|Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
Millennium SF Masterworks (Gollancz)
1999 London, paperback £6.99
ISBN 1 85798 807 8
Star Maker is a novel that defines 'sense of wonder.' From a hill near his safe suburban semi, a man travels the length and breadth of all eternity, exploring an infinity of new worlds and new civilisations.
This edition is in the Millennium 'SF Masterworks' series, and StarMaker could be the Masterwork of masterworks. It is a classic, hugely influential, but I didn't find it an easy read.
With no more than half a dozen lines of dialogue, Star Maker is mostly exposition -- a personal journal of the protagonist's enlightening exploration of the universe. The prose is dense, but so immensely imaginative (the more so considering it was first published in 1937) and so beautifully written, that one is drawn in by the sheer wonder of it all.
There's a strong moral, not to say religious, theme running through the book culminating in our hero's confrontation with the Star Maker himself. As the narrator relates his epic journey through time and space, he constantly compares everything to his -- and our -- experience on Earth, using the language of wonder to put what he sees in perspective:
'We should not for a moment consider even our best-established knowledge of existence as true. It is awareness only of the colours that our own vision paints on the film of one bubble in one strand of foam on the ocean of being.' (p 172)
This realisation that we can know only an infinitesimal part of the universe, such knowledge being a product of our own mechanisms of perception, is a significant philosophical stand. Stapledon seems to be teasing the reader. He spins this magnificent yarn, the story of existence itself, without telling us whether it's based on a true account or a dream.
The narrator travels from the beginning to the end of time. He doesn't know how this is possible. He doesn't know if he will get back to his own time, and his own home, safely.
Meanwhile he tells us about the alien societies he encounters on his travels. His reports, anthropological in style, detail how societies emerge, evolve, go to war, make peace, set out on epic stellar journeys, make mistakes, stagnate, degenerate to an earlier state, emerge once more, and so on.
Throughout his reports, Stapledon seems to be pointing up the aliens' misfortunes as salutary lessons for mankind. He was writing shortly before the outbreak of war, and perhaps had certain fears uppermost in his mind.
There's much to be mined from a novel of such all-encompassing scope. Stapledon touches on free will, faith, evolution, consciousness, group mentality, happiness -- almost the whole of philosophy.
There are many lessons within Star Maker, not the least being how to write beautiful prose.
Copyright © 2001 Paul S. Jenkins
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