-like principality which is our own universe, the solar system would be an ultramicroscopic point, the greatest planet incomparably smaller.

We have watched the fortunes of eight successive human species for a thousand million years, the first half of that flicker which is the duration of man. Ten more species now succeed one another, or are contemporary, on the plains of Neptune. We, the Last Men, are the Eighteenth Men. Of the eight preNeptunian species, some, as we have seen, remained always primitive; many achieved at least a confused and fleeting civilization, and one, the brilliant Fifth, was already wakening into true humanity when misfortune crushed it. The ten Neptunian species show an even greater diversity. They range from the instinctive animal to modes of consciousness never before attained. The definitely sub-human degenerate types are confined mostly to the first six hundred million years of man’s sojourn on Neptune. During the earlier half of this long phase of preparation, man, at first almost crushed out of existence by a hostile environment, gradually peopled the huge north; but with beasts, not men. For man, as man, no longer existed. During the latter half of the preparatory six hundred million years, the human spirit gradually awoke again, to undergo the fluctuating advance and decline characteristic of the preNeptunian ages. But subsequently, in the last four hundred million years of his career on Neptune, man has made an almost steady progress toward full spiritual maturity.

Let us now look rather more closely at these three great epochs of man’s history.

2. Da Capo

It was in desperate haste that the last Venerian men had designed and fashioned the new species for the colonization of Neptune. The mere remoteness of the great planet, moreover, had prevented its nature from being explored at all thoroughly, and so the new human organism was but partially adapted to its destined environment. Inevitably it was a dwarf type, limited in size by the necessity of resisting an excessive gravitation. Its brain was so cramped that everything but the hare essentials of humanity had to be omitted from it. Even so, the Ninth Men were too delicately organized to withstand the ferocity of natural forces on Neptune. This ferocity the designers had seriously underestimated; and so they were content merely to produce a miniature copy of their own type. They should have planned a hardy brute, lustily procreative, cunning in the struggle for physical existence, but above all tough, prolific, and so insensitive as to be scarcely worthy of the name man. They should have trusted that if once this crude seed could take root, natural forces themselves would in time conjure from it something more human. Instead, they produced a race cursed with the inevitable fragility of miniatures, and designed for a civilized environment which feeble spirits could not possibly maintain in a tumultuous world. For it so happened that the still youthful giant, Neptune, was slowly entering one of his phases of crustal shrinkage, and therefore of earthquake and eruption. Thus the frail colonists found themselves increasingly in danger of being swallowed in sudden fiery crevasses or buried under volcanic dust, Moreover, their squat buildings, when not actually being trampled by lava streams, or warped and cracked by their shifting foundations, were liable to be demolished by the battering-ram thrust of a turbulent and massive atmosphere. Further, the atmosphere’s unwholesome composition killed all possibility of cheerfulness and courage in a race whose nature was doomed to be, even in favourable circumstances, neurotic.

Fortunately this agony could not last indefinitely. Little by little, civilization crumbled into savagery, the torturing vision of better things was lost, man’s consciousness was narrowed and coarsened into brute-consciousness. By good luck the brute precariously survived.

Long after the Ninth Men had fallen from man’s estate, nature herself, in her own slow and blundering manner, succeeded where man had failed. The brute descendants of this human species became at length well adapted to their world. In time there arose a wealth of sub-human forms in the many kinds of environment afforded by the lands and seas of Neptune. None of them penetrated far toward the Equator, for the swollen sun had rendered the tropics at this time far too hot to support life of any kind. Even at the pole the protracted summer put a great strain on all but the most hardy creatures.

Neptune’s year was at this time about one hundred and sixty-five times the length of the old terrestrial year. The slow seasonal change had an important effect on life’s own rhythms. All but the most ephemeral organisms tended to live through at least one complete year, and the higher mammals survived longer. At a much later stage this natural longevity was to play a great and beneficial part in the revival of man. But, on the other hand, the increasing sluggishness of individual growth, the length of immaturity in each generation, retarded the natural evolutionary process on Neptune, so that compared with the Terrestrial and Venerian epochs the biological story now moves at a snail’s pace.

