Thursday, 4 July 2013

What I learned on my research trip (part 1)

My research trip is already over and now (theoretically) I have all the materials and information I need to write my exegesis (the research part of my thesis, as opposed to the creative part). Naturally, I'm procrastinating, or as I prefer to term it, letting the research sink in.

I set out on my research trip with a plan. My goal was to answer these three questions:

1. What did Olaf Stapledon see as the place of fiction in exploring the future of humanity/posthumanity?

2. What were his personal philosophies on the future of humanity/posthumanity?

3. What did he see as the purpose of the evolution of humans/posthumans?

I was able to get answers to all three questions after a few days of reading his many, many lecture notes (a whole box of them, loving indexed and catalogued by library staff). The lecture notes were written on small cards, around the size of a postcard, in perfectly neat but teeny, tiny writing. I had to use a magnifying glass to read them. I'm sure his handwriting tells us a lot about the kind of man he was (he sure didn't think about poor researchers going through his archives in the years to come!) but onto the answers I found.

Science and fiction

The answer to question 1 wasn't difficult to find, as Stapledon had written up two lots of lecture notes relating to that theme: Science and Literature; and Science and Fiction.

In the Science and Literature notes, under the sub-heading Function of Literature in a Scientific Culture, he'd jotted down the following points (these are direct quotes from his notes and underlining is how it appeared in his notes):

A. Suggestive speculation in terms of culture itself
B. Criticism of the culture, correction of the specialist's fallacy
myopic detail
Must stress the higher human capacities - which science cannot yet tackle (and therefore fails to notice)

In his notes for a lecture on Science and Fiction he wrote:

Rules of the game of science fiction
1. Conform to current scientific ideas
be plausible
2. Imaginatively explore -
further possibilities i.e. must create (within framework)
3. be humanly plausible
and significant i.e. a symbol for current Man
myths for a scientific age

Stapledon saw science fiction writers as having the responsibility to explore what science was unwilling to or refused to explore. It was, for him, a way of exploring the realm of possibilities of what humanity could become, both good and bad. In this way, he perceived science fiction as having a vital role in illuminating what futures might be open to us.

A writer of modern myths

Stapledon stated that his own aim as a writer was to "write modern myths". If you consider the breadth and scope of Last and First Men, in particular, I think it's fair to say he achieved his goal. The 18 "stages of man" he describes in the novel cover every kind of human-type species that fiction writers have explored since the book's publication in 1930. People who could fly; giant brains who were, as Stapledon described them, "sessile" (unable to move); ape like creatures obsessed with gold; six fingered humans with elephantine lower limbs and sensitive upper limbs; humans who communicated telepathically; seal-like humans with great lung capacity, a horizontal rudder and a fin: Stapledon created all these and more.

Stapledon wrote most of his fiction during the 1930s, in the lead up to World War II. It was a time of overwhelming fear and unease where the future of humanity looked bleak. He wanted to look beyond those bleak times, millions of years into a distant future, to explore humanity's fullest potential. What was the best humans could become? How could humanity bring out the best in itself, rather than the worst?

Question 1 successfully answered?

I think it can truthfully say that my reading of Stapledon's teeny-tiny lecture notes enabled me to successfully answer my first question. In a nutshell, he believed fiction was a vital tool to explore questions that science did not or could not answer, with a view to opening up the many possible futures that may be open to humans in all their possible forms.

Next week, I'll summarise how I went with answering question 2.