Mike Resnick’s August column at Baen’s delivers an oratory of praise for Olaf Stapledon. It’s a continuation of a tendency within SF to give Stapledon a ridiculous amount of credit, in this case giving him credit for inventing Science Fiction. Yes Stapledon did write up some revolutionary ideas, but the problem with giving him credit for them is that he really didn’t originate them, it’s hard to say that anyone did.
Stapledon often gets the credit because his books, such as Last and First Men and Star Maker read somewhat like conventional Science Fiction. This makes it easy to attach a Grandfather of Science Fiction moniker to him. Even the turgid prose and blatant racism and dated politics that fill Stapledon’s books put him in line with earlier Science Fiction. In practice though Stapledon was a popularizer of ideas, rather than an originator, and the claims made for him often veer into the absurd.
It’s almost impossible to find a science fiction idea in the pulps of the 1930s and 1940s, or even the digests of the last half century, that does not owe something—usually a major something—to Stapledon. (In fact, when Larry Niven’s brilliant Ringworld came out and credited Dyson Spheres as its inspiration, I decided that that was the first truly major science fictional concept that did not owe anything to Stapledon.
Alternate universes and time travel easily come to mind. So do AI’s and robot uprisings. Giving Stapledon a ridiculous amount of credit diminishes not only the credit for the writers and playwrights who were helped popularize these ideas, but the continuity of ideas that produced them. Stapledon didn’t invent SF tropes anymore than Jules Verne or Capek or H.G. Wells or Stephen Vincent Benet did or that mysterious Kiwi author who far more accurately foresaw space travel earlier and more accurately than Stapledon. They retooled, updated, added and remixed what already existed, mixing Scientific, political and philosophical speculations with ideas that dated back to the ancient Greeks.
Stapledon’s work was boldly imaginative, but he didn’t invent Science Fiction. He was part of a tradition that predates the official American Science Fiction we think of as Science fiction, a tradition still part of earlier traditions of speculating and mythologizing the universe.
Here’s a fun question for Resnick and the Stapledon devotees. Name the SF novel written over two decades before Stapledon even began writing that foresees a matriarchy, laser weapons, flying cars, the elimination of crime and automated agriculture. Oh and it was written by a Muslim woman in India.
The SF world isn’t flat, it’s just flat for some people.