Details: (c) Olaf Stapledon 1930; the rest of the details I don't have, since I have given M's copy back to him. Random edition here.
Verdict: Some interesting ideas, and a strong style, but flawed.
Reasons for reading it: M recommended it to me.
How it came into my hands: M
My reaction to Last and First Men is that it is rather better than the average rôle-playing handbook, but probably less good than the average novel. It seems rather as if Stapledon had a whole series of world-building ideas (some of which at least are rather novel and intriguing), and strung them together more or less anyhow, with some fairly arbitrary linkers.
The opening section, where Stapledon segues from the modern (to him) world into his imagined futures, put me off rather. Not so much because it is racist, but the fact of its racism betrays a completely parochial concern, which is out of place in a novel which claims to be taking such a broad view of the whole of human and post-human history. Stapledon holds opinions about things like eugenics, the Jews etc which were no doubt quite normal and socially acceptable in 1930s England, but the fact that he so completely accepted the prevailing mood makes it hard to take him seriously as a visionary. Given this ominous beginning, it is not surprising that he never manages to come up with a society where gender roles, for example, are significantly different from those in inter-war Europe.
There were definitely some thought-provoking ideas in L&FM. I can't help thinking that going through 18 separate strata of humanity was slight overkill, but against that, the style is sufficiently cogent that the book is always readable even though its subject matter is generally rather impersonal. I really liked the way that the passage of time and the sheer immensity of history are portrayed by a sort of telescoping style, and the way the broad historical themes are occasionally leavened by a little narrative of particular individuals.
Admittedly the time-scale, even in the early chapters, seems entirely arbitrary, but I don't think that particularly detracts from the book.
One thing that is especially successful in L&FM is the clash of two alien civilizations; Stapledon's Martians are completely non-anthropomorphic in rather an exciting way. Interestingly, Stapledon gets through 5 post-human civilizations (spanning several hundred million years) before he comes to the invention of space travel, and even his 'Last Men' never make it out of the solar system. This struck me particularly considering how much contemporary science fiction was so focussed on rockets and interplanetary travel and the like.
Stapledon's "theology" (perhaps morality would be a better word, since the book is on the whole more atheist than anything) is considerably odd. Despite his explicit rejection of Christianity, he seems to profess a view of redemption through suffering which feels quite Christian. Although I find this kind of thing very alienating, it was quite interestingly and sensitively done. Another motif that seems to run through L&FM is that wars and catastrophes can arise from completely arbitrary and minor causes; not at all a surprising attitude given the time this was written, but anyway.
On the whole, I'd say that Last and First Men is worth reading despite its problems.