Author: Olaf Stapledon
Details: (c) 1937 Methuen; Pub Penguin Books 1972; ISBN 0-1400-3541-9
Verdict: Star Maker is a very interesting mix of spiritual insight with SF. Quite unlike anything else I've read.
Reasons for reading it: I read Last and First Men on lethargic_man's recommendation, and it prompted some interesting discussion, during the course of which Star Maker was mentioned, and it sounded intriguing.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.
I wasn't madly excited to read Star Maker, because I had been somewhat underwhelmed by Last and First Men, but SM is very clearly a far superior book. It describes the spiritual journey of its narrator, during which he acquires mystical insight into the whole history of the universe and nature of the god-like Star Maker.
I tend to be a bit put off by second-hand spirituality, but SM works, on the whole. The mystical experience described rings at least reasonably true, even if occasionally it becomes too obviously a vehicle for the narratorial voice. The mystical experience framework sidesteps the need for any mechanism to be proposed for most of what is described, though from time to time Stapledon indulges in a little run-of-the-mill SF type speculation anyway. Likewise, the narration leans a little too heavily on the inadequacy of ordinary human language to describe spiritual experiences; it is reasonable to point this out, and indeed it is almost expected in any mystical text, but to keep going on about it starts to look like making excuses.
The early part of the book is not particularly impressive; it is very similar to L&FM in presenting a series of imagined worlds without any real plot or connection between them, and making rather obvious political points. It reminds me rather of those Mediaeval travellers' tales, to the extent of presenting aliens which are almost identical to some of the monsters imputed to unexplored territories of the earth in earlier periods.
However, this section is very necessary to anchor the more imaginative later section. One of the great strengths of SM is the way it gives a sense of scale, somewhat like the literary equivalent of the Powers of Ten idea. I was rather tickled by the way the whole of L&FM is summarized in a single paragraph at one point! The narrative sweeps outwards through successive orders of magnitude to present a deity who is unimaginably greater than the most complex entity previously encountered.
There is some very powerful writing, especially in the final section. SM does a quite surprisingly good job of presenting both a mystical view of God, and the nature of religious experience. Not flawless, and some of the theodicy made me wince rather, but considerably impressive and thought-provoking.
What really wowed me about this book was the epilogue, where the narrator returns to earth, both literally and figuratively. It really captures the aftermath of religious inspiration, the struggle to hold on to it and frame it in a comprehensible way, the return to mundane life with a frustratingly imperfect memory of the moment of illumination. And there is an incredible poignancy in the description of the mundane world to which the narrator returns: the world of 1937, with WWII looming.
That epilogue just makes the whole book genuine; the religion of the narrator is not just about abstract and aesthetically pleasing 'experience', but collides head-on with the real world.