No Man’s Sky and Starmaker

1233902779_smEighty years ago, Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon was the No Man’s Sky of its day. I say that as someone who has been playing No Man’s Sky almost non-stop since it came out, and absolutely love it. There have been a few good articles written about the cultural foundations of No Man’s Sky, referencing the art of Chris Foss, the galactic Culture of Iain M Banks, and films such as Silent Running and 2001. It vividly brings to life the artwork from The Usborne Book of the Future, a book I pored over as a kid, and there are even intriguing references to Dune. However, more than anything else, the book that gave me the same feels as No Man’s Sky when I first read it twenty-odd years ago is Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker.

No Man’s Sky is a cosmic exploration and survival game developed by Hello Games for Playstation 4 and PC, set in a universe with quintillions of planets. When the game opens, you are repairing your crashed spaceship. From there on, you have several paths open to you – Discover what lies at the centre of the galaxy (a mere 180,000 light years away), travel the path of the “Atlas” to try and learn some of the secrets of the cosmos, or just roam around freely and explore. Once your spaceship is repaired, you can warp off your planet to another star and discover new planets, or spend as much time as you like exploring the planet you’re on. Everywhere you go is different, although there are variations on themes that come up again and again. And almost everywhere has life of some sort – weird plants, strange animals, and characters from intelligent species that you can learn to communicate with. So far I’ve travelled about 15,000 light years and have visited planets that were lifeless rocks, scorched deserts, and lush gardens. I’ve discovered upside down seahorse squids, made friends with hopping elephant worms, and raced after dinosaur reindeer gazelles. No Man’s Sky excels at placing you in another world. I have gazed across sublime landscapes dotted with ear-like sail trees, that raise brittle rock arches into the green sky while an alien other-earth rises above the horizon. It’s an incredible visual trip, but it lies on the fringe of what many people would consider a video game, with a story that’s barely there. I am happy to take it as it is – An experience, awe-inspiring and deeply moving at times.

An alien vista from No Man's Sky

Alien life forms in No Man's Sky

Starmaker is a work of speculative fiction published in 1937, just before the Second World War. Like No Man’s Sky, Starmaker can’t be pigeon-holed easily. There’s plenty of science and it’s most certainly fiction, but I would hesitate to call it ‘science fiction’ since it doesn’t have any characters, apart from the narrator, and there’s no proper story. Starmaker relates the experiences of a man whose disembodied mind flies away from Earth and roams the universe, visiting other planets and stars, joining with the minds of other beings, and gaining knowledge about the cosmos. Stapledon’s description of arriving at a new planet and discovering life is remarkably similar to the experience in No Man’s Sky:

“After circling about at random for some time over the filmy clouds and the forests, over the dappled plains and prairies and the dazzling stretches of desert, I selected a maritime country in the temperate zone, a brilliantly green peninsula. When I had descended almost to the ground, I was amazed at the verdure of the countryside. Here unmistakably was vegetation, similar to ours in essential character, but quite unfamiliar in detail. The fat, or even bulbous, leaves reminded me of our desert flora, but here the stems were lean and wiry. Perhaps the most striking character of this vegetation was its colour, which was a vivid blue-green, like the colour of vineyards that have been treated with copper salts.
I skimmed over a brilliant prairie scattered with Prussian-blue bushes. The sky also attained a depth of blue quite unknown on earth, save at great altitudes. There were a few low yet cirrus clouds, whose feathery character I took to be borne out by the fact that, though my descent had taken place in the forenoon of a summer’s day, several stars managed to pierce the almost nocturnal sky. All exposed surfaces were very intensely illuminated. The shadows of the nearer bushes were nearly black. Some distant objects, rather like buildings, but probably mere rocks, appeared to be blocked out in ebony and snow. Altogether the landscape was one of unearthly and fantastical beauty.”

Photograph of Olaf Stapledon, 1938
William Olaf Stapledon, 1938

Starmaker is about as epic as you can get; a crescendo of ever growing scales that encompasses planets, suns and galaxies, as well as reaching across time from the beginning to the end of the universe. Stapledon called his earlier work Last and First Men (a survey of the next two billion years of human history, to the conclusion of humanity) “an essay in myth-creation,” a description which fits Starmaker well too. The characters of his myth are not people or gods, but intelligent alien races that telepathically join minds across the universe, forming ever greater layers of intelligence. Each race plays out a variety of moral and spiritual themes in fantastic, other-worldly settings; for instance, the Nautiloids, a sea-faring, mollusc-like creature:

“… their normal means of long-distance locomotion was their great spread of sail. The simple membranes of the ancestral type had become a system of parchment-like sails and bony masts and spars, under voluntary muscular control. Similarity to a ship was increased by the downward looking eyes, one on each side of the prow. The mainmast-head also bore eyes, for searching the horizon. An organ of magnetic sensitivity in the brain afforded a reliable means of orientation. At the fore end of the vessel were two long manipulatory tentacles, which during locomotion were folded snugly to the flanks. In use they formed a very service-able pair of arms.”