After the fall of the Ninth Men the sub-human creatures had one and all adopted a quadruped habit, the better to cope with gravity. At first they had indulged merely in occasional support from their knuckles, but in time many species of true quadrupeds had appeared. In several of the running types the fingers, like the toes, had grown together, and a hoof had developed, not on the old fingertips, which were bent back and atrophied, but on the knuckles.

Two hundred million years after the solar collision innumerable species of sub-human grazers with long sheep-like muzzles, ample molars, and almost ruminant digestive systems, were competing with one another on the polar continent. Upon these preyed the sub-human carnivora, of whom some were built for speed in the chase, others for stalking and a sudden spring. But since jumping was no easy matter on Neptune, the cat-like types were all minute. They preyed upon man’s more rabbit-like and rat-like descendants, or on the carrion of the larger mammals, or on the lusty worms and beetles. These had sprung originally from vermin which had been transported accidentally from Venus. For of all the ancient Venerian fauna only man himself, a few insects and other invertebrates, and many kinds of micro-organisms, succeeded in colonizing Neptune. Of plants, many types had been artificially bred for the new world, and from these eventually arose a host of grasses, flowering plants, thick-trunked bushes, and novel sea-weeds. On this marine flora fed certain highly developed marine worms; and of these last, some in time became vertebrate, predatory, swift and fish-like. On these in turn man’s own marine descendants preyed, whether as sub-human seals, or still more specialized subhuman porpoises. Perhaps most remarkable of these developments of the ancient human stock was that which led, through a small insectivorous batlike glider, to a great diversity of true flying mammals, scarcely larger than humming birds, but in some cases agile as swallows.

Nowhere did the typical human form survive. There were only beasts, fitted by structure and instinct to some niche or other of their infinitely diverse and roomy world.

Certainly strange vestiges of human mentality did indeed persist here and there even as, in the fore-limbs of most species, there still remained buried the relics of man’s once cunning fingers. For instance, there were certain grazers which in times of hardship would meet together and give tongue in cacophonous ululation; or, sitting on their haunches with forelimbs pressed together, they would listen by the hour to the howls of some leader, responding intermittently with groans and whimpers, and working themselves at last into foaming madness. And there were carnivora which, in the midst of the spring-time fervour, would suddenly cease from love-making, fighting, and the daily routine of hunting, to sit alone in some high place day after day, night after night, watching, waiting; until at last hunger forced them into action.

Now in the fullness of time, about three hundred million terrestrial years after the solar collision, a certain minute, hairless, rabbit-like creature, scampering on the polar grasslands, found itself greatly persecuted by a swift hound from the south, The sub-human rabbit was relatively unspecialized, and had no effective means of defence or flight. It was almost exterminated. A few individuals, however, saved themselves by taking to the dense and thick-trunked scrub, whither the hound could not follow them. Here they had to change their diet and manner of life, deserting grass for roots, berries, and even worms and beetles. Their fore-limbs were now increasingly used for digging and climbing, and eventually for weaving nests of stick and straw. In this species the fingers had never grown together. Internally the fore-paw was like a minute clenched fist from the elongated and exposed knuckles of which separate toes protruded. And now the knuckles elongated themselves still further, becoming in time a new set of fingers. Within the palm of the new little monkey-hand there still remained traces of man’s ancient fingers, bent in upon themselves.

As of old, manipulation gave rise to clearer percipience. And this, in conjunction with the necessity of frequent experiments in diet, hunting, and defence, produced at length a real versatility of behaviour and suppleness of mind. The rabbit throve, adopted an almost upright gait, continued to increase in stature and in brain. Yet, just as the new hand was not merely a resurrection of the old hand, so the new regions of the brain were no mere revival of the atrophied human cerebrum, but a new organ, which overlaid and swallowed up that ancient relic. The creature’s mind, therefore, was in many respects a new mind, though moulded to the same great basic needs. Like his forerunners, of course, he craved food, love, glory, companionship. In pursuit of these ends he devised weapons and traps, and built wicker villages. He held pow-wows. He became the Tenth Men.

