Another constant companion on my American trip was Olaf Stapeldon’s 1937 ‘science fiction classic’, Star Maker which I have, at long last, finished reading. I mentioned it in passing here. The narrator, who has rowed with his wife, stomps off up a hillside at night, gazing at the stars and reflecting on the greater futility of mankind. In a dream (the reader assumes), he leaves his body and travels through space and time, with gradual advances in his intelligence, telepathic abilities and awareness of other forms of intelligence. The narrator explores worlds and other human, or human-like, races before being absorbed into successively more powerful collective intelligences which enable him/them to witness both the beginning and the end of the universe. Mankind in all of this is of no more importance than ‘rats in a cathedral’. This is a scintilatingly brilliant work of the imagination, and Stapledon deserves to be up there in lights with the likes of H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake. Painting on a vast canvas (what could be greater than the entire universe?), Stapledon’s many inventions include such concepts as swarm intelligence, Dyson spheres and the detachment of planets as space vehicles. But the book is, perhaps inevitably, flawed. For a start, it is a very heavy read. There are no characters and there is no real dramatic development. Rather, Stapledon sets out a scientific discourse. This would be all right, but there are two deeper flaws. The first is that Stapledon falls into a trap that Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris brilliantly avoids: the worlds and societies Stapledon describes evolve basically in Darwinian and Marxist ways, whereas Lem’s alien intelligence is beyond human understanding and hence simply beyond human descriptive powers. Worse, second, Stapledon warns against the risk of anthropomorphism (‘To describe the mentality of stars is of course to describe the unintelligible by means of intelligible but falsifying human metaphors.’) and then jumps feet-first into the trap. Before we know it he is writing about nebulae gifted with ‘primitive but intense religious consciousness’ and about the love stars feel for one another. In a sense, Stapledon was positing a Gaia-like theory of the cosmos but, unlike Lovelock, felt the need to attribute intelligence (and, beyond that, sentiment, morality and religiosity). I put ‘science fiction’ in inverted commas because Stapledon did not think that was what he was writing. He was a philosopher who turned to fiction as a way better to explore his ideas. Like the trek up to Lago di Darengo, this was a tough read but well worthwhile.