The scientific quest for advanced aliens is about imagining not just who might be out there but also how we might find them. The physicist, mathematician, and polymath Freeman Dyson thought we shouldn’t expect anyone to try to signal us, but instead could look for what came to be known as Dyson spheres—massive spheres, or more likely swarms of satellites, that would surround a star so that an advanced civilization could catch and make use of all the star’s power.
Dyson credited Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker with the idea, so I always assumed Star Maker was a book about a Dyson sphere, maybe set amid a super-advanced alien civilization that powers its incomprehensible technology with the sphere’s catchings. Or perhaps the sphere would be archaeological, proof found of a defunct cosmic power. What I found was maybe half a line of reference to what could be interpreted as Dyson spheres, and a far more mystical—and intentional—imagining of alien advancement than I ever expected.
Here’s the Dyson sphere part first. Describing a super-advanced, enlightened, and unified galactic consciousness, Stapledon writes that this “vast community…began to avail itself of the energies of its stars upon a scale hitherto unimagined. Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated, and rifled of their prodigious stores of subatomic energy.” Right there, in the middle, those light traps? I think that’s the Dyson sphere. Freeman Dyson, demur as he may, deserves plenty of credit for extrapolating out from that half sentence. And Stapledon deserves more credit, too, because, far beyond imagining light-trapping spheres, he conjured in this novel a vast and inspiring vision of what advanced alien life in the cosmos could be.
Now for the cosmo-mysticism. In Star Maker, a man finds himself swept from the English countryside into the vastness of space as a disembodied consciousness. He visits numerous extraterrestrial civilizations, entering the minds of alien people to experience their lives along with them, coming to understand their societies and worlds. Sometimes he makes himself known to his host, who becomes an interlocutor and, eventually, traveling companion, as the narrator and a growing flock of alien minds traverse both space and time, gaining understanding of the cosmic evolution of life and intelligence. The narration gives us the story of the universe three times, through three forms of life Stapledon imagines: planetary life (like us); the conscious life of stars themselves; and finally the primordial, also-sentient nebulae from which galaxies formed.
You start to see why Dyson spheres get only a brief mention.
The forms of life Stapledon imagines derive mostly from life as we know it on Earth, but his descriptions are rich and wild. The narrator first visits a very humanlike civilization, which Stapledon calls the Other Earth. The Other Men are slender humanoids with less sensitivity to color and sound than humans have—they never developed music—but they compensate with scent and taste, which they perceive not just with their mouths but also with their hands and feet. He writes, “They were thus afforded an extraordinarily rich and intimate experience of their planet. Tastes of metals and woods, of sour and sweet earths, of the many rocks, and of the innumerable shy or bold flavors of plants crushed beneath the bare running feet, made up a whole world unknown to terrestrial man.” The Other Men also transmit taste and smell via radio, affording “listeners” not only artistic entertainment, something like gustatory symphonies, but also sexual and religious experiences.
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We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
Most of Stapledon’s aliens are less human. There are bird-men who fly and slug-men who have no spines but a delicate internal “basket-work of wiry bones.” (Radical as his ideology was, Stapledon still used men to mean people.) There are creatures who are not bilaterally symmetrical, like most animals on Earth, but unilateral: “Thus a man in this world was rather like half a terrestrial man. He hopped on one sturdy, splay-footed leg, balancing himself with a kangaroo tail.” There are echinoderm people who evolved from something like a starfish, with one of their five limbs specializing into a head; swarm creatures composed of birdlike individuals only intelligent en masse; symbiotic entities, a crablike and fishlike individual paired; and massive mollusklike creatures that evolved into sentient ships, with great hulls, organic sails, and sensitive powers of navigation.
But after the vast diversity of biology, Stapledon describes a kind of sociological convergence, on what he calls “this age of crisis,” the very crisis he saw humanity struggling through in 1937. (On a cosmic time scale, I think it’s fair to extend that crisis into our present moment a scant century later.) Stapledon writes that this crisis was “a moment in the spirit’s struggle to become capable of true community on a world-wide scale; and it was a stage in the age-long task of achieving the right, the finally appropriate, the spiritual attitude toward the universe.” He describes species born of “a strange mixture of violence and gentleness,” such that individuals seek community and connection, though “even their intimate loving was inconstant and lacking in insight.” (It evokes, for me, Madeleine L’Engle’s description of shadowed worlds fighting to escape the pull of darkness in A Wrinkle in Time.) The great danger of the crisis is “the sham community of the pack, baying in unison of fear and hate,” offering false solace at the level of tribe or nation. In the introduction to the book, Stapledon names it plainly as fascism, as militarization and threats to freedom.
A major component of Stapledon’s project in Star Maker, then, is to imagine a path beyond this crisis. He writes, “In a few worlds the spirit reacted to its desperate plight with a miracle.… There occurred a widespread and almost sudden waking into a new lucidity of consciousness and a new integrity of will.” It’s a kind of enlightenment that evokes Buddhism—or maybe The Celestine Prophecy—as an entire civilization ascends to a new plane of existence. Stapledon doesn’t offer a road map but an uncanny and allusive vision, like a dream you try to hold on to after you wake up.
The man who first imagined what came to be known as Dyson spheres didn’t place much emphasis on technology in his imaginings of advancement. Instead, Stapledon spends most of Star Maker on the path of raised consciousness, from the individual mind to the global mind to the galactic and eventually cosmic. (He does not tell us how enlightened worlds attain this unity, but surely telepathy, which they all discover, does help.) Individual minds weren’t silenced or subsumed in these advancements but rather harmonized, each individual living their own creative, beautiful, peaceful life to the fullest, while contributing to the wholeness of the collective mind as well. Eventually, the narrator and his fellow travelers join with the awakening cosmos, even stealing a glimpse beyond its boundaries to a godlike figure called the Star Maker, and the many realities made by him that have existed and will exist before and after our own.
At the novel’s end the narrator, having spent countless eons in cosmic observation and experience, finds himself home again, in England, in 1937, on the same hillside under the same stars. The fullness of his cosmic perspective is lost now that he’s back in his human body, but he nonetheless understands this world, Earth, as braced for a battle between two powerful forces. One is “the will to dare for the sake of the new…and joyful world.” The other is harder to pin down: perhaps fear of the unknown or perhaps a desire for domination. But it has manifested as fascism. The narrator wonders how humanity is to meet such an imposing challenge.
He offers two lights to guide us: the warm light of community and “the cold light of the stars,” as from that cosmic perspective—that which the whole book has been written to offer—our struggle seems not less meaningful but, somehow, more. Stapledon illustrates a path and prescription, a vision of advancement that values creativity, communication, unity, and care. The fact that Stapledon’s long-lived civilizations thrive as much on telepathy as on subatomic power is not just fantastical narrative wheel grease. It’s a vision of a future where the iron grip of ego has been loosened and our minds are open to others of our kind or to extraterrestrial interlopers swooping through as formless psyches. Stapledon invites us to imagine how we might make those connections, even if we can’t read anyone’s mind. And he imbues them with urgency. Urgency and hope.