Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 book Star Maker may be the most influential novel you’ve never heard of.
Arthur C. Clarke deeply admired it. Freeman Dyson credits it for giving him the idea for Dyson Spheres. Jorge Luis Borges wrote an introduction to one of its editions; Doris Lessing wrote an afterword for another. Brian Aldiss opined “Stapledon’s book embraces the firmament. Read it and you will be forever changed.” H. G. Wells and Virginia Woolf were fans, and C.S. Lewis felt strongly enough to write a letter condemning it as anti-Christian.
So what’s it about? And does it live up to the hype? I read it about a week ago, and I’m here to give you the answers.
Star Maker centers on an unnamed protagonist, an Englishman, who begins the story by standing outside one night pondering the Big Questions. What’s the point of life? Where is everything headed? Is there a God? If we’re all going to die, why does any of it matter?
He suddenly finds that he’s been transported, bodiless, into space, and that he can explore the galaxy. He heads to another planet, similar to Earth, with natives of its own, and gets to know one of these human-ish natives. Then he and his friend go bodiless-space-exploring together to yet another world, where they meet yet another friend, and gradually they amass more and more minds into a larger and larger group that explores more and more of the galaxy, and eventually, the universe. They travel back and forward in time, seeing the origin of the cosmos and its ultimate fate, witnessing the evolution of a single unified cosmic mind comprised of all its constituent organisms. Finally they reach an event Stapledon calls the Supreme Moment, when this cosmic mind comes face-to-face with its creator, a demiurge known as the Star Maker.
The story, such as it is, is mostly a vehicle for Stapledon to showcase his ideas about philosophy and science (emphasis on the philosophy side). The characters are entirely (and deliberately) plot devices. The only real conflict in the book consists of the philosophical questions mentioned above, so your reading enjoyment will come in direct proportion to your own fascination with Stapledon’s ideas.
For me personally, I got very excited as I started reading, because the first chapter seemed to phrase the central questions of existence in a very elegant and compelling way. I felt like Stapledon got it – he understood the real questions about life, and he had already rejected the easy answers. I settled in for the ride that would take me to his answer with a real sense of anticipation.
And now that I’ve read it?
Well, I’ve gotta say, I don’t find his answer(s) very compelling. Stapledon’s “Supreme Moment” gives a glimpse of God as the Star Maker, an aloof, non-loving, non-personal, endlessly creative spirit whom its creations (i.e. us) worship not because it promises salvation, but because worship is the proper response of created to Creator. For me, this is unfulfilling for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I have no particular reason to believe his version of God actually exists.
So it’s a philosophical novel whose philosophy failed to move me; your mileage, of course, may vary. Yet I still think it was a good read. Star Maker is incredibly imaginative even by science fiction’s current standards; back when it was written, it would have been unprecedented.
The best thing about the book, by far, is its sheer audacious scope. Stapledon really pulls out the stops, painting a reasonably believable portrait of a universe (and eventually a multiverse) that encompasses the vastest possible ideas of time and space, in which aeons are smaller than pixels.
Star Maker wants to open your mind, and for the most part, it succeeds. For that alone, I’d say it’s worth the read.