Flying high above their history, we view the rise and fall, and rise again of the Nautiloids. At first they succumb to what Stapledon views as a common social disease: the stratification of society into separate castes, the enslavery of one by the other, and eventually war. Although, this is not the end for them:

“Not til the race had reduced itself to an almost subhuman savagery, and all the crazy traditions of a diseased civilisation had been purged away … could the spirit of these ‘ship-men’ set out again on the great adventure of the spirit.”

Along with the Nautiloids we are told about the symbiotic icthyoids and arachnoids, the telepathic bird-clouds (for whom “sex … was very perplexing”), the five-pronged marine echinoderms, and the plant-men, whose discovery of artificial photosynthesis leads to a feverish racial disease of robotism. So far I haven’t discovered any Nautiloids in No Man’s Sky, but I won’t be surprised if something resembling them is out there somewhere.

Alien life form in No Man's Sky

Just like No Man’s Sky, Starmaker is a voyage across the cosmos that is not short of encounters with alien life. In No Man’s Sky, the fragments you learn from the monoliths can be pieced together to form a sort of history, but Stapledon’s vision is much grander and more tragic, as well as sharply allegorical. A lot of time is spent on the first planet Stapledon’s explorer discovers, The Other Earth, on which the inhabitants are highly sensitive to taste and scent, with sensory organs on the hands, feet and genitals. Stapledon wastes no time in extrapolating this into a bitter commentary on society, in which “each race tended to believe that its own flavour was characteristic of all the finer mental qualities, was indeed an absolutely reliable label of spiritual worth.” Brain stimulation radio, with “programmes of all the most luscious or piquant experiences”, is widely adopted and slowly becomes a means to control a population of passive consumers. However, tensions between military, religious, and economic factions for control of ‘radio-bliss’ leads to their eventual downfall. What plays out over the course of a whole book in 1984 or Brave New World is given a bird’s-eye treatment for numerous races in Starmaker. For Stapledon, the cosmos is one grand tragedy of biology after another, until each race finally comes to some sort of enlightenment and stability, and can join with others in the ‘community of worlds’. No Man’s Sky can hardly aspire to this grandeur, but we learn a few things from it. The galaxy of No Man’s Sky is split between the Gek, Vy’keen and the Korvax: traders, warriors and philosophers, a division into archetypes that Stapledon would see fitting of our own world.

The galactic map in No Man's Sky

As well as the basic setting of a space journey there are plenty more parallels between these two works, not least of which is the awe-inspiring scale of them both. Both No Man’s Sky and Starmaker allow a breathtaking perspective on the immensity of the universe. For me, this is their greatest achievement. There were gasps of astonishment when Sean Murray of Hello Games demonstrated the galactic map on stage at E3 in 2015:

“Keep in mind, and understand, that every one of these points of light is a sun, and every one of those suns has its own solar system, with planet-sized planets orbiting around it, and those have life, ecology.”

They are for anyone who has ever looked at the stars and marvelled at their remoteness, and their multitude, and wondered what it would be like to fly freely among them. Critics have tried to suggest that No Man’s Sky would be better off with a smaller number of crafted, human-designed worlds, but this would completely defeat the point of the game. As Stapledon says in his appendix to Starmaker:

“Immensity is not itself a good thing … But immensity has indirect importance through its facilitation of mental richness and diversity … though the spatial and temporal immensity of a cosmos have no intrinsic merit, they are the ground for psychical luxuriance, which we value.”

Indeed, the ‘psychical luxuriance’ offered by the galactic map in No Man’s Sky is of enormous value when we consider the rich opportunities for exploration. This is another thing that No Man’s Sky has done very well. It has put exploration at the centre of its experience – Not shooting people, not collecting red bricks, not tricky platforming, but curiosity. When asked about the thoughts and dreams that he hoped people would experience playing No Man’s Sky, Sean Murray distilled it into one simple feeling:

“The emotion that we wanted to get from people is that emotion of, ‘I have travelled to a place and discovered it.’”

Exploring an alien planet, from The Usborne Book of the Future (1979)
Exploring an alien planet, from The Usborne Book of the Future (1979)

If you don’t explore, if your imagination is not calling you to jet off to another solar system and see what’s there, or even see what’s on the other side of the hill, then you will not get very far with No Man’s Sky. I suppose the mission to reach the centre of the galaxy could be played through robotically, abstractly, but that hardly represents the game. That would be like saying Starmaker is about a man lost in space trying to get home. No Man’s Sky is about exploration, as much as that is the central mechanic of the game. Exploration can be both purposeful and random, it can be about survival, profit, or science, it can encompass small insects and whole star systems, it sometimes holds rewards, and it always has value. How could anyone ignore a planet of giant toadstool squid plants and not want to look around a little?

This is a pretty big departure from typical video game mechanisms, which revolve around killing people and collecting loot. Can exploration even be considered a game? Does it require skill? Which raises the question of whether No Man’s Sky is even a game at all? Starmaker raises similar questions – It doesn’t quite fit in the science fiction category, so what is it? Philosophical fantasy with a dose of biology?

