Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 6

Transition

1. The First Men at Bay

BY one of those rare tricks of fortune, which are as often favourable as hostile to humanity, an Arctic exploration ship had recently been embedded in the pack-ice for a long drift across the Polar sea. She was provisioned for four years, and when the catastrophe occurred she had already been at sea for six months. She was a sailing vessel; the expedition had been launched before it was practicable to make use of the new source of power. The crew consisted of twenty-eight men and seven women. Individuals of an earlier and more sexual race, proportioned thus, in such close proximity and isolation, would almost certainly have fallen foul of one another sooner or later. But to Patagonians the arrangement was not intolerable. Besides managing the whole domestic side of the expedition, the seven women were able to provide moderate sexual delight for all, for in this people the female sexuality was much less reduced than the male. There were, indeed, occasional jealousies and feuds in the little community, but these were subordinated to a strong esprit de corps. The whole company had, of course, been very carefully chosen for comradeship, loyalty, and health, as well as for technical skill. All claimed descent from the Divine Boy. All were of the governing class. One quaint expression of the strongly parental Patagonian temperament was that a pair of diminutive pet monkeys was taken with the expedition.

The crew’s first intimation of the catastrophe was a furious hot wind that melted the surface of the ice. The sky turned black. The Arctic summer became a weird and sultry night, torn by fantastic thunderstorms. Rain crashed on the ship’s deck in a continuous waterfall. Clouds of pungent smoke and dust irritated the eyes and nose. Submarine earthquakes buckled the pack-ice.

A year after the explosion, the ship was labouring in tempestuous and berg-strewn water near the Pole. The bewildered little company now began to feel its way south; but, as they proceeded, the air became more fiercely hot and pungent, the storms more savage. Another twelve months were spent in beating about the Polar sea, ever and again retreating north from the impossible southern weather. But at length conditions improved slightly, and with great difficulty these few survivors of the human race approached their original objective in Norway, to find that the lowlands were a scorched and lifeless desert, while on the heights the valley vegetation was already struggling to establish itself, in patches of sickly green. Their base town had been flattened by a hurricane, and the skeletons of its population still lay in the streets. They coasted further south. Everywhere the same desolation. Hoping that the disturbance might be merely local, they headed round the British Isles and doubled back on France. But France turned out to be an appalling chaos of volcanoes. With a change of wind, the sea around them was infuriated with falling debris, often red hot. Miraculously they got away and fled north again. After creeping along the Siberian coast they were at last able to find a tolerable resting-place at the mouth of one of the great rivers. The ship was brought to anchor, and the crew rested. They were a diminished company, for six men and two women had been lost on the voyage.

Conditions even here must recently have been far more severe, since much of the vegetation had been scorched, and dead animals were frequent. But evidently the first fury of the vast explosion was now abating.

By this time the voyagers were beginning to realize the truth. They remembered the half jocular prophecies that the new power would sooner or later wreck the planet, prophecies which had evidently been all too well founded. There had been a world-wide disaster; and they themselves had been saved only by their remoteness and the Arctic ice from a fate that had probably overwhelmed all their fellow men.

So desperate was the outlook for a handful of exhausted persons on a devastated planet, that some urged suicide. All dallied with the idea, save a woman, who had unexpectedly become pregnant. In her the strong parental disposition of her race was now awakened, and she implored the party to make a fight for the sake of her child. Reminded that the baby would only be born into a life of hardship, she reiterated with more persistence than reason, “My baby must live.”

The men shrugged their shoulders. But as their tired bodies recovered after the recent struggle, they began to realize the solemnity of their position. It was one of the biologists who expressed a thought which was already present to all. There was at least a chance of survival, and if ever men and women had a sacred duty, surely these had, for they were now the sole trustees of the human spirit. At whatever cost of toil and misery they must people the earth again.

This common purpose now began to exalt them, and brought them all into a rare intimacy. “We are ordinary folk,” said the biologist, “but somehow we must become great.” And they were, indeed, in a manner made great by their unique position. In generous minds a common purpose and common suffering breed a deep passion of comradeship, expressed perhaps not in words but in acts of devotion. These, in their loneliness and their sense of obligation, experienced not only comradeship, but a vivid communion with one another as instruments of a sacred cause.

