Books & Art

Now NASA's Shown Us the Universe's Beginning, Want to Read About How It Ends?

Have those Webb Telescope images whetted your appetite? If so, Olaf Stapledon's 1939 novel Star Maker is the forgotten sci-fi classic for you.

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, published in 1937, is perhaps the most important work of science-fiction that, until recently, I had never heard of. Stapledon’s work is widely cited as being a major influence on Arthur C Clarke, Stanis?aw Lem, and, in the sense of inspiring him to write novels that served essentially as rebuttals, CS Lewis; impressive, given that he never saw himself as a science-fiction writer.

Stapledon was in many ways the quintessential aimless intellectual. He got a history degree at Oxford, spent a period bouncing around among his family’s shipping firm, social work, and some teaching gigs before getting a philosophy Ph.D. at Liverpool and settling in to split his time between lecturing, writing, and activism. Writing epic, galaxy-spanning masterworks of science-fiction seems to have been something Stapledon picked up as a way of organizing and promoting his social commentary, and, in the decades immediately before and after World War II, working through exactly what an enlightened, post-conflict society might look like.

I was delighted, as an end-of-universe enthusiast, to see a realistic heat death depicted.

I was primed, before diving into the existentially heavy Star Maker, reissued by Penguin Classics last summer, to be completely enraptured by a novel that took the biggest questions of cosmic purpose and constructed an entire multiverse around them (while wasting comparatively little time on trivial matters like “narrative” or “characters”). After all, I have a professional interest in the death of the cosmos: it’s my day job. As a researcher in theoretical cosmology, the past, evolution, and future of the universe is very much my scene, and I spend the bulk of my time poring over equations and computer simulations trying to better understand the basic principles that govern all cosmic structure.


I wrote an entire book that walks through several different ways The End could happen based on the best current science. In the process, I found that as much as I always try to be scientific and impartial, spending years with your head buried deep in cosmic apocalypse leads you inevitably to ask some decidedly non-scientific questions such as, what does it all mean? Is every beautiful and complex celestial wonder at the mercy of a dying cosmos? If the universe is going to end, are we really just supposed to be OK with that? Star Maker was clearly written for me.

Star Maker (Penguin Science Fiction)


The plot of Star Maker, such as it is, involves an Englishman walking up a hill in the evening, sitting in the heather, and staring up at the stars. We learn that he has a wife, with whom he is moderately happy, and children, who also exist. While he is contemplating the cosmos, he experiences something he describes as either a dream or a psychic journey to the stars. Some 200 pages later, he wakes up, and, presumably, walks home.

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The material in between is not so much a narrative as a cosmology, in the sense of being a lyrically described but often highly abstracted depiction of the history, evolution, and structure of the cosmos, with scientific principles interlaced with great moral arcs, imagined alien biologies and sociologies, and complex astropolitics. There is spirituality, too, in the quest to commune with the Star Maker—some being or force that sets the cosmos in motion and gives order to all creation.

While a few secondary characters do appear in the book, they are, very clearly, besides the point. Stapledon is here to tell the story of the cosmos, not individuals, and a recurring theme is the moral triumph of collectivism over selfishness. In Stapledon’s telling, advancement and enlightenment come through the joining of many diverse individuals into harmonious community. While all planets go through a period of “spiritual crisis” marked by societal conflict and the tension between those who would conquer and those who would join in peace, a more advanced, utopian civilization is one in which an entire world, or a collection of worlds, is psychically linked, cosmically minded, and harmonious. (Stapledon had been a conscientious objector in World War I and was writing during the rise of European fascism that sparked World War II.) It’s a model that is something of the United Federation of Planets and something of the Borg.

In spite of clearly expressed sentiments about what makes a functional society, Star Maker should not be read purely as political propaganda. As a cosmologist, I found the structure of it to be oddly reminiscent of a scientific model. Each physical (or social) principle Stapledon presents is taken to its logical conclusion to create a self-consistent representation of an as-yet unobserved universe that fits the data available. Stapledon’s astrophysical accuracy is limited by his 1937 knowledge, of course, but I was struck by the parts he got right.


His conception of star- and planet-formation is completely inaccurate, but it could easily be argued to be a plausible extrapolation from the data astronomers had at the time. And the cosmos in Star Maker is, more faithfully than most modern-day science fiction, strictly governed by the laws of relativity (with the only exception being psychic transmissions, for plot purposes). Stapledon even follows then-burgeoning ideas such as nuclear and solar power and personal radio communication to their logical end points.

I was delighted, as an end-of-universe enthusiast, to see a realistic heat death depicted, along with speculations about cyclic universes, extra dimensions, and even something like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, two decades early. Stapledon’s description of the evolution of the expanding universe could be equally well used today: “In the inevitable ‘expansion’ of the universe, the dark galaxies had already for eons been flying apart so rapidly that light itself could not have bridged the gulf between them”. The fact that all this is brought together by beautifully elegant prose breathes life and color into theoretical constructs that in less capable hands could have ended up dryly technical. Stapledon makes the destruction of all things calming and poetic.

Taken as a whole, Star Maker is a vast and hopeful vision of an intergalactic future, one in which we might, someday, rise above our petty earthly squabbles. Stapledon once expressed his motivation for writing by saying that envisioning our world in the context of a larger cosmos has the power to reframe our present human crisis and “strengthen our charity toward one another”; a perspective as true today as in 1937, and just as needed.


FromEsquire UK

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About The Author
Katie Mack
Katie Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist and the author of The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking).
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