3. Slow Conquest

For a million terrestrial years these long-armed hairless beings were spreading their wicker huts and bone implements over the great northern continents, and for many more millions they remained in possession without making further cultural progress; for evolution, both biological and cultural, was indeed slow on Neptune. At last the Tenth Men were attacked by a microorganism and demolished. From their ruins several primitive human species developed, and remained isolated in remote territories for millions of decades, until at length chance or enterprise brought them into contact. One of these early species, crouched and tusked, was persistently trapped for its ivory by an abler type, till it was exterminated. Another, long of muzzle and large of base, habitually squatted on its haunches like the kangaroo. Shortly after this industrious and social species had discovered the use of the wheel, a more primitive but more war-like type crashed into it like a tidal wave and overwhelmed it. Erect, but literally almost as broad as they were tall, these chunkish and bloody-minded savages spread over the whole arctic and sub-arctic region and spent some millions of years in monotonous reiteration of progress and decline; until at last a slow decay of their germ-plasm almost ended man’s career. But after an aeon of darkness, there appeared another thick-set, but larger brained, species. This, for the first time on Neptune, conceived the religion of love, and all those spiritual cravings and agonies which had flickered in man so often and so vainly upon Earth and Venus. There appeared again feudal empires, militant nations, economic class wars, and, not once but often, a world-state covering the whole northern hemisphere. These men it was that first crossed the equator in artificially cooled electric ships, and explored the huge south. No life of any kind was discovered in the southern hemisphere; for even in that age no living matter could have crossed the roasting tropics without artificial refrigeration. Indeed, it was only because the sun’s temporary revival had already passed its zenith that even man, with all his ingenuity, could endure a long tropical voyage.

Like the First Men and so many other natural human types, these Fourteenth Men were imperfectly human. Like the First Men, they conceived ideals of conduct which their imperfectly organized nervous systems could never attain and seldom approach. Unlike the First Men, they survived with but minor biological changes for three hundred million years. But even so long a period did not enable them to transcend their imperfect spiritual nature. Again and again and again they passed from savagery to world-civilization and back to savagery. They were captive within their own nature, as a bird in a cage. And as a caged bird may fumble with nest-building materials and periodically destroy the fruit of its aimless toil, so these cramped beings destroyed their civilizations.

At length, however, this second phase of Neptunian history, this era of fluctuation, was brought to an end. 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, We must not stay to watch the struggle of this great-headed man to overcome his one serious handicap, excessive weight of cranium and unwieldy proportions of body. Suffice it that after a long-drawn-out immaturity, including one great mechanized war between the northern and southern hemispheres, the Fifteenth Men outgrew the ailments and fantasies of youth, and consolidated themselves as a single world-community. This civilization was based economically on volcanic power, and spiritually on devotion to the fulfilment of human capacity. It was this species which, for the first time on Neptune, conceived, as an enduring racial purpose, the will to remake human nature upon an ampler scale.

Henceforth in spite of many disasters, such as another period of earthquake and eruption, sudden climatic changes, innumerable plagues and biological aberrations, human progress was relatively steady. It was not by any means swift and sure. There were still to be ages, often longer than the whole career of the First Men, in which the human spirit would rest from its pioneering to consolidate its conquests, or would actually stray into the wilderness. But never again, seemingly, was it to be routed and crushed into mere animality.

In tracing man’s final advance to full humanity we can observe only the broadest features of a whole astronomical era. But in fact it is an era crowded with many thousands of long-lived generations. Myriads of individuals, each one unique, live out their lives in rapt intercourse with one another, contribute their heart’s pulses to the universal music, and presently vanish, giving place to others. All this age-long sequence of private living, which is the actual tissue of humanity’s flesh, I cannot describe. I can only trace, as it were, the disembodied form of its growth.

The Fifteenth Men first set themselves to abolish five great evils, namely, disease, suffocating toil, senility, misunderstanding, ill-will. The story of their devotion, their many disastrous experiments and ultimate triumph, cannot here be told. Nor can I recount how they learned and used the secret of deriving power from the annihilation of matter, nor how they invented ether ships for the exploration of neighbouring planets, nor how, after ages of experiments, they designed and produced a new species, the Sixteenth, to supersede themselves.

