In fact, it starts out like a strong hard-SF exploration novel touching on many possible alien races, mindsets, and physiologies, but it dives right down the rabbit hole into vast combined telepathic minds, galactic societies that actually are GALACTIC in scale, telepathic communication with multiple galaxies, and even to the discovery the rich stellar intelligence. This novel is just as valid and fun today as it must have been back in 1937. The Star Maker is the creation of God from Man. And even better, it even flies right into Manichean heresies! It's as good as any of the most vast-spanning hard-SF of today.
But what it does have is a beautifully crafted series of interwoven alien histories, sci-fi-type hypotheses, and spiritual and philosophical musings. One thing that surprised me is how specific some of the answers to these big questions get toward the end.
In an earlier book, Last and First Men, the author described the billion-year future history of the human race.
He discovers he can control his speed and direction, and proceeds to search for stars with intelligent life. We are then treated to a mind-blowing series of encounters with ever greater and stranger life forms, as the scale expands by increasing series of magnitudes, until individual galaxies and universes have formed united spirits and proceed to seek the ultimate creator of the universe. The communal spirit of our galaxy now joined the little company of the most awakened beings of the cosmos, the scattered band of advanced galactic spirits, whose aim it was to create a real cosmical community, with a single mind, the communal spirit of its myriad and diverse worlds and individual intelligences. Olaf Stapledons descriptions of the Star Maker's efforts in the final part of the book are truly mind-bending, and bring to mind the latest ideas of quantum universes, infinite probabilities, the curvature of space-time, and the origins of the universe.
The time scale is so huge as to be unimaginable (Stapledon's imagination is also unimaginable). The narrator starts as 'I', then turns into 'we', sometimes 'human', then a cosmic consciousness; and at one point something like (but not exactly) a demi-god. And of these non-spatial universes not a few were of the 'musical' type in which space was strangely represented by a dimension corresponding to musical pitch, and capacious with myriads of tonal differences. The creatures appeared to one another as complex patterns and rhythms of tonal characters. They could move their tonal bodies in the dimension of pitch, and sometimes in other dimensions, humanly inconceivable. The narrator starts by staring at the stars, into which he is drawn in a kind of dream or vision. It is 'Who, or what, is the Star Marker?' The narrator goes in search of God. I loved the complex experience of finding the Star Maker. In some ways, I think the book is about size.
I did, however, discover the best way to get acquainted with the innovative ideas buried in the book -- have your fellow book club members, who actually did finish the book, recap the cool bits and save you the reading time.
It stands on its own as a gorgeous and inventive investigation of humanity, but I also can't help but see this as an allegory of pre- and inter-war year tensions, with alien depictions reflecting early 20th assertions of national identity, as if Stapledon is trying to pinpoint the common bit of humanity left in the ruthless world powers of the 1930s.
He sees different stars and their life-cycle, found out that there are rarely any planets around. After despairing to find any, our narrator discovers new people (throughout the novel all species are essentially people even if they are hive minds or trees), who are similar to humans but with worse hearing and better olfactory. In both kinds of country, women craved "brute-men" as lovers and as fathers for their children. Since in the "democratic" countries women had attained great economic independence, their demand for fertilization by "brute-men" caused the whole matter to be commercialized. At a moderate charge, fixed in relation to the grade of the father, any woman could obtain "brute-man" fertilization. Ordinary women of every class, however, were entitled to insemination from the authorized aristocratic stud of "brute-men." In other countries the Master himself condescended to be the father of the whole future population. Part three follows the description of multitude of sentient races, the wealth for dozens of books: not only similar to us but symbiotic people, composite (i.e. hive mind) people, including birds and insects, giant sentient living ships, tree-humans, sea star people, etc.
This is the first of 25 books in a list I've drawn up for myself of works of science fiction to read in 2016. Star Maker is clearly written by someone with a deep interest in science, philosophy, and the most essential spiritual questions of the human race. I have become so sensitive in recent years (in an irritated kind of way) to half-baked philosophy in fiction, that I was ready, from the start, to find it in this book. not only to explore the depths of the physical universe, but to discover what part life and mind were actually playing among the stars." (p.13) I remember reading in The Book of Lies by Aleister Crowley, the epigram, "The universe is a joke made by the general at the expense of the particular." In the quote above, from page 13 of the book, Stapledon signals his bold intent to discover the place of the particular (joke or otherwise) within the general. This is one of the questions I now have in mind as I am reading. I noticed, after this question had already formed in my mind, that Stapledon seemed to redress the balance a little on page 127, which, perhaps, I shall quote later.