The party now began to build a settlement beside the river. Though the whole area had, of course, been devastated, vegetation had soon revived, from roots and seeds, buried or windborne. The countryside was now green with those plants that had been able to adjust themselves to the new climate. Animals had suffered far more seriously. Save for the Arctic fox, a few small rodents, and one herd of reindeer, none were left but the dwellers in the actual Arctic seas, the Polar bear, various cetaceans, and seals. Of fish there were plenty. Birds in great numbers had crowded out of the south, and had died off in thousands through lack of food, but certain species were already adjusting themselves to the new environment. Indeed, the whole remaining fauna and flora of the planet was passing through a phase of rapid and very painful readjustment. Many well-established species had wholly failed to get a footing in the new world, while certain hitherto insignificant types were able to forge ahead.

The party found it possible to grow maize and even rice from seed brought from a ruined store in Norway. But the great heat, frequent torrential rain, and lack of sunlight, made agriculture laborious and precarious. Moreover, the atmosphere had become seriously impure, and the human organism had not yet succeeded in adapting itself. Consequently the party were permanently tired and liable to disease.

The pregnant woman had died in child-birth, but her baby lived. It became the party’s most sacred object, for it kindled in every mind the strong parental disposition so characteristic of Patagonians.

Little by little the numbers of the settlement were reduced by sickness, hurricanes and volcanic gases. But in time they achieved a kind of equilibrium with their environment, and even a certain strenuous amenity of life. As their prosperity increased, however, their unity diminished. Differences of temperament began to be dangerous. Among the men two leaders had emerged, or rather one leader and a critic. The original head of the expedition had proved quite incapable of dealing with the new situation, and had at last committed suicide. The company had then chosen the second navigating officer as their chief, and had chosen him unanimously. The other born leader of the party was a junior biologist, a man of very different type. The relations of these two did much to determine the future history of man, and are worthy of study in themselves; but here we can only glance at them. In all times of stress the navigator’s authority was absolute, for everything depended on his initiative and heroic example. But in less arduous periods, murmurs arose against him for exacting discipline when discipline seemed unnecessary. Between him and the young biologist there grew up a strange blend of hostility and affection; for the latter, though critical, loved and admired the other, and declared that the survival of the party depended on this one man’s practical genius.

Three years after their landing, the community, though reduced in numbers and in vitality, was well established in a routine of hunting, agriculture and building. Three fairly healthy infants rejoiced and exasperated their elders. With security, the navigator’s genius for action found less scope, while the knowledge of the scientists became more valuable. Plant and poultry-breeding were beyond the range of the heroic leader, and in prospecting for minerals he was equally helpless. Inevitably as time passed he and the other navigators grew restless and irritable; and at last, when the leader decreed that the party should take to the ship and explore for better land, a serious dispute occurred. All the sea-farers applauded; but the scientists, partly through clearer understanding of the calamity that had befallen the planet, partly through repugnance at the hardship involved, refused to go.

Violent emotions were aroused; but both sides restrained themselves through well-tried mutual respect and loyalty to the community. Then suddenly sexual passion set a light to the tinder. The woman who, by general consent, had come to be queen of the settlement, and was regarded as sacred to the leader, asserted her independence by sleeping with one of the scientists. The leader surprised them, and in sudden rage killed the young man. The little community at once fell into two armed factions, and more blood was shed. Very soon, however, the folly and sacrilege of this brawl became evident to these few survivors of a civilized race, and after a parley a grave decision was made.

The company was to be divided. One party, consisting of five men and two women, under the young biologist, was to remain in the settlement. The leader himself, with the remaining nine men and two women, were to navigate the ship toward Europe, in search of a better land. They promised to send word, if possible, during the following year.

With this decision taken the two parties once more became amicable. All worked to equip the pioneers. When at last it was the time of departure, there was a solemn leave-taking. Every one was relieved at the cessation of a painful incompatibility; but more poignant than relief was the distressed affection of those who had so long been comrades in a sacred enterprise.

