Exiled to a desert island, the book I would immediately grab off the shelf is my Dover dual edition of Last and First Men and Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon. These two books are masterpieces of early science fiction. The first charts the next two billion years of the human race, while the latter is a chronicle of the life of the entire cosmos.
But in this article I would like to focus on one of Stapledon’s lesser known works, because it throws up one of those literary moments which are vitally charged with imaginative potential, yet remain completely undeveloped by the author.
Not long after Last and First Men was published in 1930, Stapledon wrote a radio play for the BBC. Far Future Calling is initially a mock broadcast from the year 2500, as two representatives of a gross Americanized world brag about their achievements. However, the play takes a new direction when some ‘real’ time travellers hijack the broadcast and take control of the actors’ minds. There follows a two billion year journey into the future, following the map laid down in Last and First Men, before arrival in the epoch of the eighteenth, and final, human species. The final species of human-kind are the zenith of human existence – “All the earlier cultures find their fulfilment in the world of the Last Men”.
In an ether ship, flying near the outer planets of the Solar System, the play continues:
ACTOR. An immense moon below us, but coloured. A blinding spot of light in the middle of it.
ACTRESS. It’s a hundred times too big for the moon, or too near.
FUTURE MAN. It’s the planet Neptune. The spot of light is the sun’s reflection in the ocean.
(Distant music, the dance music of supermen)
ACTOR. What’s that?
FUTURE WOMAN. Merriment afoot somewhere in the ship. Probably they are going to dance.
The dance music of supermen! This is a truly formidable piece of stage direction! At this point I can’t help but lose track of the play – I want to silence everything around me in the hope of catching a hint of that distant music.
What would this have sounded like in a British radio play of the 1930s? A fast-stepping foxtrot with a flourish of harps? Exotic drummers doing ragtime? The most notable electronic instrument of the time was the Theremin and it’s easy to imagine the gliding tones of this futuristic instrument being used to transport listeners to a dancefloor of the far future. In the late 1920s Leon Theremin toured Europe with his instrument and played to an audience of 8000 at the Albert Hall in London, so the BBC was probably aware of its eerie sound. The BBC Director of Dance Music at the time was British band leader Jack Payne – Click here for a taste of Jack Payne’s BBC Dance Orchestra in full swing in 1930 and try to imagine a Theremin replacing the brass section.
Unfortunately the play was never produced, so we’ll never know what the dance music of supermen would have sounded like on air in 1931. We have to pursue the music via Stapledon himself.
Olaf Stapledon used a lot of musical imagery and metaphor in his books, declaring in Last and First Men that “Man himself, at the very least, is music”, but he didn’t try to describe the music of the Last Men directly. One of the few tantalising references to their musical culture appears in Last Men in London, when two lovers sing to each other “the latest, wildest scintillations of rhythm and melody” as the Sun sets on Neptune.
However, Stapledon wrote a lot about the broader world and philosophy of the Last Men, so let’s consider the Last Men to see if this brings us any closer to their music.
The Last Men, our descendents in the year 2 billion, are a telepathic race of humans living on Neptune. As well as being noble scholars, tackling the deep mysteries of the cosmos, they revel in physical passions such as flying, climbing and sex. Compared to our race of ‘First Men’ our successors are sturdy giants, still recognizably human but fantastically diverse in appearance. In what could easily be a description of various Second Life avatars, Stapledon offers us “fantastic men and women covered with fur, hirsute or mole-velvet. Others displaying bronze, yellow or ruddy skin, and yet others with a translucent ashgreen warmed by the underflowing blood”. So those dance parties would be pretty colourful affairs – And why bother to wear clothes when you have such a beautiful skin to show off?
The Last Men have a host of new sexual features and ‘special organs’ arising from the differentiation of their species into 96 different subsexes. Aside from making old-fashioned bi-sexuality look pretty tame, the full union of 96 members of a sexual group produces a group mind, a persistent shared consciousness which operates on a far higher plane than any of the individuals. Most significantly of all, the Last Men use their telepathic ability to explore the past – By tuning in to the right mentality they can inhabit and influence past minds from any age of humankind. As a result they have discovered music from many former epochs. And no doubt they have nudged many minds along new paths of musical creativeness. Maybe Sun Ra was mistaken and it was far future Neptune rather than Saturn that was guiding him.
Now let’s turn the radio back on and (with apologies to Olaf Stapledon) tune in to that dance party on Neptune.
ACTOR. What an incredible racket! The rhythms keep getting faster then slow almost to a stop, then speed up again. I should have a serious word to the band leader if my partner and I had to endure that on the dancefloor.
FUTURE WOMAN. But our dance music is based around progressions rather than your monorhythms. When dancing we extend the ‘now’ we hold in our minds to a longer period, and experience a whole progression of rhythms as one single phrase. It is similar to the optical illusions you are familiar with, but with rhythms instead of images. We are in a trance where the ‘now’ may last several minutes.
ACTRESS. No wonder I don’t find my feet tapping along then. All I hear is a random tinkling upon a backdrop of howls and drones. Ahh but there are some familiar drones too. Do I hear faint echoes of Gershwin?
FUTURE WOMAN. We were designed with acute senses, so we hear a thousand gradations of pitch where you might only hear two. The drones are embedded with dozens of inter-related melodies which you might never detect, and the tinklings become a vivid multi-dimensional voice when experienced in the extended ‘now’. Remember, this is telepathic music – There is no definition of scale, no instrument to define timbre, there is only the sound world of the composer’s mind. I am pleased you noticed the Gershwin melody – One of our time explorers lived in the mind of a music critic in your New York City.
ACTOR. Your dancers move with incomparable grace to such abstruse sounds. The whole ballroom appears synchronised as if it were a single ballet troupe.
FUTURE WOMAN. The dancers are all connected telepathically and a group will moves them. Individuals both direct the movement of the group, and follow it.
ACTRESS. A sort of Ouija-board ballet!
FUTURE WOMAN. Sometimes dance movements are encoded into the music stream, and following the dance becomes part of the wider telepathic artwork. To dance is to create another swirl in the vast fluid of the cosmos, an eddy almost invisible next to the enormous whirlpools of galaxies and suns. As the dancers glide around the dancefloor they syncopate with distant stars, ranging them with their astronomical eye and at once joining the immense ballet of the universe.
ACTOR. But if you can experience music telepathically, why bother to broadcast it audibly as well?
FUTURE MAN. In many dance arenas it would be a purely telepathic experience, but this event is of a progressive nature and they chose to have an audible projection as well. You need to learn a little more of our history. Ever since our race appeared, as a result of one hundred thousand years of genetic design by our predecessors the 17th human species, we have been telepathic. Sharing visions, ecstasies, or what you might call ‘art’ has always been innate, so no separate musical culture existed. Why should music have been born, if we already had a much more direct artistic medium? Being possessed of an aural sense, we had developed a line of sound-painting – An abstract adventure which still tied closely to telepathic effects. But it was through our explorations of the past that we discovered the vivid pleasures of music that so many of our predecessors enjoyed – Particularly the non-telepathic cultures like your own. So it was relatively recently that a culture of dance music developed. A tradition of purely telepathic art still exists, and in that arena no audible projection of the artwork would be made, but the latest trend is for the composer to create a stream of music that can be broadcast audibly in order to experience the direct effects of music on our nervous systems. Some performers are even taking up instruments.
FUTURE WOMAN. We must be moving on. There is a lot more we want you to see.
ACTOR. Very well. But let us linger near this dancefloor for a just few moments more.
(Distant music, the dance music of supermen)