Following my marathon slog through the author's turgid Last and First Men a couple of weeks ago I girded up my loins, gritted my teeth and picked up Star Maker (published in 1937) with considerable apprehension. Be warned, there are spoilers in this review.
An unnamed man, living on a contemporary Earth, has a vision in which he finds his disembodied self speeding away from our planet and into the depths of the galaxy. The story consists of what he discovers there, could up to the ultimate revelation of the origin and purpose of the Universe; Stapledon can never be accused of lack of ambition in his writing!
Initially, the man finds an "Other Earth" in a far-distant star system, on which there are more or less humanoid inhabitants living in a society at a comparable level to Earth's. He spends several subjective years there, seeing the world through the eyes of the people. A key difference is that for them, taste and scent are much stronger senses than sight, which has some interesting social implications. The author holds up a mirror to the Earth by describing some of the more ridiculous or depressing trends in a society which is like Earth's only more so, including parodying the emphasis on religious differences (he obviously has little sympathy with religion, which caused some controversy at the time). In this part he is following a similar path to that of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, only in a less exaggerated form and without the humour.
The protagonist is able to join minds with one of the natives, and the pair of them set off on a mental tour of the galaxy, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations (to borrow a phrase). These they find, in vast numbers and with a wide variety in the nature of their inhabitants, and they add other minds to their group as they travel. Millions of years pass and civilisations rise and mostly fall again with depressing frequency. Those which survive for long enough may develop a "communal world mind", with every individual contributing telepathically to such "wakened worlds". Utopian civilisations often result, based on communism and eugenics – popular and respectable ideas in the 1930s, rather less so today.
As civilisations continue to develop, they learn how to move planets, creating artificial suns to orbit around them in order to maintain life, and they make artificial planets consisting of concentric spheres with people living on many different levels within them (readers may recognise here ideas used by Larry Niven and Iain M Banks, among others). There are devastating wars between wakened worlds until telepathic powers become strong enough to bind them together over interstellar, and eventually galactic, distances, such telepathic unions enabling a far greater understanding of life, the universe and all that, than individual minds can achieve. The scale of the story becomes ever-greater as it proceeds to the climax – the identification of the Star Maker, the creator of the universe, followed by long descriptions of his works.
In contrast with Last and First Men, at least this one has a kind of plot and a protagonist who tells the tale in the first person, and the description of the Other Earth is entertaining. However, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly metaphysical and remote from any kind of human experience, and I must confess to doing some skim-reading as I approached the end to get to the conclusion as soon as possible. Like Stapledon's earlier work, Star Maker is packed full of interesting and original ideas which must have inspired many SF writers, but this is frankly a terrible novel in terms of engaging the reader and is only worth ploughing through for its historical interest.