It was a parting even more momentous than was supposed. For from this act arose at length two distinct human species.

Those who stayed behind heard no more of the wanderers, and finally concluded that they had come to grief. But in fact they were driven West and South-west past Iceland, now a cluster of volcanoes, to Labrador. On this voyage through fantastic storms and oceanic convulsions they lost nearly half their number, and were at last unable to work the ship. When finally they were wrecked on a rocky coast, only the carpenter’s mate, two women, and the pair of monkeys succeeded in clambering ashore.

These found themselves in a climate far more sultry than Siberia; but like Siberia, Labrador contained uplands of luxuriant vegetation. The man and his two women had at first great difficulty in finding food, but in time they adapted themselves to a diet of berries and roots. As the years passed, however, the climate undermined their mentality and their descendants sank into abject savagery, finally degenerating into a type that was human only in respect of its ancestry.

The little Siberian settlement was now hard-pressed but single-minded. Calculation had convinced the scientists that the planet would not return to its normal state for some millions of years; for though the first and superficial fury of the disaster had already ceased, the immense pent-up energy of the central explosions would take millions of years to leak out through volcanic vents. The leader of the party, by rare luck a man of genius, conceived their situation thus. For millions of years the planet would be uninhabitable save for a fringe of Siberian coast. The human race was doomed for ages to a very restricted and uncongenial environment. All that could be hoped for was the persistence of a mere remnant of civilized humanity, which should be able to lie dormant until a more favourable epoch. With this end in view the party must propagate itself, and make some possibility of cultured life for its offspring. Above all it must record in some permanent form as much as it could remember of Patagonian culture. “We are the germ,” he said. “We must play for safety, mark time, preserve man’s inheritance. The chances against us are almost overwhelming, but just possibly we shall win through.”

And so in fact they did. Several times almost exterminated at the outset, these few harassed individuals preserved their spark of humanity. A close inspection of their lives would reveal an intense personal drama; for, in spite of the sacred purpose which united them, almost as muscles in one limb, they were individuals of different temperaments. The children, moreover, caused jealousy between their parentally hungry elders, There was ever a subdued, and sometimes an open, rivalry to gain the affection of these young things, these few and precious buds on the human stem. Also there was sharp disagreement about their education. For though all the elders adored them simply for their childishness, one at least, the visionary leader of the party, thought of them chiefly as potential vessels of the human spirit, to be moulded strictly for their great function. In this perpetual subdued antagonism of aims and temperaments the little society lived from day to day, much as a limb functions in the antagonism of its muscles.

The adults of the party devoted much of their leisure during the long winters to the heroic labour of recording the outline of man’s whole knowledge. This task was very dear to the leader, but the others often grew weary of it. To each person a certain sphere of culture was assigned; and after he or she had thought out a section and scribbled it down on slate, it was submitted to the company for criticism, and finally engraved deeply on tablets of hard stone. Many thousands of such tablets were produced in the course of years, and were stored in a cave which was carefully prepared for them. Thus was recorded something of the history of the earth and of man, the outlines of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and geometry. Each scribe set down also in some detail a summary of his own special study, and added a personal manifesto of his own views about existence. Much ingenuity was spent in devising a vast pictorial dictionary and grammar, with which, it was hoped, the remote future might interpret the whole library.

Years passed while this immense registration of human thought was still in progress. The founders of the settlement grew feebler while the eldest of the next generation were still adolescent. Of the two women, one had died and the other was almost a cripple, both martyrs to the task of motherhood. A youth, an infant boy, and four girls of various ages — on these the future of man now depended. Unfortunately these precious beings had suffered from their very preciousness. Their education had been bungled. They had been both pampered and oppressed. Nothing was thought too good for them, but they were overwhelmed with cherishing and teaching. Thus they came to hold the elders at arm’s length, and to weary of the ideals imposed on them. Brought into a ruined world without their own consent, they refused to accept the crushing obligation toward an improbable future. Hunting, and the daily struggle of a pioneering age, afforded their spirits full exercise in courage, mutual loyalty, and interest in one another’s personality. They would live for the present only, and for the tangible reality, not for a culture which they knew only by hearsay. In particular, they loathed the hardship of engraving endless verbiage upon granitic slabs.

