Re: CHAT: Great Brains

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sun Mar 25 2001 - 19:15:45 MST

"J. R. Molloy" wrote:
> I wrote:
> > [something about the "Great Brains" in Olaf Stapledon's
> > _Last and First Men_].
> Suppose a race of men (and womyn) conclude by means of balanced logic and
> emotion that they are fatally flawed, and design a successor race to
> embody a more superlative sentience.
> The flawless and immortal... [sentients] ...that emerge
> as the successor race might conclude by means of hyper-cognitive
> perception that they were... obsolete!
> Unless, of course, Moore's Law does not apply to Great Brains.

Interestingly enough, Stapledon's Last Men have a life
cycle that lasts until it becomes clear that an individual is

"The number of children in our world is small in relation to our
immense population. Yet, seeing that every one of us is potentially
immortal, it may be wondered how we can permit ourselves to have
any children at all. The explanation is two-fold. In the first
place, our policy is to produce new individuals of higher type
than ourselves, for we are very far from biologically perfect.
Consequently we need a continuous supply of children. And as
these successively reach maturity, they take over the functions
of adults whose nature is less perfect; and these, when they
are aware that they are no longer of service, elect to retire from

But even though every individual, sooner or later, ceases to exist,
the average length of life is not much less than a quarter of
a million terrestrial years..."

-- _Last and First Men_, Chapter XV "The Last Men",
   Section 2. "Childhood and Maturity".

There are some other fascinating things about the
Last Men that Stapledon imagined -- for instance, that in adolescence
(which they enter about a thousand years after birth), they spend
a millennium in an antarctic continent called "The Land of the Young",
where they essentially participate in a life-and-death game of
recapitulating the history of the human race. Only after this
educational adventure are they considered fit for adulthood:

"When our children attain physical adolescence, nearly a thousand
years after birth, they leave the safe paths of childhood to
spend another thousand years in one of the antarctic continents,
known as the Land of the Young... In this land our young people
live the half primitive, half sophisticated life to which their
nature is fitted. They hunt, fish, tend cattle and till the
ground. They cultivate all the simple beauties of human
individuality. They love and hate. They sing, paint and carve.
They devise heroic myths, and delight in fantasies of direct
intercourse with a cosmic person. They organize themselves in
tribes and nations. Sometimes they even indulge in warfare of a
primitive but bloody type. Formerly when this happened, the
adult world interfered; but we have since learned to let the fever
run its course. The loss of life is regrettable; but it is a
small price to pay for the insight afforded even by this restricted
and juvenile warfare, into those primitive agonies and passions
which, when they are experienced by the adult mind, are so
transformed by philosophy that their import is wholly changed.
In the Land of the Young, our boys and girls experience all that
is precious and all that is abject in the primitive. They live
through, in their own persons, century by century, all its
toilsomeness and cramped meanness, all its blind cruelty and
precariousness; but also they taste its glamour, its vernal and
lyrical glory. They make in little all the mistakes of thought
and action that men have ever made; but at last they emerge ready
for the larger and more difficult world of maturity."

-- Ibid.

Finally, the novel ends with this lyrical description of
the last born of the Last Men:

"But there is one among us, moving from place to place and
company to company, whose voice all long to hear. He is young,
the last born of the Last Men; for he was the latest to be
conceived before we learned man's doom, and put an end to all
conceiving. Being the latest, he is also the noblest. Not
him alone, but all his generation, we salute, and look to for
strength; but he, the youngest, is different from the rest.
In him the spirit, which is but the flesh awakened into spirituality,
has power to withstand the tempest of solar energy longer than
the rest of us. It is as though the sun itself were eclipsed by
this spirit's brightness. It is as though in him at last, and
for a day only, man's promise were fulfilled. For though, like
others, he suffers in the flesh, he is above his suffering.
And though more than the rest of us he feels the suffering of
others, he is above his pity. In his comforting there is a
strange sweet raillery which can persuade the sufferer to smile
at his own pain. When this youngest brother of ours
contemplates with us our dying world and the frustration of
all man's striving, he is not, like us, dismayed, but quiet.
In the presence of such quietness despair wakens into peace.
By his reasonable speech, almost by the mere sound of his
voice, our eyes are opened, and our hearts mysteriously filled
with exultation. Yet often his words are grave.

Let his words, not mine, close this story:

'Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But
man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills.
He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though
in them there is incalculable potential, in him there is
achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly,
he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be
nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally
a beauty in the eternal form of things...'"

-- _Last and First Men_, Chapter XVI, "The Last of Man",
   Section 3. "Epilogue".

Jim F.

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