Olaf Stapledon

(10 May, 1886 – 6 September, 1950)

Olaf Stapleton

Olaf Stapleton. Copyright © The University of Adelaide

William Olaf Stapledon was a British philosopher and author of several influential works of science fiction.

Stapledon was born in Seacombe, Wallasey and educated at Abbotsholme School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he acquired a BA in Modern History in 1909 and a MA in 1913.

During World War I he served as a conscientious objector with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium from July 1915 to January 1919.

Stapledon was awarded a PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1925 and used his thesis as the basis for his first published prose book, A Modern Theory of Ethics (1929).

Fiction and activism

However, he soon turned to fiction in the hope of presenting his ideas to a wider public. The relative success of Last and First Men (1930) prompted him to become a full-time writer. He wrote a sequel and followed it up with many more books of both fiction and philosophy.

After 1945 Stapledon travelled widely on lecture tours, visiting the Netherlands, Sweden and France, and in 1948 he spoke at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroc?aw, Poland.

He attended the Conference for World Peace held in New York in 1949, the only Briton to be granted a visa to do so. In 1950 he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement.

Stapledon’s writings directly influenced Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Stanislaw Lem, C. S. Lewis and John Maynard Smith and indirectly influenced many others, contributing many ideas to the world of science fiction.


Stapledon was an agnostic who was hostile to religious institutions, but not to religious yearnings.

He wrote many non-fiction books on political and ethical subjects, in which he advocated the growth of “spiritual values”, which he defined as those values expressive of a yearning for greater awareness of the self in a larger context (“personality-in-community”).

A sudden death

After a week of lectures in Paris, he cancelled a projected trip to Yugoslavia and returned to his home in Caldy, where he died very suddenly of a heart attack.

Stapledon was cremated at Landican Crematorium, and then his widow and their children scattered his ashes on the sandy cliffs overlooking the Dee Estuary, a favourite spot of his that features in more than one of his books.

The University of Liverpool now houses the Olaf Stapledon archive.

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