View from spaceship cockpit in No Man's Sky

Personally, it doesn’t matter at all whether No Man’s Sky counts as a game or Starmaker is science fiction, I admire them both for what they are, but it has made a difference to how these two works have been received. Expectations were high that No Man’s Sky would be a ‘proper’ video game, a multiplayer RPG in space with YOU as the hero. But it didn’t turn out like that. If anything, instead of being a hero, you are an insignificant dot trying to find your way through a vast universe that is entirely indifferent to you. And you are alone, with only your thoughts. As a result, a stupid amount of vitriol has been heaped upon No Man’s Sky. I think it’s a shame that people have found it boring, or are angry you can’t shoot people and steal their stuff, or there isn’t a ‘proper story’. There are some shortcomings of course – the annoying glitches and crashes, the need for mapping, easier ways to see where you’ve been – but nothing fundamental about the game itself.

Critics and the public are split – It’s either a sublime “Elite for the 21st Century” or it’s ambitious but frequently dull. On social media there are lots of beautiful screenshots and moments of bliss, but also snarky comments about gameplay and a clamour for refunds. There was a even backlash over the name – Why isn’t it No Woman’s Sky – although I’m not sure how tongue in cheek it was supposed to be (it is a fair question, but not one that I think will be answered). Worst of all, before the game came out Sean Murray of Hello Games received death threats when he announced the release date would be two months later than planned. Now, with the game a bitter disappointment to some because they believe it’s not what they were entitled to, I dread to think of the abuse that Hello Games is facing.

Stapledon’s cosmic fantasies Last and First Men and Starmaker faced a split in reception too, with an anonymous troll even harassing Stapledon from the letters page of a regional newspaper. Dissent came from some religious quarters¹ (CS Lewis replied with a book of his own, Out of the Silent Planet, which put a Christian god back in charge of the universe), but many other critics had high praise. The Times said that Starmaker should “automatically enter the small group of modern classics”, the Evening Standard called it the book of the year, while other critics praised the courageous way that Stapledon made alien worlds “have a close bearing on present problems”. Last and First Men, published in 1930, received a paperback printing that sold extremely well. However, the public did not take to Starmaker so keenly in 1937, perhaps because of the crisis in Europe and the impending threat of war.

Nobody was loudly asking why Stapledon’s earlier book wasn’t called Last and First Woman, but the writer Naomi Mitchison took Stapledon to task over his vision of a male creator in Starmaker. After reading a draft of the novel, Mitchison wrote to Stapledon to pass on her concerns:

“The thing that worries me about it is this God business (and possibly the he and she symbolism). You may be able to pull it off, but the difficulty is that God has got such frightful connotations – he is an old man with a beard, he’s patriarchal anyhow, and you of all people mustn’t encourage the idea of the patriarchy … don’t make him so MALE all the time. It’s that which annoys me!”

As for the trolls, a correspondent called “Ignotus” appeared in the letters page of the Liverpool Post to chide Stapledon about his socialist “utopian politics” and his calls for disarmament, sarcastically criticising Stapledon’s “naïve” views, and labelling him a hypocrite. Not exactly as bad as death threats, but it caught Stapledon’s attention and letters flew back and forth between them for about a year until the Post’s editor closed the topic.

An alien from the Korvax race in No Man's Sky

It is easy to see No Man’s Sky and Starmaker as an extravagant distraction from the very real problems of the world around us. Instead of flying out into the stars, shouldn’t we be looking around us, trying to understand the world we are in, trying to find solutions on home turf? Stapledon was acutely aware of this, talking about it in a preface that is eerily relevant today:

“At a moment when Europe is in danger of a catastrophe worse than that of 1914 a book like this may be condemned as a distraction from the desperately urgent defence of civilization against modern barbarism.
Year by year, month by month, the plight of our fragmentary and precarious civilization becomes more serious. Fascism abroad grows more bold and ruthless in its foreign ventures, more tyrannical towards its own citizens, more barbarian in its contempt for life of the mind. Even in our own country we have reason to fear a tendency toward militarization and the curtailment of civil liberty. Moreover, while the decades pass, no resolute step is taken to alleviate the injustice of our social order. Our outworn economic system dooms millions to frustration.”

There was no room for complacency in Stapledon’s era and neither is there today.

Ultimately, Starmaker asks “how to face such an age?” and Stapledon concludes with “two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars, symbol of the hypercosmical reality, with its crystal ecstasy.”

“… perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity towards one another.”

References

“Olaf Stapledon, Speaking for the Future”, Robert Crossley, Liverpool University Press (1994)

“The Birth of No Man’s Sky”, interview with Sean Murray, KillScreenDaily.com (2015)

Notes

  1. I haven’t seen any explicitly religious objections to No Man’s Sky, but gaming has its own version of the “religious right” that will go out of its way to silence threats to its vision of gaming orthodoxy: a male hero must dominate by force. No Man’s Sky certainly doesn’t follow this orthodoxy, being a generally quiet and meditative experience, but it’s avoided the worst of the right’s ire because it doesn’t address any gender issues.

Alien landscape in No Man's Sky

Alien life form in No Man's Sky

Alien landscape and ocean in No Man's Sky

 

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