The crisis came when the eldest girl had crossed the threshold of physical maturity. The leader told her that it was her duty to begin bearing children at once, and ordered her to have intercourse with her half-brother, his own son. Having herself assisted at the last birth, which had destroyed her mother, she refused; and when pressed she dropped her graving tool and fled. This was the first serious act of rebellion. In a few years the older generation was deposed from authority. A new way of life, more active, more dangerous, zestful and careless, resulted in a lowering of the community’s standard of comfort and organization, but also in greater health and vitality. Experiments in plant and stock-breeding were neglected, buildings went out of repair; but great feats of hunting and exploration were undertaken. Leisure was given over to games of hazard and calculation, to dancing, singing and romantic story-telling. Music and romance, indeed, were now the main expression of the finer nature of these beings, and became the vehicles of obscure religious experience. The intellectualism of the elders was ridiculed. What could their poor sciences tell of reality, of the many-faced, never-for-a-moment-the-same, superbly inconsequent, and ever-living Real? Man’s intelligence was all right for hunting and tillage in the world of common sense; but if he rode it further afield, he would find himself in a desert, and his soul would starve. Let him live as nature prompted. Let him keep the young god in his heart alive. Let him give free play to the struggling, irrational, dark vitality that sought to realize itself in him not as logic but as beauty.

The tablets were now engraved only by the aged.

But one day, after the infant boy had reached the early Patagonian adolescence, his curiosity was roused by the tail-like hind limbs of a seal. The old people timidly encouraged him. He made other biological observations, and was led on to envisage the whole drama of life on the planet, and to conceive loyalty to the cause which they had served.

Meanwhile, sexual and parental nature had triumphed where schooling had failed. The young things inevitably fell in love with each other, and in time several infants appeared.

Thus, generation by generation, the little settlement maintained itself with varying success, varying zestfulness, and varying loyalty toward the future. With changing conditions the population fluctuated, sinking as low as two men and one woman, but increasing gradually up to a few thousand, the limit set by the food capacity of their strip of coast. In the long run, though circumstances did not prevent material survival, they made for mental decline. For the Siberian coast remained a tropical land bounded on the south by a forest of volcanoes; and consequently in the long run the generations declined in mental vigour and subtlety. This result was perhaps due in part to too intensive inbreeding; but this factor had also one good effect. Though mental vigour waned, certain desirable characteristics were consolidated. The founders of the group represented the best remaining stock of the first human species. They had been chosen for their hardihood and courage, their native loyalty, their strong cognitive interest. Consequently, in spite of phases of depression, the race not only survived but retained its curiosity and its group feeling. Even while the ability of men decreased, their will to understand, and their sense of racial unity, remained. Though their conception of man and the universe gradually sank into crude myth, they preserved a strong unreasoning loyalty towards the future, and toward the now sacred stone library which was rapidly becoming unintelligible to them. For thousands and even millions of years, after the species had materially changed its nature, there remained a vague admiration for mental prowess, a confused tradition of a noble past, and pathetic loyalty toward a still nobler future. Above all, internecine strife was so rare that it served only to strengthen the clear will to preserve the unity and harmony of the race.

2. The Second Dark Age

We must now pass rapidly over the Second Dark Age, observing merely those influences which were to affect the future of humanity.

Century by century the pent energy of the vast explosion dispersed itself; but not till many hundred thousand years had passed did the swarms of upstart volcanoes begin to die, and not till after millions of years did the bulk of the planet become once more a possible home for life.

