William Olaf Stapledon (10 May 1886 – 6 September 1950) – known as Olaf Stapledon – was a British philosopher and author of influential works of science fiction. In 2014, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Stapledon’s fiction often presents the strivings of some intelligence that is beaten down by an indifferent universe and its inhabitants who, through no fault of their own, fail to comprehend its lofty yearnings. It is filled with protagonists who are tormented by the conflict between their “higher” and “lower” impulses.
Stapledon’s writings directly influenced Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Stanisław Lem, Bertrand Russell, John Gloag, Naomi Mitchison, C. S. Lewis, Vernor Vinge, John Maynard Smith and indirectly influenced many others, contributing many ideas to the world of science fiction. The “supermind” composed of many individual consciousnesses forms a recurring theme in his work. Star Maker contains the first known description of what are now called Dyson spheres. Freeman Dyson credits the novel with giving him the idea, even stating in an interview that “Stapledon sphere” would be a more appropriate name. Last and First Men features early descriptions of genetic engineering and terraforming. Sirius describes a dog whose intelligence is increased to the level of a human being’s.
Some commentators have called Stapledon a Marxist, although Stapledon himself explicitly rejected Marxism. Stapledon’s work also refers to then-contemporary intellectual fashions (e.g. the belief in extrasensory perception).
Last and First Men, a “future history” of 18 successive species of humanity, and Star Maker, an outline history of the Universe, were highly acclaimed by figures as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Algernon Blackwood, Hugh Walpole, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf (Stapledon maintained a correspondence with Woolf) and Winston Churchill. In contrast, Stapledon’s philosophy repelled C. S. Lewis, whose Cosmic Trilogy was written partly in response to what Lewis saw as amorality, although Lewis admired Stapledon’s inventiveness and described him as “a corking good writer”. In fact Stapledon was an agnostic who was hostile to religious institutions, but not to religious yearnings, a fact that set him at odds with H. G. Wells in their correspondence.
None of Stapledon’s novels or short stories has been adapted for film or television, although George Pal bought the rights to Odd John. Castle of Frankenstein magazine reported in 1966 that David McCallum would play the title role.
Together with his philosophy lectureship at the University of Liverpool, which now houses the Olaf Stapledon archive, Stapledon lectured in English literature, industrial history and psychology. He wrote many non-fiction books on political and ethical subjects, in which he advocated the growth of “spiritual values”, which he defined as those values expressive of a yearning for greater awareness of the self in a larger context (“personality-in-community”). Stapledon himself named his spiritual values as intelligence, love and creative action.
In nations with “life + 70 years” copyright regimes, Stapledon’s published works will be in the public domain from 2021.