Another one of those books I can just pick up and read when I have nothing else to read is Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon.
I’ve mentioned him here before, but the book deserves some singular attention. It’s a novel without characters except the general human race that reads as the history of the next several million years documenting the rise and fall of civilizations on Earth, then Venus, and later Neptune. There’s a war against Martians, Venusians, and others. Glimpses into religious ideals of the various civilizations and like a thousand ideas for your role-playing game. Every page holds its brilliant little kernel of ideas:
For some thousands of years the race remained in a most precarious condition, now almost dying out, now rapidly attaining an extravagant kind of culture in some region where physical nature happened to be peculiarly favourable. One of these precarious flashes of spirit occurred in the Yang-tze valley as a sudden and brief effulgence of city states peopled by neurotics, geniuses and imbeciles. The lasting upshot of this civilization was a brilliant literature of despair, dominated by a sense of the difference between the actual and the potential in man and the universe. Later, when the race had attained its noontide glory, it was wont to brood upon this tragic voice from the past in order to remind itself of the underlying horror of existence.
Shit. What was their breakfast cereal like?
Anyway the covers are secondary to the book itself. The first cover makes you expect an Armageddon disaster novel, the second’s cool in its way, the third bland but colorful, and the fourth gets points for getting in your face with the Ernst Haeckel. The covers don’t matter. This is one of those books people foist on you, mad-eyed like, “YOU GOTTA READ THIS!”.
So let me be one of them: for folks that want some big idea SF that they can read in desultory fashion, this book is the answer.
Olaf on Americans:
“In the Far West, the United States of America openly claimed to be custodians of the whole planet. Universally feared and envied, universally respected for their enterprise, yet for their complacency very widely despised, the Americans were rapidly changing the whole character of man’s existence.
What wonder then that America even while she was despised, irresistibly molded the whole human race. This, perhaps, would not have mattered, had America been able to give of her very rare best. But inevitably only her worst could be propagated. Only the most vulgar traits of that potentially great people could get through into the minds of foreigners by means of these crude instruments. And so, by the flood of poisons issuing from this people’s baser members, the whole world, and with it the nobler parts of America herself, were irrevocably corrupted.”
“These best were after all a minority in a huge wilderness of opinionated self-deceivers, in whom surprisingly an outworn religious dogma was championed with the intolerant optimism of youth. For this was essentially a race of bright, but arrested, adolescents.”