During this period many changes took place. The atmosphere became clearer, purer and less turbulent. With the fall of temperature, frost and snow appeared occasionally in the Arctic regions, and in due course the Polar caps were formed again. Meanwhile, ordinary geological processes, augmented by the strains to which the planet was subjected by increased internal pressure, began to change the continents. South America mostly collapsed into the hollows blasted beneath it, but a new land rose to join Brazil with West Africa. The East Indies and Australia became a continuous continent. The huge mass of Thibet sank deeply into its disturbed foundations, lunged West, and buckled Afghanistan into a range of peaks nearly forty thousand feet above the sea. Europe sank under the Atlantic. Rivers writhed shiftingly hither and thither upon the continents, like tortured worms. New alluvial areas were formed. New strata were laid upon one another under new oceans. New animals and plants developed from the few surviving Arctic species, and spread south through Asia and America. In the new forests and grass-lands appeared various specialized descendants of the reindeer, and swarms of rodents. Upon these preyed the large and small descendants of the Arctic fox, of which one species, a gigantic wolflike creature, rapidly became the “King of Beasts” in the new order, and remained so, until it was ousted by the more slowly modified offspring of the polar bears. A certain genus of seals, reverting to the ancient terrestrial habit, had developed a slender snake-like body and an almost swift, and very serpentine, mode of locomotion among the coastal sand-dunes. There it was wont to stalk its rodent prey, and even follow them into their burrows. Everywhere there were birds. Many of the places left vacant by the destruction of the ancient fauna were now filled by birds which had discarded flight and developed pedestrian habits. Insects, almost exterminated by the great conflagration, had afterwards increased so rapidly, and had refashioned their types with such versatility, that they soon reached almost to their ancient profusion. Even more rapid was the establishment of the new micro-organisms. In general, among all the beasts and plants of the earth there was a great change of habit, and a consequent overlaying of old body-forms with new forms adapted to a new way of life.

The two human settlements had fared very differently. That of Labrador, oppressed by a more sweltering climate, and unsupported by the Siberian will to preserve human culture, sank into animality; but ultimately it peopled the whole West with swarming tribes. The human beings in Asia remained a mere handful throughout the ten million years of the Second Dark Age. An incursion of the sea cut them off from the south. The old Taimyr Peninsula, where their settlements clustered, became the northern promontory of an island whose coasts were the ancient valley-edges of the Yenessi, the Lower Tunguska and the Lena. As the climate became less oppressive, the families spread toward the southern coast of the island, but the sea checked them. Temperate conditions enabled them to regain a certain degree of culture. But they had no longer the capacity to profit much from the new clemency of nature, for the previous ages of tropical conditions had undermined them. Moreover, toward the end of the ten million years of the Second Dark Age, the Arctic climate spread south into their island. Their crops failed, the rodents that formed their chief cattle dwindled, their few herds of deer faded out through lack of food. Little by little this scanty human race degenerated into a mere remnant of Arctic savages. And so they remained for a million years. Psychologically they were so crippled that they had almost completely lost the power of innovation. When their sacred quarries in the hills were covered with ice, they had not the wit to use stone from the valleys, but were reduced to making implements of bone. Their language degenerated into a few grunts to signify important acts, and a more complex system of emotional expressions. For emotionally these creatures still preserved a certain refinement. Moreover, though they had almost wholly lost the power of intelligent innovation, their instinctive responses were often such as a more enlightened intelligence would justify. They were strongly social, deeply respectful of the individual human life, deeply parental, and often terribly earnest in their religion.

Not till long after the rest of the planet was once more covered with life, not till nearly ten million years after the Patagonian disaster, did a group of these savages, adrift on an iceberg, get blown southward across the sea to the mainland of Asia. Luckily, for Arctic conditions were increasing, and in time the islanders were extinguished.

The survivors settled in the new land and spread, century by century, into the heart of Asia. Their increase was very slow, for they were an infertile and inflexible race. But conditions were now extremely favourable. The climate was temperate; for Russia and Europe were now a shallow sea warmed by currents from the Atlantic. There were no dangerous animals save the small grey bears, an offshoot from the polar species, and the large wolf-like foxes. Various kinds of rodents and deer provided meat in plenty. There were birds of all sizes and habits. Timber, fruit, wild grains and other nourishing plants throve on the well-watered volcanic soil. The prolonged eruptions, moreover, had once more enriched the upper layers of the rocky crust with metals.

A few hundred thousand years in this new world sufficed for the human species to increase from a handful of individuals to a swarm of races. It was in the conflict and interfusion of these races, and also through the absorption of certain chemicals from the new volcanic soil, that humanity at last recovered its vitality.

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