By the Book - Literary Life Lessons Uncategorized

By the Book #28 – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker is one of the most unique books I've ever read. It's physics, it's politics, it's philosophy, and it's brilliant.

Looking at the stars means looking at the past. I’m not a physicist, but this I do understand: since the stars are so far away, their light takes years to reach our eyes. As a result, what we see at night is a representation of what the galaxy looked like in the past. I find the universe immensely intriguing, and that’s why I decided to read Olaf Stapledon’s unique science fiction novel Star Maker, which is not only about watching the galaxy, but actually travelling through it. Want to know what’s out there? Read on!

I usually start my posts doing a short summary of the book I’ve just read. This time, however, I find myself quite incapable of doing so, since Star Maker defies the rules of the traditional novel. It is about an unnamed Englishman who is looking at the stars, but suddenly finds himself travelling amongst them. He looks down on Earth, and travels further than anyone else has ever done. He flies past countless planets and finds that some of them contain life. He reaches out to them and learns something from each race he visits, takes some along on his journey, and sets out for his final destination: the Star Maker, Creator of the Universe.

While this may sound like a decent summary,but this does not do justice to what the story is actually about. By telling the story of a person travelling through space, the author focuses on the galaxy itself, and how conscious people find meaning in their lives. With every planet the narrator discovers, he engages with its people and learns something from them. Some resemble humans in physical appearance, but others look like crabs, fish, and plants, amongst other creatures. But the one thing they all have in common is the way civilisation works.

In Star Maker, many comparisons are drawn between the politics of human beings and those of other planets. For instance, there are many societies in which there is a clear distinction between upper and lower class and different levels of intelligence, as well as communism and capitalism. That’s why, I think, this novel is more of an exploration of the human condition than it is of the galaxy itself (and this is why I love science fiction so much – read more about it here).

Stapledon’s vision of our life on Earth is an interesting and a humbling one: we’re not the only ones out there, and we’re certainly not the only ones who strive for perfection but are hindered by inherent flaws like greed, religion, and a need for technological advancement, ultimately causing (interplanetary) rivalry and war. As the narrator of Star Maker travels through the galaxies – for there are indeed many of them – he encounters countless civilisations that briefly reach utopia and then go overboard and annihilate themselves. In fact, they leave a trail of destruction behind, for even the stars, which are also conscious but on a very different level than humans, notice the imbalance of the galaxy and blow up to regain it. They fail to restore it.

In the end, the ultimate question that is asked in Star Maker is the question that has kept philosophers awake for thousands of years: what is the perfect way of life? It turns out that even the Star Maker, the Creator of the Universe, the source of all existence, does not know. Because at the very end of the novel, the narrator comes eye to eye with him, and he suddenly realises that each galaxy is but part of a series of galaxies created by the Star Maker in order to find the perfect one, making each new galaxy an improvement on the former. Again, it humbles our own role in this galaxy, since we human beings are but a small and insignificant part of the grand scheme of things – but then, it is also an honour, since we, mere human beings, have a role to play in the history of the universe.

Throughout the novel, the narrator keeps assuring his audience that his description of the journey is a highly personal one, coloured by his “humanness”. Likewise, Stapledon’s interpretation of humanity would be very different from other authors, had they tried to write a similar novel; each conscious being is limited by their own culture and upbringing. As a result, my analysis of this novel is also influenced by who I am. I must admit reading Star Maker wasn’t easy; in fact, I had to reread several passages to make sure that I understood them. This is not a novel as we know it, for it is not about one person. On the contrary, it is about how humanity works, how all civilisations strive for perfection but often fail to do so, how each race is ultimately doomed, and how we can never, ever, truly find out who we are and why we are here. And if we do, we would, unfortunately, be unable to describe it.

Now. I’m not a physicist. Nor am I a psychologist, sociologist, philosopher or even a novelist, but I still find the universe and all the questions it contains immensely intriguing. Books like Star Maker remind us to look at the stars every now and then. We may look at the past, but, in a way, we look at our current selves, too.

Have you read Star Maker? Do you think politics and psychology are universal? Do you think we’ll ever truly understand the meaning of life? Will we ever become a Utopia? If you’ve got any answers to these big questions, please drop them here in the comment section! Also, make sure to follow me for more book musings and other book-related posts!

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