The new type was analogous to the ancient Fifth, which had colonized Venus. Artificial rigid atoms had been introduced into its bone-tissues, so that it might support great stature and an ample brain; in which, moreover, an exceptionally fine-grained cellular structure permitted a new complexity of organization. “Telepathy,” also, was once more achieved, not by means of the Martian units, which had long ago become extinct, but by the synthesis of new molecular groups of a similar type. Partly through the immense increase of mutual understanding, which resulted from “telepathic” rapport, partly through improved co-ordination of the nervous system, the ancient evil of selfishness was entirely and finally abolished from the normal human being. Egoistic impulses, whenever they refused to be subordinated, were henceforth classed as symptoms of insanity. The sensory powers of the new species were, of course, greatly improved; and it was even given a pair of eyes in the back of the head. Henceforth man was to have a circular instead of a semicircular field of vision. And such was the general intelligence of the new race that many problems formerly deemed insoluble were now solved in a single flash of insight.

Of the great practical uses to which the Sixteenth Men put their powers, one only need be mentioned as an example. They gained control of the movement of their planet. Early in their career they were able, with the unlimited energy at their disposal, to direct it into a wider orbit, so that its average climate became more temperate, and snow occasionally covered the polar regions. But as the ages advanced, and the sun became steadily less ferocious, it became necessary to reverse this process and shift the planet gradually nearer to the sun.

When they had possessed their world for nearly fifty million years, the Sixteenth Men, like the Fifth before them, learned to enter into past minds, For them this was a more exciting adventure than for their forerunners, since they were still ignorant of Terrestrial and Venerian history. Like their forerunners, so dismayed were they at the huge volume of eternal misery in the past, that for a while, in spite of their own great blessings and spontaneous gaiety, existence seemed a mockery. But in time they came to regard the past’s misery as a challenge. They told themselves that the past was calling to them for help, and that somehow they must prepare a great “crusade to liberate the past.” How this was to be done, they could not conceive; but they were determined to bear in mind this quixotic aim in the great enterprise which had by now become the chief concern of the race, namely the creation of a human type of an altogether higher order.

It had become clear that man had by now advanced in understanding and creativeness as far as was possible to the individual human brain acting in physical isolation. Yet the Sixteenth Men were oppressed by their own impotence. Though in philosophy they had delved further than had ever before been possible, yet even at their deepest they found only the shifting sands of mystery. In particular they were haunted by three ancient problems, two of which were purely intellectual, namely the mystery of time and the mystery of mind’s relation to the world. Their third problem was the need somehow to reconcile their confirmed loyalty to life, which they conceived as embattled against death, with their ever-strengthening impulse to rise above the battle and admire it dispassionately.

Age after age the races of the Sixteenth Men blossomed with culture after culture. The movement of thought ranged again and again through all the possible modes of the spirit, ever discovering new significance in ancient themes. Yet throughout this epoch the three great problems remained unsolved, perplexing the individual and vitiating the policy of the race.

Forced thus at length to choose between spiritual stagnation and a perilous leap in the dark, the Sixteenth Men determined to set about devising a type of brain which, by means of the mental fusion of many individuals, might waken into an altogether new mode of consciousness. Thus, it was hoped, man might gain insight into the very heart of existence, whether finally to admire or loathe. And thus the racial purpose, which had been so much confused by philosophical ignorance, might at last become clear.

Of the hundred million years which passed before the Sixteenth Men produced the new human type, I must not pause to tell, They thought they had achieved their hearts’ desire; but in fact the glorious beings which they had produced were tortured by subtle imperfections beyond their makers’ comprehension. Consequently, no sooner had these Seventeenth Men peopled the world and attained full cultural stature, than they also bent all their strength to the production of a new type, essentially like their own, but perfected. Thus after a brief career of a few hundred thousand years, crowded with splendour and agony, the Seventeenth gave place to the Eighteenth, and, as it turns out, the Last, human species. Since all the earlier cultures find their fulfilment in the world of the Last Men, I pass over them to enlarge somewhat upon our modern age.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30