Book Review: Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Star Maker (1937) is a sci-fi novel written by British writer Olaf Stapledon. It describes the rich tapestry of cosmic evolution, surpassing in scale his previous novel First and Last Men (1930), which details the history of humanity from the present day back to two million years ago. Star Maker tells the story of a single human narrator who is inexplicably transported out of his body and granted the chance to survey the profound vastness of the universe. This nameless narrator then explores other planets and civilisations, stars and galaxies, eventually coming into contact with the creator of the universe – the ‘Star Maker’.

First of all, Star Maker is not an easy read. The whole book is essentially prose-poetry. There is no dialogue. Every page is filled with rich, detailed, elegant descriptions. Which is not necessarily a criticism, but it meant that it took me a while to finish the book. Each page is also likely to contain some deep philosophical or spiritual concept. After reading a page or two, I felt I needed to stop just to be able to fully digest and appreciate the idea that Stapledon is trying to convey. The effort is worth it, though, as I think the way in which the author describes the universe – as something immensely vast and complex and mysterious – easily rivals the poetic descriptions of science writers like Carl Sagan, or anyone else, for that matter.

In some ways, Star Maker is the ultimate sci-fi book. It contains references to actual astronomical facts that were known during the time it was written. It also includes many ­– if not all – of the classic sci-fi themes: interstellar travel, telepathy, virtual reality, alien invasion, alien civilisation, time travel, dystopian and utopian societies, so forth and so on.

But what made this book so engaging for me was the ubiquity of deep reflective themes. Stapledon contemplates human nature, the rise and fall of civilisation, collective consciousness (between humans and alien species), our place in the universe, competing political ideologies, the origins and nature of religions and gods, mysticism, and (possibly the most mind-boggling concept in the whole book) the idea that planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe itself could be conscious as a kind of supermind. The author convincingly details how planets, stars, and galaxies possess a unique intelligence, enabling them to form their own kind of civilisation.

I don’t know if Stapledon was familiar with Eastern mysticism and philosophy, but many of the concepts he explores are similar to ideas found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. These concepts include ethical teachings central to Eastern philosophy, such as altruism, compassion, and care for the wider community. Other Eastern concepts explored include the nature of the self, self-transcendence, and the inner drive to reach a higher plane of existence.

What really surprised me was how spiritual or psychedelic many of the ideas and descriptions were. When the protagonist, for example, finally confronts the ‘Star Maker’, it sounds like an intense psychedelic or religious experience. Many of the descriptions here bear an uncanny resemblance to near-death experiences, as well as those earth-shattering experiences that people report with drugs like DMT or LSD.

The meeting with the Star Maker – this “supreme moment of the cosmos” – parallels the mystical experience in many ways, as these intense non-ordinary states of consciousness often involve an encounter with some sort of powerful divine presence. The narrator in the story is “confronted with the source and goal of all finite things.” He “felt the immediate presence of the Star Maker”. The narrator also conveys this presence as being both within and without:

…as a being indeed other than my conscious self, objective to my vision, yet as in the depth of my own nature; as indeed, myself, though infinitely more than myself.

Our desperate attempts to capture and describe mystical experiences will always fall short, due to the limits of human language. And the ineffable nature of such experiences is underscored by the narrator, who says: “Barren, barren and trivial are these words. But not barren the experience.” Indeed, the experience is the opposite of barren; instead involving a feeling of gaining rare and precious insights, of going into a place where no one goes. The narrator “…reached back through time to the moment of creation”, able to watch “…the birth of the cosmos.” Although it is impossible to describe the sheer power of the Star Maker (or the “infinite spirit”), the narrator compares this being to “an overwhelmingly brilliant point, a star, a sun more powerful than all suns together.”

If you’re looking for a unique blend of sci-fi and mysticism, Stapledon’s Star Maker novel should deliver. It’s certainly unlike any other sci-fi book I’ve come across.

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